Baseball teams don’t pay a premium to guys who hit lots of home runs in order to create “incentives” for people to hit home runs. If that worked, we’d all be major league sluggers! Baseball teams pay a premium to guys who lots of home runs because home run hitters are valuable contributors to baseball teams. Hitters who perform worse are less valuable. And hitters who perform very poorly are drummed out of MLB. That’s not really about incentives; it’s about attracting and retaining high performers to your organization.This is more telling than he knows: baseball players who are cut or sent down to the minors tend to be replaced by other marginal baseball players. It's a truism in baseball: most prospects don't pan out, and even those regarded as can't miss fail constantly. I think it's really a generative analogy! We have a tremendously well resourced structure to "attract and retain high performers" in baseball. They are the highest paid athletes in sports, generally speaking. Stars are celebrities and can make millions more in endorsement deals. Great players are showered with praise, adulation, and attention. Even non-stars live lavish lifestyles, and the benefits in the sexual and romantic realms are legendary. We have a system, in other words, that should attract just about everyone qualified to play baseball. There's almost no other job that such a person could do that would reward him equally.
And yet, somehow, Julio Lugo-- he of the .580 OPS-- played in 93 major league games in 2010. Despite terrible-bordering-on-putrid production, he was highly employable in the major leagues. All of those incentives still didn't mean that we suddenly had better baseball players than Julio Lugo leaping ahead and taking his spot. Ah, but he's barely playing in 2011! Who is getting his starts for the Atlanta Braves, his team? Why, Alex Gonzalez, he of the still-quite-awful .639 OPS. And there are teams that don't have any shortstops as good as Alex Gonzalez! This phenomenon is seen again and again in sports: players who are objectively bad at their jobs enjoy long and lucrative careers, because the amount of people who can effectively play baseball is limited independent of our desire to find more. It turns out that the sincere desire to find great baseball players, backed by tremendous resources used towards that end, is not a fool proof prescription for actually finding them. Human beings are in fact constrained by reality, after all.
Now, you could very reasonably point out that the collection of traits necessary to be a good teacher are likely far less rare than the collection of traits necessary to be a good baseball player. But I would suggest that this is significantly balanced by the fact that we need vastly more teachers than we need professional baseball players in our society. And I think that the essential logic is the same: there's this weird implicit assumption in education reform circles that if you fire a bunch of teachers you're going to get a bunch of better teachers. Even before we talk about the vastly complicated issues of how to fairly evaluate teachers and how to separate student-dependent variables from teacher-dependent variables, there's the fact that many fired teachers are likely to be replaced by other marginal teachers.
I chose my examples carefully: Alex Gonzalez is indeed a better baseball player than Julio Lugo. (I could very easily have found poor baseball players that were replaced by even worse baseball players.) A .059 improvement in OPS isn't nearly enough to make Gonzalez a quality hitter but it isn't nothing. I'm not a fatalist, and I don't think teaching quality doesn't matter at all, nor do I think that there is no room for improved outcomes. It's just a lot harder to gauge than in baseball. There's no teacher OPS, and I must point out that it is not written in the sky that humanity is entitled to find effective teaching metrics. There's every reason to continue to seek improvement and I intend to. But modesty of expectations seems to me to be the only rational response to decades of discouraging data and failed experiments, and the "we can do something because we should" attitude is so dominant within the discourse of reform that I find it almost impossible to discuss with passionate reformers. Should still implies can. Otherwise sober and empirically-minded people become daydream believers on the topic of education reform.
It's the same old saw from me, at the end of the day: education reform is a subject where the large majority of participants seem to be interested only in desire and intent, not reality. What is possible comes first.