Sunday, September 16, 2007

Education for Whom?

Have you ever stopped to consider why so many of our nation’s teachers go back to school to receive elaborate graduate degrees and even in some cases doctorates?

Well, whether they like it or not, Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd, and Jacob L. Vigdor have answered that question by asking another question, what effect does having a graduate degree have on student achievement?

From the August NBER Digest, Linda Gorman summed the paper on graduate-degree teacher credentials and their effect on students educations. In the end the effect was put simply as, none.

According to Linda, the authors, like many before them, have gone through the statistics and found what their predecessors have found. What matters is not whether you have a graduate degree or not, but rather on your experience. (My apologies to all my friends who have become new teachers; I can only hope that you are the outliers in the data field.)

However, dare not think for even a moment that a teacher’s credentials are not correlated with how students perform in their classes. The authors have found that teachers whose credentials are weak have received disadvantaged students. This condition then leads to a further widening of the achievement gap that had been created by the students’ socioeconomic circumstances.

By asking the question as to what the effects of the teacher’s graduate education, the authors find that the motivations for attaining a graduate are plentiful. I believe increases in pay and better students/classroom environment would head the list for motive.

Is this truly the efficient manner to be taught? Should our most disadvantaged teachers consistently receive the most disadvantaged students? I emphasize consistently because there may be a need to provide incentives for teachers to take on these particular students. Quite possibly, the incentives may be misaligned. Perhaps more incentive should be provided to a teacher who takes on students who fall on the bad side of the achievement gap.

Conversely, the data suggests that teachers most likely receive incentive to attain a master’s degree so as to be pampered in how their future classes will be composed. That is to say, they go back to school not become better teachers, but rather, to get better students.

Economists have always spoken out on misaligned incentives, and this may yet be another case of such askew system. I am reminded of Arnold Kling’s feelings on the purchase of carbon offsets. The offset system in hardly efficient, and is an example of trying to eat a salad just because you are feeling guilty for eating cheesecake. That is to say, you are eating more and wasting resources all for the sake of one’s conscience.

Maybe it is time that the incentives for teaching were realigned so that taking on the students who need the help ends up being the fiscally rewarding. According to the data, whether a teacher has a graduate degree or not does not affect the student’s performance, so the other students would hardly be mal-affected since each teacher has to be qualified anyway. John Stossel may in fact be right; a more competitive, incentive driven education system could put the right teachers in the right places.
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