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What are We College Teachers Selling?

Updated on October 12, 2014

The Strange Economics of the Service Sector

As economic transactions go, a trip to the grocery store is pretty simple. I hand over three or four bucks for a box of Cheerios, and as roughly four decades of experience have taught me, I am guaranteed to get a box of Cheerios. That is the beauty of buying basic, physical, tangible products. You know exactly what you are getting, and the only time you have a right to bitch about the product is the first time that you buy and try it. After that, it’s time to go for the Special K.

Unfortunately, there are many economic transactions out there that do not operate so smoothly. This is particularly the case with the service sector, a sector that for decades has made up a steadily increasing percentage of our economy. When people go to the doctor, the product that they are attempting to buy is essentially better health. With problems that have a simple diagnosis and remedy, this is exactly what they get. But with problems that are a bit more complicated, people (and/or their insurance companies) may not actually receive better health for their money. Instead, what they buy can be a wide assortment of medical services. The more services are performed, the higher the cost, regardless of whether or not any of these services lead to better health. It is like handing over money for a box of Cheerios, paying $4.00 per attempt to create that box of Cheerios, and possibly having no cereal to show for the 50 bucks that you spent when it is all said and done. And in some cases, you end up with a flawed box of Cheerios that makes you sick.

The same thing can be said about all sorts of service industries - counseling, law, education, etc. - in which the money that the service providers receive is not tied to outcomes. Instead, the money received is tied to the amount of time that they spend “providing” the service or the amount of procedures that they perform. It would be more logical, of course, for pay to be tied to outcomes. The pay for service model, however, is well established, and for obvious reasons, the providers and professional associations that dominate these fields have no intention of changing it. For good reason, many consumers of services feel ripped off, particularly when compared to consumers of products from the grocery store. We are often not getting what we pay for, and when we do, it seems to cost a hell of a lot more than it should. And when the economic relationship between consumer and provider is established, we often have no idea what it will ultimately cost. At least with that box of Cheerios, I know that I only have three or four bucks to lose.

As a teacher, I am a member of a service profession that seems to frustrate as many people as any other. Many demand that procedures be set up that measure the performance of teachers and more efficiently get rid of the bad ones. It makes no sense to keep paying people for merely spending a given amount of hours in a classroom. Having been a student (and a parent) myself who has come across many poor teachers, I am sympathetic to these concerns. It is important, however, to point out that my earlier analogy comparing the purchase of Cheerios to buying a service works better in theory than in practice, particularly when it comes to education. The acquisition of knowledge, after all, has as much to do with the student - and at the college level, has more to do with the student - as it does with the teacher. A student who invests little time or energy into learning is not going to learn very much, regardless of what the teacher might do. I am struck with this simple fact on a daily basis. If you were to look at a set of tests from one of my classes, you would find it hard to believe that all of these people attended the same class.

Unlike that box of Cheerios, the quality of the product that the student receives is heavily dependent on the qualities of the student. If an asshole buys a box of Cheerios, they do not instantly become stale the moment that they are purchased. But if a bad college student makes no attempt to learn the material that a teacher is trying to get across, then that student has gotten nothing for his or her money. It’s like buying the box of Cheerios, dumping it all on the floor at the checkout stand, and then blaming the grocery store for the fact that you have nothing to show for your money.

As a person selling knowledge, I am pushing a product as abstract, intangible, and difficult to measure as anyone. And if one of my students demonstrates that he or she has gained some knowledge, it is difficult to determine how much this has anything to do with me. All I can really do is attempt to present information in an intelligible way and compel students to interact with historical material. Whether or not they learn anything from this material or develop their academic skills in the process largely comes down to them. My most important task, in fact, is coming up with student assessments that accurately determine whether or not they have learned the important stuff. At the college level especially, students need to be taking more of the initiative. I am mostly the guy trying to determine if they have demonstrated the knowledge necessary to merit three units of college credit. So in attempting to buy the product of knowledge, students have to pay in both dollars and effort, leaving no guarantee that the money spent will get them anything. It’s not like buying a box of Cheerios. I have never seen a worker at a checkout stand, after all, give a test to a customer to see if he or she deserves to walk away with that box of cereal.


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