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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

First Stab at Rational Analysis

This week, we turned in a policy memo using rational analysis. My topic was education :)  Enjoy!

September 28, 2011

To: Congresswomen Elizabeth Rigby
From: Allison Primack, Policy Analyst
Re: Education, Retaining Good Teachers

The purpose of this memo is to address the issue of low teaching quality in the United Stated education system. Currently, education policy in the United States is at a crossroad. Several obstacles stand between the United States and an effective education system, from poverty issues to unreliable standardized tests.

If the low quality of teachers is ignored, there will be negative consequences for schools, students, and the country as a whole:
  • Without incentive for quality teachers to remain in public schools, the quality of education will continue to fall.  According to the US Department of Education, there are trends in reasons why teachers choose to stay, move, or leave schools. It is crucial that schools do not lose these quality teachers, because funding heavily relies on the performance of the students. If schools lose their quality teachers they could simultaneously financially suffer
  • Without quality teachers, there is a higher chance of students failing out of school, or not being adequately prepared to move on to the next grade level. While there are many factors that affect student performance, most notably poverty and family life, arguably teachers can make a huge difference in the success rate. Teachers can act as mentors and role models that these students lack at home, and therefore help attendance rates and keep students in school. Venture philanthropists in the education field “stress the importance of building a public system better equipped to produce a skilled workforce”[1]. It is impossible to build such a workforce is students are not able to complete their education.
  • Without quality teachers, the United States will continue to fall in international rank. Even though the United States has the highest per-pupil expenditure in the world, this is not reflected in high results.  In a recent report Eric Hanushek from the Hoover Institution in California warns that ignoring these comparisons “actually imperils our economic future”[2]. Considering the amount of technology and resources available in the classrooms, one of the biggest factors that could contribute to improving these results are higher quality teachers.

How can this problem be solved?

Clearly, education is a complex issue with countless potential solutions. In order to find the best solution for improving teacher quality, six main criteria were evaluated. Each criterion was rated on a scale from “-2” to “2”, with “-2” indicating extreme negative change, “0” indicating no change, and “2” indicating extreme positive change. Each set of criteria were then assigned a weight based on how important they are in this particular decision making process, and set the formula for evaluating each of the five alternatives. It is important to note that if the weight values shift, the results of this recommendation will also shift. In this analysis the most weight lies in the quality of teaching, followed by affordability and equal opportunity for students, political support, and finally union support and morale.

The criteria were as follows:

  1. Political Support: Will elected officials support this alternative?
  2. Affordability: How much will this alternative cost? Is it economically feasible to improve teacher quality given available resources?
  3. Protection from unfair practices (Union support): Teacher advocates argue that “despite their flaws, such due-process protections [provided by unions] are needed to shield teachers from politically motivated firings or firings based on prejudice”[3]. Will teacher unions approve of this idea? Does this alternative promote equality for teachers?
  4. Equal Opportunity for students: Does this alternative guarantee equal access to quality teachers for all students? Or does it put some demographics at a disadvantage?
  5. Morale: How does this alternative make the teacher feel about their career?
  6. Quality of Teaching: Overall, does this alternative promote excellence in the teaching profession?
The alternatives, which are further explained following the complete breakdown in Figure 3, are keeping status quo, basing pay on students’ standardized testing scores, giving higher quality teachers priority in placement choices, giving all teachers better training and support so they feel prepared for their jobs and support from fellow teachers, and recruiting higher quality teachers. While these alternatives could be used in combination with one another, they will be analyzed as separate entities.

Figure 3

Political Support

Protections from unfair practices (union support)
Equal Opportunity for Students
Quality of Teaching

Alternative #1: Status Quo

No change (0)

No change (0)

No change (0)

No change (0)

No change (0)

No change (0)


Alternative #2: Basing pay on students’ standardized testing scores

Very high support; currently supported by Republicans (2)

Expensive; currently there are large cuts to education

No support; because standardized tests are unreliable, this could lead to unfair pay drops  (-2)

No change (0)

Extreme increase; see immediate benefit for good work (2)

Extreme increase; higher incentive to teach better to receive higher pay (2)


Alternative #3: Giving higher quality teachers priority in placement choices

Low support; because of achievement gap may want option to keep the higher quality teachers in challenging classrooms (-1)

No change (0)

No change (0)

Extreme negative change for low-achieving choices, assume teachers would want to teach in classrooms with brighter kids and more resources (-2)

Decrease; discourages teachers from collaborating and working together (-1)

Increase; they will have a better chance to teach topics they are passionate about (1)


Alternative #4: Give all teachers better training and support so they feel prepared for their jobs, and support from fellow teachers

High support; has positive influences in several areas (1)

Unknown; may cost more upfront, but if this causes teachers to be more effective could gain more money from the government.

Very high support; gives all teachers the tools to improve their skills (2)

Extreme positive change; all teachers would be better prepared, no matter their level, and all students will have more opportunity to succeed (2)

Increase; creates a sense of community amongst the teachers, encourages collaboration (1)

Increase; quality of every teacher increases as a result of the training (1)


Alternative #5: Recruit higher quality teachers

High support; as seen in the Teach for America program (1)

Expensive; cost a lot to both recruit and train so many teachers (-2)

No change (0)

Extreme positive change; students from all levels of schools will have exposure to high quality teachers (2)

Unknown; new teachers may bring energy to the current staff, or just intimidate them (0)

Increase over time; while teachers may be higher quality, they still have no experience (1)


Criterion Weights








Alternative #1: Keeping the Status Quo
If we were to change nothing about the current system, there will not necessarily be any negative effects, but at the same time there is no positive progress. By not making any changes political support, affordability, student equality, and union support will stay consistent, which is not bad. On the other had teacher morale and the quality of teaching will also stay consistent, which is contradictory to our efforts to improve the quality of teaching. Because of this, keeping status quo is not a preferred option.

Alternative #2: Basing Pay on Students’ Standardized Test Scores
The results of the analysis prove that this option would achieve positive change. Currently, it holds very high political support because an “emerging coalition of reformers is aiming to use market-based ideas” to improve public schools[4]. Basing teacher salary off of standardized testing scores would go hand in hand with this plan. Additionally it can be predicted to see a sharp increase in the quality of teaching and teacher morale because teachers will have a high incentive to work harder, and will see an immediate and tangible benefit from their hard work, and students would still have equal access to these quality teachers. However, the downside is that it is hard to justify this incentive while the education budget shrinks, and it would have almost no union support because standardized test scores are currently so unreliable, and it could lead to unfair practices. While this option has many benefits, it is not worth causing issues with the union.

Alternative #3: Giving higher quality teachers priority in placement choices
In theory, this alternative sounds plausible for improving teacher quality because teachers will have incentive to work hard in order to have the option to teach subjects they are passionate about. However, when weighing the criteria this alternative scored the lowest. Even though there would be no change in cost and no problems from the union, it would negatively affect the students in the “less desirable” classrooms.  By default these students, who arguably have a higher need for higher quality teachers, will not have access to them. For this reason it is hard to fathom that there would be any political support, since there is so much effort going into closing the achievement gap. In addition, this alternative would take a toll on teacher morale since the teachers would in essence be competing against each other in order to get the classes they want to teach. Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University in New York asserts that “teaching requires collaboration more than competition,” and this alternative goes directly against that assertion[5]. For these reasons this option should be avoided.

Alternative #4: Give all teachers better training and support so they feel prepared for their jobs, and support from fellow teachers
This alternative outscored every other in this analysis. None of the results were extremely positive in any particular category, and mathematically it added up to make the biggest overall influence. It would receive support both from the unions and from politicians because it is serving the dual purpose of strengthening teachers’ skills, and ensures that it is an equitable for both teachers and students. Additionally, by going through the training together, this plan will encourage collaboration and create a support network between teachers, therefore boosting morale. The only potential downside to this option is cost. Depending on what kind of training the school wants to invest in, this plan could potentially be quite expensive. On the other hand this cost could eventually offset itself, assuming that test scores of all students would go up as a result of this training, leading the school to receive more funding.  

Alternative #5: Recruit higher quality teachers
Although it may seem a bit obvious, one way to improve the quality of teachers is to hire higher quality teachers to begin with. While this will have an immediate affect on improving the child’s experience in the classroom and improving the overall quality of teaching, this could potentially destroy teacher morale and be expensive. How will you motivate the current staff to train and improve their skills if the school appears to be more interested in just replacing them anyways? On the other hand it is clear that the government would support this effort, as seen in the Teach for America program, and there is no prevalent reason why union would oppose of this. Additionally, Professor David Menefee-Libey of Pomona College asserts that reformers have not seen evidence of “a huge army of new teachers to jump in” and take on the challenges of teaching, so it is hard to see how this option will pat off[6]. While this is a reasonable option, the probability of recruiting more teachers than we already are is relatively low, and it would accumulate more costs than benefits.

Given the above criteria and alternatives, it is clear that the best possible option is pursue Alternative #4, which is to give all teachers better training and support so they feel prepared for their jobs, and support from fellow teachers. Professor Aaron Pallas from Columbia’s Teachers College agrees, in that “new teachers, no matter where they come from, often are foundering for at least a few years”[7]. By providing better training and support for all teachers, the quality of all teachers will improve, not just the quality of the lowest teachers. Fostering an environment that promotes teamwork and collaboration will result in a better quality of education provided for students. If the students are better educated there is a higher chance that they will score better on standardized tests, which would lead to higher school funding both at state and national levels. Additionally this training can cover a variety of topics, including dealing with at-risk students and how to best utilize better technology, in order to help mend the achievement gap and a wider range of education issues.

In conclusion, providing better training and support is the best alternative, but is only part of a broader set of initiatives needed to improve the quality of education. As Jeffrey Henig, a professor of education at Columbia points out, “the question of whether someone is capable or not is way more complex than it may seem on the surface”[8]. While improving teacher quality is not going to improve overnight, by providing more training and support we can begin to jumpstart the process.

[1] “Overview,” The New Teacher Project website,
[2] Eric A. Hanushek, “Feeling Too Good About Our Schools,” Education Next website, Jan. 18, 2011,
[3] Marcia Clemmitt, “School Reform: Should evaluations of teachers rest on students’ test scores?”, CQ Researcher Vol. 21, No. 17
[4] “Public elementary and secondary schools by type of school,” Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics,
[5] Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, “Bridging Differences,” Education Week blogs, March 29 2011,
[6] “School Restructuring Options Under No Child Left Behind,”,
[7] Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), pp. 86-87.
[8] Donald B. Gratz, “The Problem with Performance Pay,” Educational Leadership, November 2009, pp. 76-79.

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