Editor’s note: John Merrifield is an economics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio whose primary academic interest is school system reform studies. He’s also editor of the Journal of School Choice, initiator of the annual School Choice and Reform International Academic Conference, and author of the critically acclaimed “The School Choice Wars.”
A recent Wall Street Journal article about a National Council on Teacher Quality report on widespread deficiencies in teacher training programs is the latest example of hand-wringing about teacher ineffectiveness. Without discounting completely the need to address this issue along with others in the teaching profession – such as low pay, tenure, high turnover, poor materials, and the tendency to draw the lowest ability students – allow me to suggest the root of our teaching skill problem is actually the public school system’s monopoly on public funding.
The current system generates classroom composition that is so heterogeneous in student ability and life experience that only an extraordinarily rare teaching talent achieves significant academic progress for a high percentage of students in public school classrooms. Policies like mainstreaming a lot of special needs children will make teacher and public luck, in the form of unusually homogenous classrooms, increasingly rare.
Data reveal a few schools at the top and bottom that perform well or poorly with all students, respectively. But the truth is, teachers are quite effective with certain students and not effective with others – something that is often concealed by comprehensive test score averages. In 2011, I analyzed this fact in Texas, which has test score data disaggregated into several student sub-groups, and is especially important in Texas because of its diversity: large black and Hispanic populations and considerable variation in urban and rural settings. We found schools that taught black students well, and Hispanic students poorly, and vice versa. Other schools did well with low-achieving students, but not well with high achieving students, and vice versa.
Many would like to believe schools do an equally good job, regardless of race, ethnic background, students’ average ability level, or socio-economic status. Sadly this is not the case, and the differences are significant. Each school typically does better than others with different groups because teachers have strengths and weaknesses, even when they are not hired for them.
Our public school system only sorts children by age and residence and therefore, maximizes differences that teachers see in their classrooms. With increases in school size and the mainstreaming of special needs children, large differences in how students learn and what captivates their attention are going to be the norm, greatly complicating the classroom teacher’s job. Fixing that – not improved training for the current, unnecessarily Herculean task – is the best route to improved academic outcomes.
Parental choice puts children in the schools that have teacher strengths that best match students’ needs. Even if we just opened enrollment within public education, informed parents about schools’ strengths, and allowed them to select schools that excel at educating students that most fit the profile of their child, we achieve a potentially huge win-win. Students would be better served, and teachers could focus on areas of strength. The school, meanwhile, gradually would be relieved of the burden of being comprehensive – of pretending to adequately serve everyone in an arbitrary attendance area.