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Study shows pay raises would hardly improve education

Another report about education, another opportunity to demonstrate the poor level at which education is being performed in Louisiana. But the press accounts gloss over the important details that tell us why the state, by their metrics, is doing so poorly, and what to do or not to do about it.

Sure, Louisiana overall finishes next-to-last in the Education Week and its partners study. But unless one probes the inner details of the report, you wouldn’t know that in one area of indicators, Louisiana ranks very highly. The Education Counts study has two sets of indicators, empirical ones measuring student performance, and political ones reflecting the presence or absence of policies the study’s authors believe make for successful education.

On the empirical measurements, the state does poorly, even shockingly. For example, on proficiency measure the state ranks at about two-thirds the average of other states. But on the policy measures, the state does well. It ranks in the middle of an index to measure alignment of education policy to outcomes, and in terms student standards, assessments, and school accountability, Louisiana ranks the highest of all the states. But by contrast, on the index presumably measuring “chance-for-success” (essentially, economic indicators), the state is almost last.

In other words, Louisiana has the correct policies in place to produce superior performance, but something is interfering with its actual achievement. The success indicators point out why – if properly understood. One common error made by rafts of politicians and pundits in this analysis is the simplistic belief that poverty somehow causes lower educational achievement. This represents a mistake in understanding causation, because poverty is only associated with low achievement, but does not cause it: in other words, the two are related to the same causal agent but not theoretically related themselves.

That similar causal agent is attitudes about efforts to succeed and achieve. Simply, poverty is not defined by the lack of resources, it is defined by the lack of will to want to achieve more resources (as the dismal failure of throwing money at the problem that lay behind the “War on Poverty” has shown). Bad luck and the like certainly hold people back in moving out of poverty, but the influence of these pales in comparison in general to that played by the role that attitudes that are not conducive to gaining wealth; for example, preferring spending in the present rather than saving and investing for the future, unwillingness to work hard, unwillingness to start menially and working one’s way up the economic ladder, etc.

Most relevant to Louisiana’s case is a voluntary dependency, or an attitude that one need not take responsibility for his own station in life but, rather, let somebody else or the government do it for them. The scourge of populism that has plagued Louisiana is a direct indicator of this attitude, and has created a bloated government that looks more towards the redistribution of wealth than empowering people to create it. In turn, this saps efforts to achieve and creates an attitude of dependency. So we must understand that poverty does not create poor education, but that common inferior attitudes about achievement and individual responsibility (perpetuated by government policy outside of education in Louisiana’s case) create, separately, both poverty and poor achievement.

Further, one policy change that would make little difference is giving pay raises to teachers. Understand the nature of the disconnection here revealed in the report: the policies are good, the performance is bad. Thus, it is the mechanism that performs the education that is at faulty – schools generally, but teachers in particular. The solution to this is not pay raises – that theory ridiculously argues that, overnight with more money in hand, suddenly every teacher becomes better – but in ensuring knowledgeable, capable teachers are in the classroom.

Interestingly, the report did not judge states on the basis of whether they had a crucial mechanism in ensuring this condition – regular assessment of teachers’ knowledge of the subject areas they teach. This goes way beyond the false prophylactic of “certification:” it means the regular testing of teachers. More and more states are adopting this commonsense regulation despite resistance from teachers’ unions bent on getting more money for with less effort put out by their members.

Even more interestingly, a comparison of Louisiana with the report’s top state, Virginia, shows why pay alone is meaningless in determining quality. In their region, Louisiana ranks fifth from the bottom while Virginia is only fourth from the top in terms of pay. In fact, Virginia is a good $3,000 below the national average in pay. Further, adjusting for cost of living in each state’s metropolitan areas (where the majority of education occurs), the cost of living in Virginia is 12 percent higher, meaning, when salaries are thereby adjusted, Louisiana teachers’ salaries on average are only about $1,000 below those in Virginia. Clearly, the narrow pay differential has little to do with the gulf in quality.

This is why, when the issue inevitably resurfaces in the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature this year, teacher pay raises without any corresponding demand for increased accountability of them is asinine. Any raise must be tied into accountability; for example, administering a test of subject area knowledge, combining this with student achievement results, and basing future raises on performance measured this way. Such a regime won’t solve all problems, but it will put the state in the right direction, dealing with the real issue behind why Louisiana educational achievement lags.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I think teachers should receive significant pay raises, but in exchange, unproductive, deadbeat teachers should be able to be held accountable for their results and fired without a fuss being raised every time by the union.

I wanted to be a high school math teacher, but one look at the pay scale and seeing how little my mother, grandmother, and aunts were paid made choosing another profession the only reasonable option for me. True, that if you go into teaching, it is not supposed to be for the money. However, more pay should attract more actual qualified people. But again, increased pay should also result in increased accountability.