Jonathan Chait

Matt Damon's Bad Defense Of Teacher Tenure

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Matt Damon appeared at a rally this weekend held by the anti-education reform left, and this video exchange between him and a Reason reporter is getting a lot of attention:

It's certainly nice that Damon wants to defend teachers. But, first of all, the fact is that not all teachers are dedicated and good. A few are lazy and bad. Their badness and laziness has serious consequences for children, because it is extremely hard in practice to fire even obviously incompetent teachers.

Damon gives voice to the old idea of teaching as a monastic profession, a difficult job with bad wages. He concludes that only people motivated by love of children would do it, which may be widely true but is probably not universally true.

What's more, his entire vision rests on maintaining teaching as a monastic profession. The old liberal slogan always demanded that we "treat teachers like professionals." That entails some measure of accountability -- we can debate the metrics -- which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. That's the definition of a professional career track, and the current absence of it is what drives most of the best college graduates into other professions.

Damon argues that teachers love their jobs, and therefore that career incentives are irrelevant to their performance. Well, I love my job. I love it so much that if somebody handed me $10 million and I never had to work again, I'd still do it. Nevertheless, if I were guaranteed a fixed salary that was tied to my tenure, I would work a lot less hard than I do.

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