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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

How Moral Crusading Makes Us Stupid

By Rick Hess — March 24, 2011 2 min read
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One of my least favorite things about education is how eagerly we turn sensible discussions into bizarrely polarizing moral crusades. Aided by competing, mindless invocations of “it’s for the kids,” we manage to turn otherwise sensible discussions about school accountability, teacher evaluation and pay, school choice, or tracking into incoherent, hysterical morality plays.

So, today, I’m just going to vent for a bit. I hope you don’t mind.

For instance, it strikes me that it’s obviously smart, in a 21st century labor market, to pay good educators more than bad ones--and to steer dollars in ways that recognize and reward scarce talents, valuable expertise, and productivity. It also strikes me as obvious that iron-clad job protections ought to be revisited. But it seems equally self-evident to me that none of this should be used to justify clumsy efforts to impose crude one-size-fits-all mandates when it comes to teacher evaluation or pay.

Yet our teacher evaluation and pay debates are fought between two bizarre poles. One camp insists that teachers, for some reason that escapes me, can’t possibly be evaluated fairly. Any tough-minded effort to gauge teacher performance or reward more productive or talented teachers is seen as an attack that must be ferociously contested. And those who see the value of paying good employees more than bad ones aren’t content with creating systems that will push schools and districts to figure out how to do this; far too many want to settle for enacting prescriptive policies that gauge teacher performance in terms of reading and math value-added and then adjust pay accordingly.

To most folks in health care, high tech, sales, advocacy, or just about any other field you can name, both positions are inane. To them, the complexities of evaluating personnel and crafting sensible pay systems are pretty obvious. That’s why they’ve been tinkering with different ways to gauge and reward employees for more than half a century. Most people recognize that a boss’s judgment is inevitably subjective, but also believe that it has real value--and that a boss who’s responsible for their team will take care to weigh the range of relevant factors. Bottom line: most sectors don’t turn discussions of employee evaluation and pay into moral crusades, they simply tinker with what might make sense. The biggest problem in education is that our current arrangements force us to approach these questions as “policy” questions, with the presumption that a state or district will set rules that apply to every teacher in every school in that geography. In that fashion, by enforcing uniformity, we stifle opportunities for variability or creative problem-solving, and accentuate the temptations to adrenalize these debates.

This has real consequences. As I’ve noted before, clumsily-designed value-added measures risk “stifling the kind of smart use of personnel that reformers are trying to encourage.” But I guess it’s easier, and maybe more fun, to rant against step-and-lane pay and promote grand solutions--or to “defend the profession” against the crazy idea that some people are better at their jobs than others, that we can distinguish among them, and that we should take this into account when setting pay.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.