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.