Knowledge Is Power – But Only When You Have Choices
Apropos of my blog post about charter schools in New Orleans from last week, Katherine Mangu-Ward has an article in Reason today about the Los Angeles Times publication of extensive information on nearly 6,000 Los Angeles public school teachers. This information is something of a hot button issue in Los Angeles right now, with the teacher unions calling for a boycott of the Los Angeles Times and school reformers hoping that any knowledge about which teachers perform well and which do not can lead to better academic outcomes.
Mangu-Ward, however, is skeptical that there will be any revolutionary changes in the school system without an expansion of parental choices to accompany the newly public information:
Even if parents know who the good teachers are—and they often do already—it often doesn’t matter, since kids are randomly assigned. They’re allocated to a district, a school, a schedule, and a classroom, all without any input from students or parents. The biggest decision public school parents get to make about their child’s primary education is where they choose to live. Short of staging a mini-sit in at the guidance counselor’s office (something my parents were known to do from time to time) there’s not much you can do once the die has been cast. And if you’re a parent who doesn’t have the luxury of taking a day off from work to spend fighting the school bureaucracy, your kid is stuck wherever he was randomly assigned, no matter what. Teacher data doesn’t do a lick of good if you don’t have input about which teacher you wind up with.
Instituting a small degree of teacher choice wouldn’t be overwhelmingly difficult. Schools at all levels could opt for the kind of first-come, first-served lottery that large colleges use. It’s not an ideal system, but it’s an improvement. Again, computers these days, they can do amazing stuff. Once a system is in place, this kind of limited choice would be neither time consuming nor expensive. But it would create one outcome that teachers unions will do almost anything to stop: It would quickly become obvious which teachers aren’t desirable. The teachers with the half-empty classrooms would be ripe for firing. And that’s the scenario that makes teachers unions (and to a lesser degree school boards and other education bureaucracies) fear a flood of data, especially if it’s accompanied by even a little choice.
Such a reform would even avoid the common complaint against charters, vouchers, and educational tax credits, that they take money away from the public schools. We can simply introduce competition within the schools themselves. I doubt this will turn a failing school system around, but it should improve the situation at the margin.