A couple of weeks back at This Week in Education I tried to explain why the Vergara decision in California doesn’t have easily-predictable major consequences, even if you hand-wave away all of the inevitable legal wrangling and assume tenure and seniority rules for teachers do end up changing significantly. Partisans really don’t like thinking – or at least talking – about trade-offs1 but they almost always matter in the long-term.
The upshot is that, even if you operate with an extremely naive model in which only student achievement outcomes matter, it’s not obvious that tenure reform2 will have large net benefits:
There will probably be some good effects and some bad effects of tenure reform, and much depends exactly on how the tenure rules are changed and how the state, districts, and schools respond. For example, will districts raise salaries in response to limitations on tenure? Will administrators find work-arounds to reduce energy spent on evaluations?
As a result, it’s hard to know which effects, if any, will dominate in the long-term. They may largely cancel each other out.
One of the central tensions for reformers when it comes to improving teacher quality is that on the one hand they believe teachers are fighting desperately for excessive job security but also, on the other hand, that you can substantially reduce that job security without making teaching significantly less attractive.
In theory this is not impossible. Making it work, however, requires admitting that job security is a benefit for teachers and that taking it away will – all else equal – make being a teacher less appealing.
I use historical data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify the probability that a worker in the model is involuntarily separated from their job, which is about a 4 percent chance per month, average duration of unemployment, which is about 3.5 months, and the probability of continuing employment, which is about 96 percent.
For the case of the public sector, the probability of involuntary separation is just 1.3 percent, which is one-third as high as the probability in the private sector case. I then calculate the difference in compensation between the public sector (low unemployment case) and the private sector, such that a worker would be indifferent between working in either sector. I find that workers would be willing to work for about 10 percent less compensation in the public sector, given the additional benefit of much higher job security. This estimate is conservative in terms of considering today’s labor market, as average unemployment duration today is much higher than its historical average.
In other words, Ohanian thinks you could use job security as a means of attracting employees into the public sector even if you offered salaries roughly 10% lower than in the private sector because the job security itself has some value.
Now, Ohanian is a conservative economist writing for a conservative think tank, so he unsurprisingly concludes that you can do away with these job security benefits because public sector workers are so wildly overcompensated to begin with that the marginal value of the “excess” compensation is very small.
My sense, however, is that many education reformers – who are often left-leaning – don’t want to say that at all. On the contrary, they will often say that we want the “best and brightest” – i.e., significantly above-average workers – to go into teaching and that teachers should receive more compensation (contingent on performance).
The trouble is that, as Rick Hess puts it, courts are good at “access, not quality”. The Vergara lawsuit is ultimately a very crude way of enacting policy change; the decision does not require, for example, any measures to compensate teachers for reductions in job security.
Reformers may want salary increases but since they weren’t judicially mandated – and do not otherwise appear to be forthcoming – we have to consider a world without them.
I’m not opposed, in principle, to carefully paring back tenure protections for teachers in exchange for higher salaries or other benefits. I could therefore be made more sympathetic to many reformers’ projects if they seemed to be taking these trade-offs more seriously.