Education markets and teacher quality

When I studied economics at the LSE nearly half a century ago markets were relatively simple affairs used to help regulate supply and demand through the mechanism of price. A shortage of supply forced up the price and that resulted in new entrants to the market and eventually the price came down. In labour market economics some saw wicked employers tried to find ways of holding down the price by controlling wages and working conditions and others warned of dastardly trade unions trying to force up wages through all means at their disposal. How times have changed.

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating debate about labour markets and teacher quality. The lecturer’s thesis seemed to be that even though we had difficult ‘ex-ante’ deciding what was a good teacher, good teachers were really the only thing that mattered in improving pupil performance; so all would be well if we could somehow harness market economics to handling the issue of improving teacher quality.

The thesis is interesting, especially in view of the previous post on this blog about teacher supply. The lecturer didn’t discuss whether there is a hierarchy of markets that will address issues in a particular order. If there is, I would content that markets will address any shortage issue before quality issues and only then deal with matters such as equality and other government desired outcomes.

If I am correct, then there is little practical point talking about teacher quality until the market has dealt with the supply problems.  Now the Right in society has an answer to that problem: let anyone become a teacher. In view of the lack of ‘ex-parte’ evidence on what makes a good teacher this is a seductive theme. However, I would argue that the school system in England has been trying that approach for many years by allowing anyone with QTS to teach any subject and, for instance, letting PE and music teachers teach mathematics but overall the policy doesn’t seem to have improved outcomes. But, would say the defenders of the  ‘all may be teachers’ policy, it is because these are poor teachers. The best teachers of PE and music are no doubt teaching PE and music.

In the end the discussion last night about teacher quality came down to the –X- factor. What is it that makes a good teacher rather than how markets can help achieve improved teacher quality? There were some in the audience that no doubt would have been happy with the definition of a teacher from the 1840s offered by the National Society that:

It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of schoolteacher. Good temper and good sense, gentleness coupled with firmness, a certain seriousness of character blended with cheerfulness, and even liveliness of disposition and manner; a love of children, and that sympathy with their feelings which experience alone can never supply – such are the moral requirements which we seek in those to whom we commit the education of the young.

Although they might not be bothered about the need for ‘a love of children’.

I am also reminded of the more recent quote from the Newsom Report previously quoted on this blog that:

“In the primary and secondary modern schools teaching methods and techniques, with all the specialized knowledge that lies behind them, are as essential as mastery of subject matter. The prospect of these schools staffed to an increasing extent by untrained graduates is, in our view, intolerable.”

It is just as intolerable today and I speak as someone that started their teaching career as an untrained graduate in an inner city comprehensive school.

Of course we must strive to identify and improve teacher quality, but no teacher means there is no quality to measure and that is the fundamental problem facing policy makers today.


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