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What is a good teacher? What is a bad teacher? It depends on whether one is looking at the Primary system, the Secondary system or Postsecondary system or who you talk to. But since we're dealing with the Primary and Secondary systems the basic question one needs to ask is, "Why can't Dick and Jane read and write"? The answer becomes obvious when one has seen these systems up close and in detail. The answer, "Dick and Jane can't read and write because Dick and Jane no longer want to learn to read and write". So the solution is not a question of better teaching or education skills, but an issue of proper or better motivation. And I'm not talking about the old school technique of "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic - taught to the tune of a hickory stick"...

As for the "Strike" by the C.T.U., it's was just part and parcel of the Collective Bargaining Process. No big deal here.


Fascinating blog. I think the problem with pre-college education is 70-80% related to the students' home environment, and only 20-30% related to bad teaching, which is why I am skeptical of performance-based payment schemes as an adequate solution.

The challenge for policymakers is how to make success in school something appealing for students, rather than a burden that they must carry in order to succeed later in life. The current system seems to assume that kids with rich and poor backgrounds respond equally well to improvements in teaching, which they certainly do not.

Kids with privileged backgrounds (i.e. high IQs, peaceful neighborhoods, caring parents, etc.) are likely to thrive in a system that rewards the teachers that improve their average standardized test scores, since - as Posner mentions - they are "likely to improve more", and their peers are more likely to have a positive effect on them. Kids with poor backgrounds need some extra motivation to make the best of the school experience, since their environment often offers them alternative (easier) ways to improve their "social status". In the best of cases, they are lured into the arts or sports, in the worst they resort to crime.

Hence, perhaps we should consider giving "merit pay" to students rather than teachers? It may even improve their home environment, and make their parents more interested in their child's education.

Mark Shapiro

Thank you for the thoughtful post, particularly the concerns about gaming any possible rating system.

I was especially heartened to see this observation:

" . . . teacher salaries have to be raised in order to attract more good teachers because American women today have so much better alternative job opportunities than they used to have. "

I am amazed that so few experts mention this simple, wonderful, important fact.

Terry Bennett

Welcome back - thoughtful posts, thoughtful comments.

Objectively, probably everyone who reads this blog sat through 12 years of classes led by someone with less intelligence than you have. We are not the most in touch with the problem, as we did not suffer from the need to fix our own formal education.

Basic education is a commodity, perhaps valuable but not in short supply, and available through lots of different vendors, including the delightful Khan Academy. I think the market is well suited to deliver this product efficiently, and while it is important enough that we should collectively pay for those who cannot afford it to still get it, there is no reason teachers should be government employees. Our taxes provide food to people who can't afford to feed themselves, but we have not nationalized the farms where the food is grown, nor the stores whence it gets delivered to welfare recipients.

Still, recognizing that we aren't going my way any time soon,...

We want everyone to possess the fact base. I am willing to assume that any 21-year-old with a bachelor's degree has the enough of the fact base to teach a room full of 5-year-olds. However, the ability to impart the fact base into another person is distinct from the mere possession of the fact base, and allegedly consists of some nebulous brew of skill and salesmanship, which makes one teacher "better" than another. The conventional wisdom says that a good teacher can present the material in a compelling way, make learning fun, stimulate students' interest, improve their self-image, make them realize that they actually can learn, set a good example, show them that someone cares about them, and a bunch of other soft benefits, whereas a bad teacher just shows up and goes through the motions.

The crux of this discussion is to what degree good teaching produces good results, or to what degree the other factors can thwart good teaching. The teachers say we're all fantastic at this but the students' home life is so bad it undermines everything we give them; the parents say our children can't learn because we have unskilled slackers presenting the material. I suspect that there are those students who will do well regardless, and there are those who will do poorly regardless, but there is probably a set of students for whom the right teacher will make a difference, however muted by the negative factors, and this net positive will shine through in the data somewhere. We are obviously committed as a society to continuing to look for it. I again suggest that market forces would be perfectly adept at finding it, and at the least cost.


The value system of many teachers is typically against merit pay and there is nothing wrong with that. However, what many people fail to realize is that teachers salaries can vary substantially based on the resources in a local community and the way the salaries are structured in a state. In my state, we pay teachers the most in the communities with the highest income and tax base and the students who are most likely to have a stable home structure and require less work. Starting pay does need to come up but in most areas, the average pay is on par with the average for comparable occupations. The problem is that the union members with the most power also have the most seniority, and so the increases over time are more substantial than they need to be. If we increase starting pay, then we need to lower the annual increases, or allow teachers to reach maximum pay at an earlier point of seniority, and right now we cannot get widespread agreement with those changes.

I am a middle-class parent with two kids in public school, one who learns fairly easily and one who struggles. After my son received poor grades in math for the first half of the year, we hired a tutor at a large expense to work with him one-on-one for the rest of the year. He received an A in the class; however, he then failed the annual assessment. We did everything possible to work to succeed, and these resources are not available to a lot of families.

I will argue that the biggest problem facing public education is the lack of ability to let go of poor performers. There is no shortage of applicants, which is counter to the argument that we need to raise salaries at all. But we put the needs of the adults ahead of the needs of the children when we don't allow, encourage, or require a school to lay off a teacher who isn't performing. Make the evaluation a 360 degree process, and find out who isn't up to the job based on what parents, students, and other teachers think, in addition to the administration. It's not fair to the other teachers to have to make up lost ground for a teacher who didn't make progress with the students, and it's morally unjustifiable to make students suffer in their education with a teacher who shouldn't be there.

Nick Bushby

There is a way for evaluations to be done by the most knowledgeable party and be guided by objective data:

1) Students rate their teachers.
2) Weight each student's input by how well the student improves in testing of overall knowledge relative to peers.

When a student has done better, which teacher's are given the credit? A teacher may have motivated a student to do better, improving that student's scores in areas not in that teacher's subject area. Who has had a band director or coach inspire them?

"Peers" needs to include students at the same score start value. This prevents advancing teachers who are only adept at improving already good students. A teacher now has motivation to maximize improvement in any student in any subject matter.

There is less motivation to "teach to the test". Turning your students into automatons that can fill in the right bubbles gets you nowhere - they will be bored to tears and rate you personae non gratae.

Further observe scores over time and match performance back to teachers in the past. Teaching good essay writing in late grade school may not appear on standardized tests, but may show measurable benefit in early college.

The biggest known unknown is how the student ratings underlying this can still be abused or distorted. If we cannot solve that, I'm with Posner.

Chad Vader

I'm curious where Posner got his figures on the average Asian IQ. Every study I've read places the IQ of East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) to be somewhere between 103 and 107. I've never heard of them having an average IQ of 115.


"The average white IQ is of course 100 and the Asian (like the Jewish) almost one standard deviation higher, that is, 115. The average black IQ is 85, a full standard deviation below the white average, and the average Hispanic IQ has been estimated recently at 89. Black children in particular often come from disordered households, which has a negative effect on ability to learn and perhaps indeed on IQ (which is only partly hereditary) as well. Increasingly, black and Hispanic students find themselves in schools with few white or Asian students."

Average Asian IQ has been shown to range from 99 to 105, not 115!
And the problem is not simply of IQ but physical power and aggression. Non-blacks fear blacks because blacks are more muscular and aggressive. So, even the most liberal Jews in blue states generally don't try live where there are lots of blacks.

As for Hispanics, it's a very varied group. Calling everyone from Latin America 'Hispanic' because they speak English is like calling everyone who speaks English in the US an 'Anglo'.



As for Hispanics, it's a very varied group. Calling everyone from Latin America 'Hispanic' because they speak SPANISH is like calling everyone who speaks English in the US an 'Anglo'.

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