Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Gauging the Dedication of Teacher Corps Grads

New York Times article "Gauging the Dedication of Teacher Corps Grads" (January 3rd, 2010) does a miserable job of critical thinking when reporting on a study about "Teach for America."Specifically, it does not note that the study has no ability to claim causal relations:

In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years, according to Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who conducted the study with a colleague, Cynthia Brandt.

The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America’s approach to the issue of educational inequity, among other factors.

The study used a survey to compare the three types of individuals. Yet there are reasons why some individuals decline an offer for Teach for America and others accept it. By definition, they had a better alternative, while those who accepted did not. That in and of itself signals that they are different and not comparable. Similarly there are reasons individuals drop out. To pretend that all three types are the exact same save for some random outcome is a ludicrous conjecture on its face.

If the study wanted to be causal, it would have to use an instrumental variable approach, or randomized trial, or natural experiment. All the study does is to examine sample selection, and is not causal in the least.


  1. Absolutely correct. It is possible also that the experience of the participants far from producing exhaustion and burnout actually was illuminating and led them to understand the limitations of government and to focus their subsequent energies more productively on non-governmental, non-civic activities.

  2. Student1776, Corrections may be a bit confused about your preferred definition of "productive." In our reading, average productivity is, for an individual decision-maker, the units of happiness they get per unit of effort. The value (level) of their happiness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

    De gustibus non est disputandum--there is no disputing about tastes.

    Yet we might go so far as to say that the accumulation of human capital has been the driving force behind the last fifty years of growth (endogenously linked to productivity growth, of course).

    Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom, noted that "With respect to teachers' salaries .... Poor teachers are grossly overpaid and good teachers grossly underpaid. Salary schedules tend to be uniform and determined far more by seniority." Corrections is inclined to agree, and insofar as Teach for America is populated by individuals with the capacity to be better teachers, it may seem to offset the detrimental impact on teacher quality that unions appear to have.