Education Reformers’ Very Serious Wonkery

7 10 2013

If any one moment embodies the false veneer of the “all about numbers and policy,” vogue among a particular class of journalists who have moved into the Serious role in the Obama era, it is this risible–and indefensible–Matt Yglesias tweet:

@chrislhayes</a> Since ending poverty is the key to improving education, should we cut teacher pay to finance transfers to the poor?

— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) October 4, 2013

The market-reformer loathing of Diane Ravitch is linked conceptually to an ideological need for school privatization, and the dismantling of teachers’ unions, to succeed. This is an attitude shared by the talented and prolific Dylan Matthews of Ezra Klein’s shop at the Post, and it is ideological and political, not policy-driven, numbers-driven, or otherwise analytical. What does underlie it is a bit mystifying, but worthy of investigating. Since the Chicago Teachers Union strike a year ago, the divide between a certain segment of the redistributionist/neoliberal left and the pro-labor left has deepened. But why is it so heated when it comes to education? Why have the two sides gone from talking past each other to gurgling up petty insults?

Answering the Question

To start with Yglesias’s question, rather than merely admit he posted it as a viscerally angry political reaction to Ravtich’s name, he defends it by saying it is a means of “elucidating” Ravitch’s thinking on the issue of poverty as a driver of educational outcomes. He kind of has to do this, because just saying he hates her politics would run against the pose that market reformers maintain at all costs: they aren’t politically or ideologically opposed to public education or teachers organizations, they’re just lookin’ at the numbers.

It can’t be a serious question, because it can’t “elucidate” any thinking as a hypothetical: it has an actual and obvious answer.

There is no amount you could feasibly cut from urban teachers’ salaries that would (a) put a dent in the externalities of poverty that impact education while (b) still recruiting and retaining anything approaching a professional workforce. It’s a ridiculous question not meant to elucidate anything. First, there’s the mechanical impossibilities in most urban districts (if we want to be wonky about it)–teachers’ salaries are paid for through property taxes which, if cut as a result of massive pay cuts to teachers and refunded, would go to large and valuable property holders, not the working poor, at least not in amounts sufficient to ameliorate poverty. Second, there’s the fact that cash transfers massive enough to chip away at generations of entrenched and segregated poverty would make teaching not only unattractive as a career for driven young people, but an impossibility. The class of 2013 graduated with $35,000+ in total debt. The high-end in median income for a 15 year teacher in Chicago is $75,000. If it takes 15 years to get to $75,000 <em>now</em>,cutting salaries by $10,000 would put starting teachers somewhere around $25-30,000 in starting salary. Putting them on par with assistant managers at Bob Evans. There’s only so many altruistic (born rich) do-gooders you can attract, and with something like 4,000,000 public school teachers in America, you’re probably not gonna fill the rolls that way.

More importantly, considering that among the criticisms of teacher collective bargaining is that inhibits development of teacher quality, Yglesias’ question, if not facetious, is confounding.

With such low pay, in a scenario where teachers have no union and graduating with more than thirty grand in debt, the idea that more talented and harder-working individuals will be driven, market-wise, to teach, is ludicrous.

But even if it weren’t, it would raise, in Chicago, in the neighborhood of $300,000,000. This is derived from approximately 30,000 teachers times $10,000. There are approximately 400,000 CPS students in the system. Guessing at approximately 250,000 families representing those children, that’s a cool $1,200 per family. Except, of course, if this was done in the form of reducing the property tax levy and allowing property tax payers to keep the difference, that’s $1,200 very unevenly distributed. Property taxes are proportional to value of property on a per capita basis. The higher proportion of that cut will go to people with higher-value property. And of course, for those who don’t actually pay any property taxes (because they rent), they would merely have to hope their landlords and retailers will pass the savings down to them without gobbling up the differences. I think everyone can agree you’re not going to fix poverty that way.

If taxes aren’t cut (and in the wake of a $300,000,000 smaller levy need, that’s a big if), meaning the difference would be put towards wrap-around services, the psychologists, social workers, after school and art programs, security, etc., it would certainly be effective–how effective in curbing the effects of poverty is a big question, too–but of course the question remains whether it would make a substantial enough difference in urban poverty to justify a median 15% paycut that would make the district instantly non-competitive in the labor market.

That question–“why don’t you take a paycut if you’re so worried about poverty?”–was just plain hostile. He hates Diane Ravitch because she has become a (listened-to) champion of teachers organizations, and teachers organizations stand in the way of Yglesias ideologically-preferred political program.

Reformers, Trees, and The Real-World Forest They Refuse to See

This is all overkill of course, because obviously it was just hostile and not borne of some kind of analytical policy rationale. Teachers cannot fund the amelioration of poverty. Could it be part of a solution? Perhaps. But again, he didn’t mean the question. It’s just another note in a fairly steady thrum of attacks on the credibility of teachers unions and those who support teacher autonomy in public education.

Perhaps this gets at the juncture of the problem. Market reformers place no value on practical teacher autonomy in education, or on the practical necessities of maintaining a public system of education. Critics of market reformers are wholly focused on these practical mechanics.

The market-driven reforms rest on the principle that students and parents acting as consumers will improve educational outcomes through their choices. Critics point out that while that may very well be true in the abstract, the practicalities make that abstraction unworkable, and implementing it piecemeal will only wreak havoc.

Teach for America is a good example. Critics who call it a tool for privatization will never sway its champions, who don’t necessarily see privatization–whether it’s called that or something else–as a bad thing. So what if we privatize education, if that privatization leads to better education outcomes?

And so, you have Dylan Matthews at the Post pumping up a study on TFA’s effectiveness vis a vis other teachers when teaching math to high school students (a fairly narrow study, no doubt, particularly considering the importance of primary education). Matthews candidly says that the study can’t lead to a conclusion on TFA’s normative value, but that belies the fact that what he characterizes as normative critiques of TFA are actually practical policy critiques.

If teacher autonomy–self-regulation of the profession by teachers–is critical for preserving teaching as a profession, and if teaching must be a profession to be effective–i.e., it is labor that cannot be done by non-professionals–then TFA will weaken the profession of teaching. It is temporary, high-turnover labor, an “alternative” certification outside of the system developed by the professionals and the state. Prima facie, it undermines the profession.

The state can create and regulate a profession, but that creation and regulation usually comes as a result of the professionals themselves meaningfully participating in the process. This has to be the case, because by definition, the only people with enough specialized knowledge to regulate a profession are the professionals themselves. So the most highly specialized professions, like doctors and lawyers, are very heavily involved. The American Medical Association and American Bar Association and their state iterations act as quasi-cartels, defining what it means to be in the profession, accrediting schools, defining state standards, and even internalizing disciplinary procedures. Teachers accomplish this regulation in two ways: first through organized lobbying of and participation in state elected and administrative agencies, and through collective bargaining agreements that allow for comprehensive regulation of the workplace on a district-by-district level.

Of course, the state has taken on an increased role in regulation of various professions, but always with powerful professional associations as countervailing and/or cooperative forces.

Without vibrant organizations of the professional to advocate for the profession, the profession will dissolve. State governments can assume the role of complete regulation, but without teacher organizations to inform the regulation and enforce them over time, teaching simply will not be a profession. When anti-union reformists talk about highly professionalizing teaching, offering high salaries and with exacting education requirements (as they do in Finland), they do so without regard to the importance of autonomous professional associations to participate in that process. It is hard to imagine that standards for doctors, lawyers, chiropractors, accountants, or architects would be as high as they are absent the power of the associations that represent those groups–after all, orthodox libertarian theory would characterize those associations as cartels when they act in conjunction with the state.

The teachers’ union in Finland–the gold standard in primary and secondary education–has about than 120,000 members and describes itself this way:

The OAJ is in charge of the safeguarding of teachers’ interests in Finland. It is the only trade union which conducts negotiations on the terms of the teachers’ employment contracts. Salaries and working hours are determined in the collective agreement.

This in a country where competition to become a teacher begins in high school, and requires a process not dissimilar from getting into a highly selective liberal arts university in the U.S.:

Becoming a primary school teacher in Finland is a very competitive process, and only Finland’s best and brightest are able to fulfill those professional dreams. Every spring, thousands of high school graduates submit their applications to the Departments of Teacher  Education in eight Finnish universities. Normally it’s not enough to complete high school and pass a rigorous matriculation examination, successful candidates must have the highest scores and excellent interpersonal skills. Annually only about 1 in every 10 applicants will be accepted to study to become a teacher in Finnish primary schools, for example. Among all categories of teacher education, about 5,000 teachers are selected from about 20,000 applicants.

Note also that teachers attend school at the government’s expense, so have no college debt to deal with after graduating.

It is these practical mechanics that market reformers like Yglesias glibly ignore. In world-beater Finland, teaching is a hallowed profession; indeed,

the Finnish education system does not employ external standardized student testing to drive the performance of schools; neither does it employ a rigorous inspection system. Instead of test-based accountability, the Finnish system relies on the expertise and accountability of teachers who are knowledgeable and committed to their students.

Note also that the above-linked paper attributes Finland’s educational success in part to the “considerable authority and autonomy” of teachers. “Autonomy” is not practicable in a system where there is no vibrant teacher organization–where there is no meaningful profession. A doctor has autonomy because he is beholden not to the policies of the corporation he works for–whether it be Kaiser Permanente, the Hospital Corporation of America, or the Blessed Sisters of the Holy Cross–but to the rules of professional responsibility and ethics, the standard of care, etc., all of which have their genesis in the professional association itself. And indeed, a doctor ordered by a non-doctor to perform some function that fell below the standard of care or fell outside the rules of ethics would be in her right to refuse; in fact, she’d have to. In this way doctors define the profession and we give them a lot of trust.

Market reformers focus like a laser on the word “accountability” in the above excerpt because market reforms require market signals (test results mainly, but also graduation rates etc.) to make the consumer choice model work. But they ignore the first part of the equation–that “external standardized testing” isn’t relied upon at all, but rather, the state ensures that teachers are the best and brightest, and trust that highly-skilled professionals can be trusted to produce the best outcomes, with the attendant accountability. The state plays a critical role through certification (made easier by the fact that it is the national rather than local governments), but the Education Union is also the second-largest union in Finland.

So when Yglesias asks a question like this free of context, or when Matthews shrugs off the normative argument for or against TFA, they undercut the usefulness of their own arguments. Piecemeal reforms denuded of the practical social and political mechanics make those reforms impossible to implement usefully. You can’t demand accountability from teachers without also giving them authority and autonomy. Teachers can’t realistically have authority and autonomy unless there is an autonomous professional entity to compel those things. You can’t break the back of those organizations and then just hope one pops up after control of the system has been handed to a small group. You can’t introduce some charter schools with lax to middling oversight, with the backstop of public schools, and laud the results as justifying unfettered charterization. You can’t build a plane in midair.

Yglesias in particular is either disingenuously ignoring these facts or is actually unaware of them. The result is snarkily-titled pieces like this, where Yglesias suggests that teachers are looking a gift horse in the mouth. Of course teachers care about pay and benefits, but the ability to have a voice in those workplace conditions is what matters. It isn’t enough to merely make, as a part of a market-reform program, a statement that states should make it harder to become a teacher and pay teachers much more to attract the best talent. Promises like that are only as good as the ability of the teachers to enforce and keep them. This is the neoliberal part of the equation–this is the “pity-charity liberalism,” so often complained about, the idea that groups of elites should determine what is best and hand it out, rather than having workers–or welfare recipients, or whatever impacted class is at question–being empowered to advocate and bargain on their own behalf. In other words, it’s a pervasive hostility to autonomy.

Pity-charity liberals may raise defensible arguments that when it comes to wealth and income inequality, the solution is wise redistributive programs administered by wise people–NGOs operating in a space defined by the state; the Federal Reserve insulated from political pressure, etc. But in the context of teachers unions and education, attacking teacher organization actually undermines the thing they supposedly want–a professional workforce that produces the best outcomes. A powerful professional organization is essential to creating and maintaining a profession. Even if education technocrats–non-teachers–were given the authority at some high level of government to define the profession, without an autonomous organization advocating on behalf of the professionals themselves, what you end up with is not a true profession.

Market reformers may truly believe that a well-enough designed school system can create the best educational outcomes with teachers who act as little more than service employees performing narrowly-defined functions. But then they should say so; they should advocate for ending teaching as a profession. De-contextualizing initiatives like TFA or charter schools and attacking teacher organizations merely obfuscates rather than elucidates.

There is a bigger picture here. This Ezra Klein-puff-piece-fueled trend towards “just the numbers, ma’am,” political and policy journalism is shot through with this problem. So what if some isolated piece of a program can be said to work, removed from context and ignoring the very real (sometimes very obvious) social and political ramifications? Klein and friends’ claims to be done with the political project in favor of looking purely at policy is either naive or disingenuous. (Yglesias for his part is increasingly straightforward about his libertarian ideology). So long as power plays a part in people’s attitudes, in determining how they act, and in molding formal social and political institutions after they’ve been created in pristine statutes, political and power considerations are not only important, they’re paramount. Any “project” that ignores them is inherently irrelevant, regardless of the press it gets. Morality, power, and politics may pollute beautiful minds, but ignoring them doesn’t delete them.


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