Supply Teaching and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Each year, I begin my Introduction to Canadian politics course at Laurier by describing the prisoner’s dilemma.

In this model, two men, Bob and Jack are arrested for drug trafficking.  They are put into separate rooms and are told the following:

“If you testify against your partner, and he stays silent, you go free and your partner gets 10 years.

If your partner talks and you stay silent, then you get 10 years and he goes free.

If you both talk, you both get 8 years.

If you both stay silent, then you will each get 1 year on the lesser charge of possession.”

The optimal strategy in this situation is to cooperate and stay silent.  But what usually happens Continue reading

is that the suspects do not cooperate.  Instead, they choose the rational strategy, which is to rat each other out.  Why? Because no matter what the other person does, it pays more to not cooperate.

Recently, supply teachers from a school board in southern Ontario have been caught in a prisoner’s dilemma.

The dilemma is this: Some principals apparently have been asking supply teachers to teach more classes per day than what is stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The optimal response for these teachers is to say no, since teaching more classes per day means: a) they are doing free work; and b) they are doing more work than their peers who are currently employed in permanent positions.

Rather than choosing the optimal strategy of cooperation by collectively saying no, however, teachers are individually choosing to say yes.  Why? Some teachers indicate that if they say no, that they will be at a disadvantage when permanent jobs come up.  Others fear that they may be blacklisted from future supply work if they say something to the principal or the union.   In short, teachers are choosing the rational strategy, rather than the optimal one.

Another example of this situation is the informal requirement that prospective teachers volunteer in a school before applying for a job.  The optimal choice for these teachers is to not volunteer, but the rational choice is to volunteer. Not volunteering is the optimal choice because teaching candidates shouldn’t have to work for free for a year after they completed their degree, especially when their studies already included a lengthy placement at two schools.

Yet the rational choice, and the choice that teachers almost always choose, is to volunteer – Why? Apparently, some school administers seem to favour teachers who have volunteered at their schools over those who have not.

In both cases, the principals and the teachers are to blame for the suboptimal choices being made.  Principals are guilty for taking advantage of the plethora of unemployed teachers by extracting more work for less or no pay while teachers are also guilty for allowing principals to take advantage of them.

What’s the solution? Establishing institutions that facilitate collective action (and especially information sharing) among teachers and that discourage principals from engaging in these unfair practices.