We asked readers “If the state put you in charge of San Diego Unified School District, how would you fix things?”

The job market for teachers is a lot like the used car market. The products (in this case, the teacher being hired) all look quite similar on the outside, but differ greatly on the inside (i.e. how good they are at teaching). The buyer (in this case, the public via the school district) has to make a decision on how much to offer for the product without necessarily knowing how good or bad it is. Will the district hire a good teacher (i.e. buy a peach) or a less-than-good teacher (i.e. a lemon)? And how much will the district be willing to pay?

Because there’s no way to know what kind of teacher you’re getting, the district has to offer an inefficiently low wage to all the teachers. This has the duel effect of ensuring that the less-good teachers will be the ones primarily getting hired and that many of the good teachers will pass on the district’s offer and go elsewhere. Later, the problem is exacerbated when the district then has to negotiate with a teachers union staffed by mostly poor teachers that passes regulations ensuring that the lemons can’t be replaced with the peaches due to the seniority system. At least in the used car system, you can ditch the lemon and go look for a peach.

Now there is a solution to this problem: put the car through its paces and look under the hood. Or in the case of teachers, allow them to signal their ability by judging student achievement in their first few years of teaching before giving them tenure. That way, the good teachers can signal their ability and be weeded out from the worse teachers. The district could then offer a wage that more good teachers would be willing to accept (rather than looking for other, better-paying options outside of education like they do now) and the school district — and thus the public — would get much better teachers. This would make things more efficient all around, with the only losers being the lemons. I doubt too many people will cry citrusy tears for them.

This approach requires two big gambles: that the current system would ever willingly accept making test scores (plus other forms of evaluation) part of the requirements for granting tenure and that the public would be willing to making funding sufficient for attracting good teachers. The first might be accomplished if the state takes over the system, but the second would require freeing up more funding elsewhere in the school budget. I have some ideas on how to address that side of things, but that’s a separate column.

(With apologies to George Akerlof)

Chris Chiego lives in La Jolla.

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