Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tinkering at the margins

I think an overwhelming number of people are in agreement on the poor quality of education in this country. Almost no one is willing to step up and defend the status quo. While consensus exists on the need for change, at least two competing schools of thought have emerged on what this should mean.

Some, such as myself, believe public education to be fundamentally flawed and that a radical overhaul is needed. In place of the current system should be a new structure based on charter schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits to promote competition and empower students and parents. Others, including those in the current administration, are firm believers in the primacy of government-run schools and advocate for change within the existing framework. In place of massive change they argue for various initiatives aimed at improving current schools.

One idea which has attracted considerable attention is the use of financial incentives for teachers which reward superior performance. Via the Free Exchange blog, however, I discovered a new research paper which casts doubt on the effectiveness of such reforms:

There is great interest in understanding the potential of teacher incentives to improve student achievement. This paper sheds light into this question by examining the recent introduction of performance-related pay in all public schools in Portugal. Our approach is based on a difference-in-differences analysis drawing on two complementary control groups. These control groups either were exposed to a lighter version of the intervention (the case of public schools in the Azores and Madeira) or were not exposed at all (the case of private schools). All students in all schools were administered the same national exams.

Our results consistently indicate that the increased focus on individual teacher performance caused a signi cant and sizable relative decline in student achievement, as measured by national exams. However, the decline in achievement is smaller or virtually zero when considering those marks set by teachers, suggesting an increasing importance of grade inflation.

This view is supported by our triple-diff erence evidence and is consistent with the emphasis placed by the new promotion criteria on student results. Furthermore, we need additional support for a causal interpretation of our results from our analysis of common trends, robustness to di fferent control variables, di fferent data subsets and diff erent aggregation levels. Finally, the analysis of teacher early retirement across public schools supports the theoretical mechanisms (and much anecdotal evidence) that predict the empirical results, namely disruption of teacher cooperation created by tournaments for promotions and increased administrative workloads, both resulting in job dissatisfaction.

Ultimately I believe such efforts amount to little more than tinkering at the margin, and an elusive quest for the magic bullet. No rule change or program is going to turn government-run schools from failures into success stories. The model itself is fundamentally broken and must be discarded if educational excellence is to be attained.

As long as children are assigned schools by the government and teacher's unions hold sway over government, sub-par performance will continue to be the order of the day. An entirely new paradigm for education based on competition must be realized if results are to be improved.

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