19 January 2005

How to save the public schools

My coworker S.N. proposes the following scheme:

Suppose you have a child in second grade. Before the school year begins, the school sends you a list of all the second-grade teachers. You rank them: first choice, second choice, and so on. The school then does its best to assign your kid to the teacher of your choice. (Not everyone can have their first choice all the time, but there are plenty of fair, simple mechanisms for making sure the preferences are followed as closely as possible.)

That's it. That's the whole idea. What would this do?

The main intended consequence would be to force parents to get more involved in the quality of their children's classes. Parents would be much more likely to ask other parents what they thought of their children's teachers. Parents, in short, would be more aware of teacher quality. S.N. doesn't think parents do this now, and I think he is probably right.

But there are some problems with this:

  1. Parents wouldn't have the power to do much with this information. If all parents are interested, they all obtain the best information possible, and they all choose the same rankings, then this has no effect. If only some parents are interested, their kids win at the expense of other kids whose parents expressed no preferences. In other words, it's a zero-sum game. The school as a whole doesn't improve.

    Perhaps the propagation of new knowledge to parents in this way would improve schools indirectly. Perhaps parents armed with this knowledge would be more of a political force. Perhaps teachers would compete to improve their standings. Perhaps school principals can do something useful with this quantitative information. But it seems to me all these are secondary effects, if not wishful thinking. Unless parents' choices actually have the power to reward good teachers (schools) and penalize bad ones, it's hard to see how those choices can significantly improve the system as a whole.

    To frame our disagreement another way, S.N. thinks the value of a free market is that people make better choices when those choices directly affect their own future well-being. Good overall decisions emerge from individual self-interested decisions. Parents don't care about teacher quality; ergo schools suck. I think the primary value of a free market is in destroying bad producers and powering the propagation of good ones. Parents can't fire bad teachers or withdraw their financial support from bad public schools; ergo schools suck.

  2. This presumes that choosing good teachers over bad teachers is the way to improve education in the first place. Many important factors are not in the hands of teachers: class sizes, curriculum, interruptions, discipline, funding, and so forth. I think choosing good schools over bad schools is the right level for parents to express preferences.

  3. I suspect the idea is doomed anyway, because teachers would hate it. People don't like being judged.

Interesting proposal, though. S.N. often comes up with original approaches to problems. I wonder how he does it.

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