Friday, January 30, 2015

More Inexplicable Teacher- and Union-Bashing From Nominal Liberals

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Thursday, my Dorf on Law post discussed the emergence of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as a loud voice blaming teachers for the problems in the schools.  Cuomo's actions and words have made it abundantly clear that he blames tenure and the teachers' unions for making it too difficult to fire as many people as Cuomo thinks should be fired.  In that post, I again made light of the bizarre statistical illogic of comparing the percentage of students whose tests scores fall below some cutoff level with the percentage of teachers who are evaluated as "ineffective": "91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level."  How could that be so?!

I would have left it at that, but within minutes after publishing my post, I came upon that day's editorial page of The New York Times.  There, the newspaper's editorial board repeated the very same statistical nonsense: "Fewer than 1 percent of the state’s teachers were rated ineffective in the most recent evaluations, while only about a third of the state’s students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in math and language arts."  Thus was born my Verdict column for this week, which was published yesterday.  There, I went into further detail, explaining the odd underlying assumptions that are necessary to make such a statistical comparison meaningful.  The more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes.  (Consider an illustrative example: Suppose that a large percentage of students are ill-equipped for school, and they are evenly distributed throughout the school system.  If so, even if every teacher is a good teacher, every teacher will "fail" a large percentage of her students.  In other words, it might not be the teachers' fault.)

That is all good, nerdy fun, I admit.  In yesterday's Verdict column, however, I devoted the bulk of my attention to a more important issue: Why are school reformers so convinced that the only way to improve the quality of teaching in the schools is to make every teacher fear every day for her job, and as a related matter, why would it make sense to lionize a small fraction of "superstar" teachers?  This is classic carrot-and-stick thinking, but it is truly nonsense, especially in the educational context.  In an odd way, it actually harkens back to the Soviet system, where the government rewarded "Stakhanovites," who were the superstar "industrial worker[s] awarded recognition and special privileges for output beyond production norms," while treating everyone else as disposable cogs.

Or, for a less loaded example, consider the utter failure of "profit sharing" systems (such as Employee Stock Ownership Plans) to increase workers' productivity in the U.S.  Rewarding superstars, it turns out, is quickly viewed as a cynical game, with workers understandably refusing to be jerked around for an employee-of-the-month plaque, even if they have been promised a lottery-like chance of a big prize.  Meanwhile, as I have argued often, if we are worried about "workers' incentives," we might want at least to stop for a moment to think about what potential teachers think when they consider entering a profession with decreasing job security (and declining social respect).  That is hardly a great recruiting strategy.

The problem, of course, is that improving the schools would be expensive and difficult, and people like Governor Cuomo are looking for cheap and easy answers.  Even so, it is not only cynics who have bought into the blame-the-teachers campaign.  The Times editorial that I noted above described the governors proposal, in part, as "mak[ing] it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier to fire ineffective and bad teachers," and concluding: "Many of his proposals are likely to ignite the ire of teachers’ unions that did not endorse him in the last election, and he can expect considerable resistance from them and their friends in Albany. On the whole, these provisions make good sense."  True, the editorial did call for more money for schools, too, but it was completely on board with the governor's plan to hold school funding hostage to his demands to be able to fire teachers more easily.  (Again, remember that teachers can be fired now.  The issue is whether it will be possible to fire them with less -- or no -- cause.)

What I find especially perplexing about all of this is the "long game" politically that Democrats are playing.  Perhaps, as some commenters and I have discussed in previous posts (e.g., here), people like Cuomo and most other Democrats and liberals simply have no long game.  They flail around, thinking that they can co-opt the "safe" position and win by appealing to an ever-shifting middle, only to find that they are (correctly) viewed as having no principles and no faith in their own ideas.

There is surely a lot of truth to that, but even so, we still need to know why the Democrats would choose the particular path that they have chosen, which very prominently includes abandoning their staunchest supporters.  In the 1980's, the emergence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which succeeded in pulling the party to the right, was explicitly a response to the fear that Democrats were captives to "special interests."  Labor leaders were easy to caricature, and the "smart" political move at the time was to attack unions.  But teachers?  As I noted in a Dorf on Law post this past Fall, it was the Clintons -- the embodiment of DLC triangulation -- who cynically decided early in their careers to pick a fight specifically with teachers' unions.

At some point, maybe someone in that crowd will realize that they are destroying their future.  There has been much concern about a lack of success by Democrats at the local and state levels.  Guess who used to be the Democrats' most reliable workers in those venues?  Yet the atmosphere has now become so poisoned that even a reliably left-leaning (and massively influential) source like The New York Times editorial page blithely talks about "the ire of the teachers' unions," as if they are the enemy.

Imagine, however, that there were evidence supporting the idea that adopting anti-teachers' union policies has improved educational outcomes.  Even then, the political calculation would have to be: "Well, these are my core supporters, and without them, I will lose a competitive advantage.  How much am I willing to give them to keep them happy, even if what they want is a bad idea?"  That is certainly what the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party seems to do vis-a-vis the Tea Party and the Religious Right.  Sometimes, crude political calculations actually require the adoption of less than optimal choices about policies.

That is all well and good, but there is no such conflict here.  The evidence defies all of the claims that making it easier to fire teachers improves schools.  Liberals and Democrats thus do not have to balance political advantage against "good policy."  Yet at this point, these people continue to act as if "taking on the teachers' unions" is both good policy and good politics.  Neither is true, and if Democrats do not figure that out quickly, they will have willingly destroyed one of their most important sources of support.


David H. Webber said...

To build on your theme, I'd like to point out that teacher pension funds, and those of other public employees, have been repeatedly utilized to finance privatization of their own jobs. The education space is just one of the most blatant examples. See, e.g, the Florida Retirement System's investment in Edison Schools while Bush served as governor on the State Board of Administration, which oversees the retirement fund. Politicians of both parties have been guilty of this, but one might think it even more of an affront when it comes from the nominally pro-labor party. This ought to raise serious fiduciary duty questions, something I noted in this recent op-ed: The potential conflicts created by such investments--not to mention the campaign contributions you describe in a prior post--should set the alarm bells ringing.

Ben Alpers said...

I'd add one thing to this excellent post: I think the superstar teacher illusion is not simply a reflection of a belief that giving people a chance to win the lottery will improve their performance. I think many people in our society now believe (and are continually encouraged to believe) that the distribution of skills in our society resembles the distribution of wealth or income...thus, in effect, making our society's distribution of wealth just (or at least potentially so). I think "reformers'" vision of education reflects such a general hierarchical vision of society. Superstar teachers are, in this view, a natural fact (like the "natural aristocracy" that some of the founders of this country hoped our system of government would empower). Similarly, some very large percentage of teachers (or potential teachers) are lazy "takers," incapable of being truly effective in the classroom, and easily identified and fired by (the oddly omniscient and entirely competent) administrators (like CEOs, we can simply assume the cream has risen to the top in the instance of these folks). Viewed this way, the carrot-and-stick approach you describe isn't a system of incentives at all. It's merely a sorting mechanism.

Anonymous said...

@Ben Alpers

A hierarchical vision of society is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of big lottery winners become politically conservative and adopt free-market views even when they did not hold them previously.

That is to say, even people whose wealth is manifestly, objectively, and provably based upon nothing more than blind luck struggle to psychologically accept the fact that they are merely lucky and seek to find some philosophy that either justifies their luck or at least is amenable to preserving their new found wealth.

Luck is a word. It's in the dictionary. But as far back as the Book of Job people have sought some plan or purpose in what happens to them. Tying wealth distribution to skill distribution is one such story. If even people who win the lottery succumb to this narrative it should come as no surprise that successful, hard working people can't imagine it to be any other way.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Many thanks for these excellent comments. Both David H. Webber and Ben Alpers have given me ideas for future posts. (The Ben-inspired post will probably be my next one, on Tuesday 2/3/15.) You've shown me ways to connect my ideas to larger issues, which is always exciting.

bluengray1965 said...

I am not a nominal liberal or a nominal conservative. In stead, I am a person who believes in a fair day's work for a fair days pay.

How would you address the problem revealed (to some degree) in this article?

Ben Alpers said...

@bluengray1965: Despite the Post's predictably breathless tone (if you're honestly not a liberal or a conservative, you might want to go to less politicized publications for your information), a single case is not evidence of a systemic problem. No system functions perfectly. But if, purely for the sake of argument, there is a systemic problem with the way actual employee dereliction is handled, the system should be changed through collective bargaining. That's one of the things contract negotiations are for.

egarber said...

Your verdict article is fantastic.

My wife was / is a teacher and says a lot of the same things.

To add another dimension, we also have to consider the impact of down-scale economics on parents. In a successful environment, teachers and parents are partners in a child's education - they collaborate, but play distinct roles in the project.

Where parents themselves don't have the education or time to play the role, the partnership takes a hit. It is therefore very difficult to succeed.

There is also a dynamic in the other direction, where well-off enough parents try to usurp the partnership, not respecting that the teacher has unique expertise. When the parity is subsequently lost, "helicopter parents" make things worse. Or put another way, these parents try to employ a "customer-is-always-right" paradigm that can be disastrous. I suspect that politicians often adopt this mindset.

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