The folly of economics
Future historians will one day look back at our age and place economists in the same category as alchemists and phrenologists. Alchemists believed base metals could be turned into gold and phrenologists believed the shape and size of the human skull could predict personality traits. Today we laugh at such ideas, but once upon a time alchemists and phrenologists taught in some of the world’s most venerated universities. The wisdom of these professors of higher learning was considered gospel by colleagues and an ignorant populace. But time heals all wounds. Soon an enlightened population realized that gold was a singular and immutable element and people with protruding foreheads and bushy eyebrows were not all criminals. Alchemists and phrenologists lost their lofty university positions and the world became a better place.
The study of economics was once a benign school of thought that did not try to extend its boundaries into the realm of the scientific method. Economists debated and promulgated a variety of theories concerning the production, development, and management of material wealth and wisely avoided the pitfalls of trying to apply algorithms and formulae to forecast pecuniary matters. Unfortunately too many economists eventually made the fateful leap from a theoretical school of thought to a school of applied science, and the unpredictable nature of depressions, recessions and the stock market forever doomed economics as a true science. People soon realized that economists were no better at predicting the prices of stocks and commodities than the neighborhood grocer. (Indeed, I would argue that my neighborhood grocer is far better at predicting spending trends than economists. She uses an algorithm based upon the monthly sales of chop meat and conversations with intuitive shoppers.)
But economists will not “go gentle into that good night.” Some need to drag teachers along the creeping path of death.
According to a February 10th article written by William Gillespie in Business Lexington, Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek claims that identifying and replacing 6 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers can turn around student performance and have a greater and more positive impact than any other expenditure designed to stimulate economic growth.
So all this talk about capital and labor and gross domestic product has all been a sham? The key to a nation’s economic prosperity can be found in a simple 6% solution? The implications are mind boggling. If President Hoover had identified and replaced six percent of our nation’s least effective teachers in the autumn of 1929, the Great Depression could have been averted and the song Brother Can You Spare a Dime would never have reached the top of the pop charts.
I do not know how or why the Stanford professor arrived at a 6 percent formula, but I suspect he too was taking the fatal leap that has made economists the weathermen of academia. He wanted to legitimize his theory by applying a formula and a prediction. Sadly, the professor’s suggestion is not a bold or novel idea. The Roman Army periodically practiced a form of military discipline called decimation. During troubled times, such as a battle loss or threat of mutiny, Roman officers killed 10 percent of their soldiers. This cleansing was believed to right a wrong and motivate the remaining soldiers.
Now teachers are the target of a contemporary decimation proposal; they are being sacrificed to right the wrongs of an errant economy and school system. How disgusting.
I have a better idea. Let’s shelve the ridiculous and vindictive 6% solution and invite the good professor to teach in a present-day underfunded and overcrowded classroom. Let him teach for one year in an inner city or rural school in which students do not have family support systems or come to class with the appropriate level of preparedness needed to be successful. Let this theoretician become a clinician and then measure the annual results of his students. And let us not forget to offer this position under the condition that if he fails, it’s off with his head.
Decimation is a dangerous game, but it is a quick means to place economists on the same shelf as alchemists and phrenologists.
*A special thank you to Nancy Flanagan for alerting me to this matter. Please read her recent blog Teacher in a Strange Land.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.