two economists ask teachers to behave as irrational actors

I was considering doing a front-to-back fisking of this interview of Raj Chetty, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, conducted by the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen. Despite Chetty’s obviously impressive credentials, he says several things in the interview that simply don’t hold up to scrutiny, in particular regarding the simultaneity problem1 and the impact of the shared environment2 I’ve decided to just focus on one key point, though.

The standard neoliberal ed reform argument goes like this: the major entrenched socioeconomic and racial inequalities in this country are no excuse for poor quantitative outcomes for groups of students; teachers and schools, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, control most of the variation in educational outcomes; therefore our perceived education problems are the result of lazy, untalented teachers; introducing a market for schooling will force schools to get rid of those teachers and metrics will improve. Now this story has failed to play out this way again and again in places like Detroit and Washington DC, but we’ll let that slide for now. If we accept this argument on its own terms, we need to get many talented people into teaching and replace the hundreds of thousands of “bad” teachers we’d be getting rid of.

Ed reform types are typically cagey about the scale of teacher dismissals – they hate to actually come out and say “I’d like to get hundreds of thousands of teachers fired” – but based on their own numbers, their own claims about the size and extent of the problem, that’s what needs to happen. You can’t simultaneously say that there’s a nationwide education crisis that needs to be solved by firing teachers and avoid the conclusion that huge numbers need to be fired. If reformers claim that even one out of every ten public teachers needs to be let go (a low number in reform rhetoric), we’re talking about more than 300,000 fired teachers.

I’ve argued before that the idea that market economics are effective means to solve educational problems falls apart once you recognize that, unlike a factory building a widget, educators don’t control most of what contributes to a child’s learning outcomes. But suppose you do believe in the standard conservative economics take on school reform: how can Chetty’s ideas make sense, if we trust young workers in a labor market to act in their own rational best interest? Chetty believes that we need, at scale, to “either retrain or dismiss the teachers who are less effective, [to] substantially increase productivity without significantly increasing cost.” Without increasing costs, in other words, by raising teacher salaries. The median teacher in this country makes ~$57,000 a year; the 75th percentile makes ~$73k, and the 25th percentile, ~$45k. Compare with median lawyer salaries well above $100,000 a year and median doctor salaries close to $200,000, or an average of $125,000+ for MBA graduates. So we’re not going to pay teachers more, and we’re going to sufficiently erode labor protections, if we’re going to dismiss those less effective teachers. This doesn’t sound like a good deal already.

Of course, teachers don’t just suffer from low median wages compared to people with similar levels of schooling. They also suffer from far lower social status than they are typically afforded in other countries, as Dr. Chetty acknowledges:

Yeah, I think status seems incredibly important. My sense of the K–12 education system in the US is, unfortunately for many kids graduating from top colleges, teaching is not near the top of the list of professions that they’d consider. It’s partly because, in a sense, they can’t afford to be teachers because it entails such a pay cut. But also because they feel that it’s not the most prestigious career to pursue.

Why yes, Dr. Chetty, it’s true! Teachers don’t get a lot of prestige in this country! Maybe that’s because well-paid celebrity academics who make several times the median teacher salary – people like you – talk casually about firing them en masse and insist that they are the source of poor metrics! The ed reform movement has insulted the profession of public school teacher for years. Popular expressions of that philosophy, like the execrable documentary Waiting for “Superman, have contributed to widespread assumptions that students are failing because their teachers are lazy and corrupt. How can a political movement that has relentlessly insulted the teaching profession not contribute to declining interest in being part of that profession?

Here in New York, the numbers are clear: we’re already facing a serious teacher shortage.

What Chetty and Cowen are asking for makes no sense according to their own manner of thinking. Dr. Chetty, Dr. Cowen: there is no bullpen. Even if I thought that teachers controlled far more of the variance in quantitative education metrics than I do, and even if I didn’t have objections about fair labor practices against removing hundreds of thousands of teachers, we would be stuck with this simple fact. We do not have hundreds of thousands of talented young professionals, eager to forego the far greater rewards available in the private sector, ready to jump in and start teaching. And we certainly won’t have such a thing if we share Chetty’s resistance to paying teachers more and his commitment to making it easier to fire them.

So: no higher salaries for a relatively low-paying profession, eroding the job security that is the most treasured benefit of the job, continuing to degrade and insult the current workforce as lazy and undeserving, getting rid of hundreds of thousands of them, and yet somehow attracting hundreds of thousands of more talented, more committed young workers to become teachers.

According to what school of economics, exactly, is such a thing possible?


  1. If you believe that the students in the most need are systematically excluded from the highest quality schools, how can you be confident that the quality of those schools is not the product of that very screening mechanism? This is very common in neoliberal ed speak; Matt Yglesias does it constantly. People correctly argue that the students facing the highest hurdles to succeeding on quantitative metrics are prevented from attending the “best” schools, whether public (through zoning) or private (through high tuition and entrance exams). They then act as though our education problems will be solved by removing those barriers to entry. But that ignores the most obvious read on the situation: that those schools are perceived to be best because they exclude the hardest-to-educate!
  2. “Chetty: Well, there are a number of twins studies which show that there are significant differences in kids’ outcomes depending upon the conditions in which they were raised.” No one who is remotely educated about the preponderance of evidence in twin studies or the consensus position within genetic behaviorism would ever summarize the impact of the shared environment this way.

2 thoughts on “two economists ask teachers to behave as irrational actors”

Comments are closed.