Book Review: Profit of Education

See all posts

Author: Dick Startz

By Kate Walsh

If you're like me, it may take some persuading to get you to pick up this book, arriving as it does out of nowhere, written by someone with no education background. You would be, however, in for a treat. Profit of Education offers a fresh voice to break up the din of all our predictable opinions.

The author, University of Washington economist Dick Startz, dedicated his sabbatical year's sojourn at the New York Federal Reserve to extricating the American education system from its current morass.

Startz's plan to yield a more educated work force from our current PK-12 system is to produce a teaching force that is about 20 percent better. By his estimates, that kind of increase is both achievable and sufficient.

The increase in effectiveness will mean that teachers whom we now consider average performers will move down the spectrum of performance to become the minimally competent teachers of tomorrow. At the other end of the curve, we'll see a lot more individuals coming into the profession who can perform at a level at which few teachers now perform.

What is so much fun about this book are its intellectual somersaults, with Startz challenging a lot of the standard assumptions of those of us who consider ourselves the experts.

  • Think teachers aren't truly underpaid? Think again. They're 40 percent down from where they were relative to other profession 40 years ago, and down 60 percent relative to professions open only to the most capable individuals.
  • Think more money won't solve this problem? Startz insists otherwise. Sure we have spent tons more money on education over the past few decades to no effect, but it's gone mainly to reduce class size, not to raise teacher salaries in any meaningful way.

  • And think teachers paid a higher salary won't necessarily perform any better than those paid less? Again, Startz shows otherwise, marching us through some strong evidence to demonstrate that higher pay does indeed attract smarter individuals who are capable of producing better student outcomes (a lesson unappreciated by the recent Vanderbilt study announcing that performance pay is a bust).

What's particularly masterful about this book--easily, I think, the best teacher policy book in years--is that Startz's writing is so accessible, one might even say folksy. This is by no means a book that only an economist could love (although, in fact, economists Eric Hanushek and Dan Goldhaber did love it). Yet there's nothing the least bit lightweight about this effort, with its collection of an incredible array of research. You will undoubtedly find yourself asking, now why haven't I seen that before?

In the meantime, Startz is not stopping with a book. He has a new website up and running, devoted to persuading policymakers that his strategy is not only viable, but essential. Check out