Monday 15 March 2010

The arranged marriage of schools and teachers

   A school teacher committed suicide last week, which, like bullying, is not a new phenomenon. I recall that a high school teacher of mine also committed suicide. And I remember we, the students, making fun of him (something I am not proud of), despite his sweetness and educational effort. I was in a school where the student population was diverse, with a high rate of students from disadvantageous neighborhoods with family-related violence problems. Since that time, I have wondered why public schools in Portugal are not involved in the hiring of teachers.
   Schools are assigned teachers according to the schools’ needs in their fields of studies. But the uniqueness of a school comes not only from its infrastructure and curriculum but from the uniqueness of the communities and neighborhoods they serve, and consequently the background and ability of their students. Therefore, a “good teacher” is in part school-specific. Apart from formal qualifications, on-the-job future training and personality traits are extremely important and left out of the centralized school-teacher matching.
   Moreover, a centralized matching system ignores not only non-formal education, but does not guarantee that schools get qualified teachers (in a formal sense) either. This is the case when individuals’ heterogeneity on ability is high and the diffusion of higher education has increased, as it is the case in Portugal as well as in many other developed countries.
   The flow of college graduates entering the labor market is more diverse in terms of their ability. In other words, the candidates’ overall skills has declined and as such many graduates cannot reach the required graduation skill level (often assessed by firms during job interviews and hiring tests). This leads candidates to consider a teaching position even if their character, intrinsic motivation, and formal education falls short of what is (or should be) required by schools.
   With a centralized matching-process, a large number of graduates with no personality capability and intrinsic motivation for teaching will be hired. Many, who are in the tail of the distribution of skills and could not find another job for their “diploma degree”, will be actually undereducated for teaching. If the centralized teacher-school matching remains unchanged, one thing we can be sure about is that part of public schools’ success will keep on driven by luck.


  1. Hello Sandra,

    While I'm not very familiar with the current matching process, it seems to me that job candidates are evaluated based on "objective" data: schooling level of the candidate, grades, years of experience and so forth. This, of course, has the shortcomings that you point out: no assessment of the candidate's motivation nor of his knowledge about the school's features.

    However, allowing schools to interview candidates, assess the "personal traits" that you mention and decide whether to hire those candidates would unambiguously improve uppon the centralized system only if the school boards were education quality maximizers.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that this is the case. Given the pervasiveness of small time corruption, favor exchange and politicking in our country, it is hard to think that school boards would behave benevolently in the interest of their users. Is it hard to envision a board member favoring a friend's son over a slightly more formally qualified candidate, under the pretense that the friend's son is clearly better in terms of subjective qualities?

    The allignment of objectives between schools and users would require the use of incentives other than moral ones, which would inevitably lead us to rewards contingent on the performance of the school. Unfortunately, we know all too well the resistence that seems to be embeded in our culture against accountability.

    So, while I cannot be sure that the mismatch of objectives is the reason why the government chooses not to decentralize, I think that it ought to be a good enough reason to make us proceed with caution in the defense of decentralization. Because, as we've seen numerous times in the past, it's not usually the case that our governments have the strenght to hold people accountable. And without the right incentives, many will take advantage of their newly acquired power.

  2. I venture in introducing two other important and inter-related elements to the discussion: time, competition, and users. First, events like teachers suiciding will have an impact in future decisions of teachers applying to schools. Even a friend's son will think twice before applying to a problematic school. Second, public schools compete with private schools. If private schools offer better conditions to teachers and have better students, in an extreme scenario, public schools may end up unattractive to any teacher. Hence, decision makers in public schools would have an incentive to 'behave' properly. Finally, parents worried with their children's education may decide to move their residence (or lie about it or find any other way to change their address) to make sure they find a better school. In the limit, the consequences would be similar to those taking place in the other two situations. To conclude, the more decentralized, transparent, and fast the system is, the more accurate will the quality assessment be (which now takes place only in those somewhat convoluted (but real) examples).

  3. Assimptotic,

    While a bad reputation (generalizing your example of teacher suicide) would harm the ability of a school to hire the best teachers (in the decentralized system), a bad enough "son of a friend" that cannot be hired at a good school may still prefer a job at a bad school over accepting employment outside the education system (say, as a salesperson in a store). Other not so great teachers, but still better than the son of the friend, may also prefer employment at that school over their outside option. Because of his influence, the friend's son still gets the job and the inefficiency still arises.

    As for your argument based on the existence of competition from private schools, notice that, while it is true that most teachers would prefer to work in a private school, not all of them would be able to do so. The ones that don't find a job at private schools will have to take one at public schools.

    Finally, I agree that the demand for a given school will decrease if it's quality falls. However, many parents/students seem to be highly insensitive to quality, so demand for a bad school might still be enough to keep it running. Furthermore, from my own personal observation, the parents and students that are the most indifferent to school quality seem to be those who have poor/uneducated backgrounds. The schools that serve poor areas are those that may more easily get away with lowering quality, and thus more prone to engage in favor exchange and corruption.

    Given the motives above, I reinforce my original stance: decentralization must be reinforced with "dramatic" icentives (closing down underperforming schools, fire bad administrators, etc) in order to work. Otherwise, I would guess it's better to stay put.

  4. Hi, I had written a comment before the last one by DFG very much aline but that got lost. I will try to write at least the main idea. While I agree that descentralization is desired in most scenarios, I think in education it has to be accompanied with some compensation mechanisms otherwise the danger of even larger seggregation arises. A "bad" school should pay higher salaries to attract decent teachers.

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