Field of Science

WSJ: Teach for America "proves" that teachers don't need pay

I know it’s my own fault for evening opening the Wall Street Journal to the editorial page. But somehting I found there last weekend irked me more than their usual “liberals are naive idiots” fare.

An editorial entitled "Amazing Teacher Facts" argued, using the example of Teach for America, that teachers don’t need to be paid any more than they currently are. If these bright young college grads are lining up to teach in inner-city schools at standard salaries, and doing a good job of it, then clearly money isn’t the issue in hiring quality teachers. The culprit must instead be the bureaucracy that requires teachers to take “education” courses (their quotes) to enter the profession the normal way.

This pinched my nerve because I did Teach for America, teaching for two years at Austin High School in Chicago. I was lost my first year and barely competent my second, but in a school with a large number of burnout teachers, this made me a valued member of the faculty.

So yes, TFA teachers do make a positive contribution to their schools. Some of them even become outstanding teachers. This despite being paid a salary that, while livable for 20somethings with no families to support, is far less than these Ivy League grads could be making on Wall Street.

But the WSJ editorial completely fails to ask the question of why, precisely, these Harvard and Yale types are flocking to teach in inner-city LA and rural Louisiana. In my opinion this is due to a phenomenal feat of marketing on the part of TFA. They managed to convince college seniors that teaching is A) a noble cause (which it always has been) and B) an attractive career move (which it never has been in the past.) Paradoxically, by admitting such a small percentage of applicants, TFA has made teaching an elite profession, at least when it is done through TFA. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that went:

“I’m a high school teacher”
“...through Teach for America.”

What the example of Teach for America proves is precisely what the Wall Street Journal was unwilling to admit: that to recruit quality teachers, you need to raise the status of the teaching profession. Our society usually equates status with money, so the most direct way to get qualified teachers is to pay them what they’re worth (six figures, at least!) TFA is bringing new respect to the teaching profession, but it will never be able to fill our massive teacher shortage while simultaneously maintaining its elite identity. Fixing public education will require a societal consensus that teaching is one of our most important professions, and they need to be paid accordingly.

The Wire

I've been working my way through The Wire for the past semester or so. For those who don't know, the Wire is a TV drama exploring the drug trade in Baltimore and its intersection with all the different systems that function in the city. The first season centers on a drug organization and the police unit investigating them, and the series telescopes outward from there, adding the docks, city hall, the education system, and the print media to its focus in subsequent seasons. The creator, a former cop and public school teacher in Baltimore, has a deep understanding of how all these systems interact with each other, and in particular, how the organizational dynamics of a system can impede that system's objectives. Watching the series should be worth graduate credit in both sociology and complex systems theory. (In fact, one academic journal has issued a call for papers on the series. Deadline is September!)

There are many different jumping-off points I could use from the series, but I'll focus today on a recurring pattern: Drug sellers run a highly complex organization. They switch stash-houses frequently, speak in code, and never let the top guys get anywhere near the actual drugs. Some within the police department realize this, and set up sophisticated surveillance operations to gather information about the drug sellers. But every now and then one of the "top brass" in the police department gets wind of this operation, and wonders why so much time and money are being spent to investigate a bunch of "thugs." They send down a command to send a boatload of units down to the drug area and start locking people up.

Needless to say, this works about as well as attacking a swarm of gnats with a sledgehammer. They catch a couple low-level dealers, but ruin all the intelligence they had on anyone higher up. So the investigation must start all over again.

In theoretical terms, the mistake here is attempting a blunt, simple solution to a nimble, complex problem. When you look for it, you can see this mistake in many places, from our pre-Petraeus anti-insurgency strategy in Iraq, to our federal education policy that mandates standardized tests. To truly solve a complex problem requires an approach as subtle and multifaceted as the problem itself.

Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis Part II: Lessons for Complex Systems

Last time, we talked about what went wrong in the US mortgage market, based on the explanation given by NPR and This American Life. What does this debacle tell us in general about how complex systems can go wrong?

The main problem, in a theoretical sense, is that a feedback loop got too long and complex.

A feedback loop is the process by which an action leads to a consequence for the actor. Let's look at the old mortgage system:

Under this system, if the bank made a bad loan, they'd lose their money. So there was a very direct link between action and consequence. Banks have been dealing with this feedback loop for centuries and have gotten pretty good at making only loans that will get repaid.

But in the early 2000's, the system was replaced by this:

There's still a feedback loop here, but it's longer and more complex. Long, complex feedback loops are dangerous because they can fool people into thinking they're making good decisions, when really their bad decisions haven't caught up with them yet. The investors were pouring yet more money into the broken system, because their actions hadn't caught up with them yet, and they were too far removed from the homeowners to see what terrible shape they were in.

We moved essentially from

bad action ---> bad consequence


REALLY bad action --- (long time delay) ---> REALLY bad consequence

It's unlikely that investors will make this same mistake again, because they understand much better now how the mortgage market works. But the general mistake of stretching out a feedback loop, and assuming that you're doing well just because nothing's gone wrong so far, will probably be repeated many, many times.