Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Second Careers and K-12

Because I tend to think of issues in a theoretical way, I occasionally stumble into interconnections of ideas, each interesting in its own right, that speak to one another in a way to make a novel synthesis. I’m hopeful that I achieve such a synthesis in this post. However, I’m the first one to admit that in the process of abstraction critical institutional detail is omitted and so there may be numerous reasons for the ideas to fail that I don’t envision here, were one to seriously attempt to implement them. While this risk is there every time I generate something, when I stray to the K-12 arena where my knowledge is limited and stems mostly from my role as parent and chauffeur of my kids to school and the assorted memory fragments of my own experience in K-12, hardly a way to come up with a full picture of the situation. For the record, I’m a product of the New York City Public schools, first P.S. 203, then I.H.S 74, and finally Benjamin Cardozo H.S., all in Queens. Sometimes, reading about K-12 issues, such as the reforms in the NYC schools under Joel Klein, I hearken back to those experiences.

The general issue I want to consider is how to attract talented people, who otherwise would do something else, into serving as teachers in K-12. In today’s post I will focus on the “second career” solution – these talented people are in their mid 50’s or older and have retired from their first career job, they have a pension from that and quite possibly good health benefits as well, and while their intellectual and physical capacities may be on the decline (relative to how these people performed when they were in their mid 30’s) they nonetheless are able and productive and want to do something socially useful with their lives, rather than idle away their retirement playing golf and bridge and what not in an enjoyable but essentially purposeless existence. In subsequent posts, I’ll consider alternative paths in attracting bright people into becoming K-12 teachers.

I came to think of this by wondering whether I could teach in K-12 (probably closer to the 12 than to the K). I’m 51 now and by the time I’m 60 I’ll have 35 years of experience at Illinois, if I don’t leave the University before then. I started at a fairly young age right out of grad school and was studying economic theory when I could have been doing Peace Corps or Vista or teaching grade school. But anyone who knew me at the time would say that grad school was the right path for me – I had all the academic tendencies, I really didn’t know how to do much else than be a full time student, and if one is to engage in serious study like pursuing a doctorate in economics at a high profile program such as the one at Northwestern, there are big advantages in doing it straight away after getting the bachelors degree.

But none of those reasons will apply in a few years when I’m eligible to retire from Illinois. Might I teach in K-12 then? Would I have the wherewithal to make the job switch? What inducements would I need to make that change rather than continue on here? (I have tenure, so I’m thinking about all of this as a voluntary move, not a coerced one.) And would I be any good at it? I think I have something to offer, but I’m not sure I could deal with the institutional rigidity. I’ve had many years to do it, “my way.”

Let me leave the personal issues for now, I don’t really need to address them at present, and turn to some other sources of thinking on this subject. One is this really interesting post by Gary Becker on the Japanese Retirement system from the Becker-Posner blog. It’s this post that got me thinking about second careers more generally. I highly recommend this read (and indeed, the entire archive for June is filled with posts and comments by both Becker and Posner on retirement) and in general I agree with the view put forward that the problem with retirement in America and most West European nations is that retirement happens too early in life. (Both Becker and Posner are well over 65 and still are faculty members at the University of Chicago.) The irony here is that while the “official” retirement age is 65 (there is no mandatory retirement, so instead of using the word “official” it is more appropriate to say “according to conventional thinking”) many people take early retirement and the average age at retirement is somewhere between 59 and 60, the situation is reversed in Japan. There the official retirement age is 60 but most continue on in the labor market after that via the second career mechanism, with full retirement happening closer to 70.

So I want to talk about modifying the Japanese approach to the situation here and making K-12 teaching the locus of second career employment. There are many plusses that can be assigned to this solution and I’ll get to those. But now let me consider a different source. Thomas L. Friedman had a column in the Times a couple of weeks ago, which focused on the quality of the schools and the relationship between school quality and our national wealth. The argument, one that makes sense to me, is that our prosperity will start to decline if our school system remains second rate. I do want to qualify that a bit, because there is such economic inequality in this country and there is inequality, as well, in wealth generation. So I believe one has to be careful making conclusions of this sort and there is some trouble reasoning too much by looking only at statistical means in school performance data. But that said, there does seem to be general deterioration in the schools that both blocks the human capital development of the children of the highly productive folks in our society and, perhaps more importantly, impedes the upward mobility of the over achieving segment of low-income people, whether immigrants or native born.

Friedman’s article cited a report from The Teaching Commission, which is a bunch of luminaries gathered to make recommendations on how to reform the schools, aiming at an audience of state and federal government. The Commission was led by Louis Gerstner, former Chairman of the Board at IBM and the report is entitled, Teaching at Risk: Progress and Potholes. I’ve read only the Intro and the section, “Revitalizing the Profession.” If I can dig out from under, I’ll read the rest of the report in the near future. I believe that I’ve read enough for what I’ve got to say here.

The report is based on the premise that to improve the schools the single most important factor is to improve the quality of the teachers. I agree with that one, though if there is another variable to consider it is class size, but my recollection of that literature (which I looked at maybe eight or nine years ago) is that the effects are pronounced but tap out when a class reaches twenty students or so and, realistically speaking, the capital infrastructure supports that size and larger, so I think focusing on teacher quality is sensible. Further, the report provides some evidence that teacher quality matters in terms of student achievement (though as above, I’m a bit suspicious of how much the statistical evidence reveals and how teacher quality is defined and the direction of the causality).

Then the report goes into a litany of problems with teacher quality – the majority of college grads who go into K-12 nowadays were poor students in college, ranking in the lowest decile of their graduating class, there is huge turnover in the system and many teachers don’t last five years, the system is heavily biased towards seniority and obtaining continuing ed credentials that, unfortunately, are orthogonal to ensuring that the teachers are up to date and engaged in their own teaching. Moreover, there is a substantial confidence problem in that the public doesn’t trust the teachers and so the report recommends a vigorous testing program for teachers in their field of expertise so they can periodically verify their competence.

The report is likely correct in this diagnosis, but I believe the cures that they are suggesting likely won’t work or won’t be sufficient even if they work part way. Consider the issue of poorly performing college students going into teaching. On my campus the best students (measured by ACT scores) go into Engineering, Bio Technology, and on down the line. Are we talking about diverting some of the Engineering students into teaching? The irony here, of course, is that Friedman in The World is Flat argues that we need more engineers. I think we can agree is that there is shortage of very good students, but we really don’t want to divert them from other growth areas of the economy, even as we want to bolster K-12.

Then, too, there is the (perhaps controversial) issue of the MRS degree. (In economics MRS refers to marginal rate of substitution, the ratio of the marginal utilities, so I innocently enough learned about the MRS degree from my students as I was cutting teeth learning to teach intermediate microeconomics.) As I mentioned in a post from January, Linda Hirshman argues that many women who have attended elite academic institution and who did remarkably well as students there, nonetheless end up as stay home moms or part time employees to accommodate their family life, whether by choice or implicit coercion. Taking that as truth, doesn’t it make sense that women who are less good students in college and not all that career oriented major in a field where it is easy to exit, to accommodate those family responsibilities once they kick in. For better or worse, K-12 teaching fits that bill. If it is to get out of that bind, either some other field will take its place or the MRS degree will have to disappears entirely. I don’t see another field stepping to the fore and while in principle I’m fine with the MRS degree going the way of the dinosaur, if I were betting that is not where I’d put my money. And given that, certainly it is a contributing factor to why the schools attract comparatively weak college students. It is too bad that the commission report doesn’t touch this issue.

Then consider pay. The report argues that teacher salaries must keep up with the market generally, if the field is to attract talented people. That is correct. But the report focuses on public education and there, of course, the teacher salaries are financed via taxes, not tuition. The report gives some high marks to governors of a few states who have started to spend more on K-12 and bully for them. But more spent on K-12 means either less spent on other government services (higher ed is obviously one of those) or it means more tax revenue collected. And both of these set up an intergenerational politics that simply doesn’t favor the continued increase of teacher salaries. I’ve got no problem voting for a governor who wants to raise taxes to fund the schools now, when my own kids are in K-12, but when I’m retired and my kids have kids, they quite likely will live in a different state from me, at which point even though I’m sure I’ll love my grandkids, voting my pocketbook means I won’t want to put money into the schools. Because society will continue to age, the intergenerational politics is going to make it extremely difficult to sustain funding teacher salaries this way, especially with the bulk of K-12 funded at the state level. As with the MRS degree issue, the report doesn’t consider the intergenerational politics of funding teacher salaries.

Now let’s return to my proposal. The fact that people are living longer and that more people who are early into their retirement are in good physical and mental health suggests that following the Japanese, a move to a second career approach for the entire economy is a sensible thing to be doing. But, clearly, we are not yet there. So there is an opportunity to use the need to attract talented people to teach K-12 as a way to cherry pick from the population who want a second career outside the industry in which they currently work. (Note that The Commission embraces the idea of streamlining red tape so that talented people from all backgrounds can find their way more readily into the teaching profession, see page 19 of the PDF in the paragraph starting “Three.” But they don’t provide further arguments for why these other background people would go into teaching.)

The potential for cherry picking means that quality-wise these people might be much better than the schools otherswise should be able to expect. Further, the income requirements of these second career people are likely to be modest. And to the extent that second-careerism becomes fashionable among some seniors, the inter-generational politics would be entirely different. Then, too, larger companies might use this as a vehicle to enhance and round out their own retirement programs and thus they might have a reason to invest in the schools as a public service, complementing the second-careerism. These are the plusses.

There remains the dual issues of first, whether it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks and second, of whether second-career teachers have enough energy to keep up with the students. My sense of this is that to make this work the role of these second-career folks needs to be thought through carefully. Perhaps in some cases they would be there to substitute for regular teachers who’ve come through the more traditional way, but mostly I’d imagine they’d complement these teachers, by mentoring smaller groups of students and by mentoring the teachers themselves about how learning and communication occurs in the industry from which they from. They would be treated differently from how student-teachers are treated now, but there would need to be an analogous systematic adjustment to this potential labor pool.

So there are certainly risks to implementing this suggestion, but the upside seems sufficiently high to me that it is worth exploring.

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