Monday, October 03, 2011

Fran Tarkenton on How Teachers Are Exactly Like Football Players. Echidne on How They Are Not.

He sounds really convincing, too:
Former NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton excoriated teachers unions in a Monday Wall Street Journal editorial that envisions what would happen if some of America’s education policies were applied to the football field.

“Imagine the National Football League in an alternate reality. Each player’s salary is based on how long he’s been in the league,” writes Tarkenton. “And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.”

Anyone who tried to change the way football was played would be vilified as vengeful and anti-football, Tarkenton said.


“The on-field product would steadily decline. Why bother playing harder or better and risk getting hurt? No matter how much money was poured into the league, it wouldn’t get better. In fact, in many ways the disincentive to play harder or to try to stand out would be even stronger with more money,” said Tarkenton.

Tarkenton says that this alternate reality seems obviously foolish, but that it reflects the ongoing reality in the country’s education system.
Mmm. Except for a few problems.

The first, and by far the biggest of them is this:

Professional sports are always used as the best example of the type of labor markets where a worker's output is fairly easy to measure. Education is used as an example of the type of labor markets where a worker's output is really hard to measure in an objective way.

So Tarkenton uses the one case where most economists agree that productivity measurement is pretty objective and applies it to one of the cases where productivity measurement is difficult because it is intertwined with what the students do, what they are like to begin with and how the general resources are.

You give a good teacher a very poorly prepared class with lots of problems, you give that same teacher very few resources and then you try to measure the output of that student. See how objective you can get. Alternatively, set up a system like the present one where teachers are rewarded by how well their students pass a particular (and perhaps simplistic) test. Watch the incentives to cheat, watch the demoralizing effect all this has, and watch teachers burn out.

This is the biggest problem in Tarkenton's arguments, by far. The actual output of a teacher is very hard to measure, the actual output of a football player can be measured.

The second problem has to do with the definitions of football and teaching as careers. Football is acutely and essentially based on physical strength and speed, both of which decline with age. Not so with teaching. In fact, a good teacher does get better with experience. So Tarkenton is comparing apples with oranges.

The third problem is the way Tarkenton pays no attention to one aspect of football which does not apply to teaching: The humongous salaries! Indeed, those salaries are there partly because the career is so short, because the players can be kicked out of a team so easily and because it is accepted that after the few years of play the players can retire on their football earnings.

Now think of the pay in education! Then laugh at anyone who thinks that applying the football incentives without pay would give us good teachers. Nobody in their right minds would enter a career path with really bad pay, lots of public anger aimed at the profession and then the likelihood that you can be fired at any moment for reasons which have little to do with how hard you work. Especially now that the retirement benefits of teachers are being cut. Why, it would be better to try football! (Unless you are a woman, of course, and teaching is a female-dominated field.)