Should Parents Pick Teachers?

Usually students are assigned to teachers by principals. Should parents be able to choose teachers instead? There is a Boston Globe article today on patients choosing doctors.

In a speed-dating format.

The 27-year-old knew exactly what he was looking for: Someone with a laid-back personality, someone who shared his values, someone he could talk to.

So in a dusky restaurant murmuring with soft rock and soft chatter, Sean Musselman of Somerville came searching for that special connection.

Orbiting around candlelit tables-for-two, he and several other young men and women sat down with potential matches; they laughed and conversed, asked each other about their backgrounds and interests, shook hands, exchanged business cards — then, after a few minutes, moved down a seat to the next prospect.

But this wasn’t a sentimental crusade for love — at least, not the romantic kind. The group gathered here, rather, was seeking a family physician.

Call it medical matchmaking. Put on by Hallmark Health at Orleans Restaurant in Somerville last week, the playfully titled “Match.doc’’ — inspired by the online dating service match.com — sought to spark chemistry between prospective patients and local doctors through short, informal, speed-dating-like sessions.

We generally pick doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Should parents pick individual teachers (instead of, or in addition to, picking whole schools)? Can we "trust" parents to, by and large, make good decisions?

When Dawn Carrigan, principal of Longfellow Elementary School in Portland, ME joined the school nine years ago, one of the first things she did was to stop the practice of parents requesting their kids’ teachers. At the time, more than 20 families hadn’t gotten their first pick and didn’t know why. “I didn’t want to be the judge of whose request was valid or not valid,” says Carrigan.

Now, parents complete a questionnaire that addresses kids’ interests, learning styles, and more and Carrigan uses the information to set up class rosters.

In Northbrook, IL, Scott Meek, principal of Northbrook Junior High School, also asks parents for information about their kids’ learning styles and interests via a letter, and Meeks is glad to accommodate specific requests. Of course, organizing the 625 Northbrook Junior High School students into homerooms, academic classes, and electives is no small task, and inevitably some requests don’t get met.

Scheduling hundreds of students is a coordination challenge, to say the least, and fielding parent requests can be overwhelming for principals. And, while parents want the best for their kids, Carrigan thinks that sometimes parents request teachers that they think are "better" than others, based on popularity, but little concrete information.

To me, this is kinda a half loaf. Maybe a quarter loaf. Bryan Hassel, author of Picky Parents Guide, explains that there are two ways a parent could choose a teacher: based on "fit", or based on "good."

In this article, it seems like principals want to avoid creating a perception that some teachers are good, because it would mean that others are less good. Or even: bad. So they stick with a non-controversial questionnaire about kids that precludes parents from making judgments about teachers.

Are parents, in fact, good decision-makers?

Brian Jacob used to be a prof at Harvard. He's very sharp. Young guy. Still. He studied this very issue.

Lars Lefgren, associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, and Brian Jacob, professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan, analyzed data from 12 elementary schools and 256 teachers during the 2005-2006 school year to learn just what parents were looking for in a teacher when it came to student achievement and satisfaction.

“Parents have an idea of which teachers are good,” says Jacob, “and they try to pick teachers who are good in achievement and satisfaction.”

But in lower-income schools (those with a higher percentage of students who received free or reduced price lunch), parents were more likely to choose teachers who ranked high on student achievement. In higher-income schools (with a smaller percentage of students who received free and reduced lunch), parents favored teachers who had high satisfaction ratings.

Interesting. In fighting against school choice, advocates of the centrally controlled system tend to argue that "poor parents" are bad decision-makers. But if anything, based on this particular study, poor parents are sometimes be better decision-makers...or at least empirical decision-makers.

That is, what if the tables were turned? What if Lefgren/Jacob found that the poor parents cared about "satisfaction", and middle-class parents cared about "results"?

I bet some policy folks would say "SEE? THE MIDDLE CLASS PARENTS ARE RATIONAL. THEY CARE ABOUT RESULTS. POOR PARENTS CARE ABOUT SQUISHY STUFF, ABOUT LIKEABILITY. WE CAN'T TRUST THEM TO DECIDE IMPORTANT DECISIONS ABOUT THEIR CHILDREN."

It turns out the opposite is true.

So how might this work? Imagine this scenario.

a. There are 100 kids in Grade 3. Four teachers. 25 kids per class.

b. In August, parents get to meet teachers, hear them out, and then list who they want for their kid. Maybe "speed-dating" is involved: rapid-fire get to know you sessions.

Let's say the results came out like this.

Teacher A: First choice of 50 people Teacher B: First choice of 30 people Teacher C: First choice of 15 people Teacher D: First choice of 5 people

You can quickly maximize satisfaction for 5+15+25+25 = 70 parents. They get their first choice.

Another bunch of parents would likely get their second choice. A number of parents would get "stuck" with Teacher D. This would make them unhappy.

Is this a good thing (pressure to get rid of a teacher that parents perceive as weak) or a bad thing (getting everyone all riled up when we could have done the usual -- "hide" the weak teacher)?

Hmm. Maybe you could make other moves. What if you give Teacher A class size of 30 and Teacher D of 20? Then 5 more parents are satisfied. Maybe you could pay Teacher A more and Teacher B less.

From a teacher's point of view, would you have a lot more leverage if the parent "picked" you? Could you be somewhat more aggressive in asking them for help in getting their kid to do the work, follow the rules, try hard, etc?

As a parent, I would like to pick Nash's teacher.

But as a teacher, I might be worried about if enough parents would make me their first choice. Growing up, when kids picked sports teams, I was never first choice. Or second. Rarely third. In fact, sometimes I was chosen very, very, very late in the process.

For example, in our teacher prep program, what if the trainees got to choose who would teach them? I think my colleagues are great. Grreeaatt. I think trainees would pick them over me. My ego would not like that. I might instead want to choose a workplace where my colleagues were just okay. Then I could be the "popular" teacher. This doesn't seem very healthy.

Hmmmmmmm. What about the other direction? What if teachers could meet kids/parents, and then choose which ones they wanted to teach, instead of having a principal assign them?

Or can we combine: Is there any way to maximize both teacher and parent satisfaction through a "Match Day" process modeled on medical residency, where both sides pick and the computer optimizes?