Education “Reform”: Looking for Cheap Answers the Rich Want

Jesse RothsteinI am a generalist by nature. This is part of why I am no longer a scientist. It just isn’t in me to dig really deep into what are usually esoteric subjects. I’m fascinated by zoology, but the idea of spending a lifetime studying evolutionary changes in the jawbone of the cougar strikes me as rather dull — even though I fully admit that for the right kind of person, there could hardly be a more fascinating subject. This is true of politics too. I know more about economics than most political bloggers, but I certainly am nothing close to an expert. The same is true of political science.

But I have a trick that allows me to see what is going on in politics without being an expert: I look at the incentives of people who push particular policies. That’s especially true in the education “reform” movement. I see that there are many things wrong with our educational system. And there are some things that are too obvious for anyone to miss. The biggest one is the inequality in education funding. We accept a system where the most resources and the best teachers are given to the students who need them the least. Yet this is not an issue that the mainstream education “reform” movement is interested in. In fact, they seem to have this idea that teachers should teach just for the love of it and shouldn’t have the same needs and desires that all workers have.

As a result of this observation, I’ve always been right on top of the con that is the attack on teacher “tenure.” I put the word in scare quotes because it isn’t the kind of tenure that most people think. Basically, it just means that schools have to have reasons for firing teachers. They can’t, for example, fire a black teacher just because the mostly white parents are unhappy about integration. Regardless, how could it possibly be that giving teachers the right to due process is really the A Number One reason that our schools under perform?

Well obviously, that isn’t the A Number One reason. And all you have to do is look at who is funding the education “reform” movement. The poster children of the movement are Billie and Mindy: the billionaires who so care about the kids their primary concern is destroying teachers’ unions. Providing educational equality is something that might take money away from Billie and Mindy. But the more unions can be crushed, the more money the economy funnels to capital owners like themselves.

This brings us to a very interesting interview of Jesse Rothstein by Max Ehrenfreund over at Wonk Blog, Teacher Tenure Has Little to Do With Student Achievement, Economist Says. But before discussing it: of course! I would think differently if the education “reform” movement said, “We have to do something about unequal education funding and get rid of teacher tenure that is protecting bad teachers.” But they aren’t. It is always, “Well, unequal education funding is a problem, but it is politically impossible to do anything about it.” Why? A recent poll found that 77% of Americans have confidence in public school teachers. It isn’t that it is politically impossible. It is that the funders of the education “reform” movement aren’t interested in funding such work. Because they don’t care about improving education; they have other priorities that they are simply using “the kids” to facilitate.

Let’s consider incentives for teachers, shall we? Getting rid of teacher tenure makes being a teacher less appealing. Ask yourself: would I rather have a job where I have some security or where I can be fired for any reason at any time? Not only would you rather have the former, you would probably even be willing to take a job that paid less for that. Yet the education “reform” movement claims getting rid of tenure would be great for the kids. This isn’t totally loony. Getting rid of teacher tenure would doubtless allow more bad teachers to be more easily fired. But it would also cause fewer good people to go into teaching in the first place. It would also allow administrations to fire good teachers for frivolous and political reasons. So would the elimination of teacher tenure really improve the education of our children? Let’s say that it is a contention that is at best controversial. But it is taken as gospel by those in the education “reform” movement.

Consider the most ridiculous argument for getting rid of teacher tenure: young people love risk! Here’s Jesse Rothstein:

The argument that anti-tenure people make is, “Look, there are all these excellent Harvard graduates and Yale graduates or whatever that are now going into finance because it’s risky. They like risk, and those people are being repelled from teaching by the lack of risk.” The people who are going into finance are not just taking on more risk, but are also getting a lot of reward for that risk. That was in some ways the thrust of my research. You can’t think about the risk in isolation. You’ve got to think about the combination of the pay package and the risk. If you adopt a policy that increases the risk, you’re going to have to pay people more to offset that. Maybe that’s a good deal, and maybe it’s not.

Spoken like a true economist! No wonder no one listens. He makes too much sense. Of course, the very idea that people go into finance because of the risk is ridiculous. If they were looking at the same reward with less risk, even more “excellent Harvard graduates and Yale graduates” would be going into finance. And we have to ask ourselves, “Do we really want the kind of people who are going into finance to be teaching our children?” When I was in college, I knew guys like that and they were, not to be too fine a point on it, the worst people in the world.

Rothstein points out another aspect of education “reform” that is toxic: student testing. As is entirely typical of us Americans, we don’t even care about doing it well. What we care about:

I think there’s been a tendency in thinking about methods to prioritize cheap methods over methods that might be more expensive. In particular, there’s been a tendency to prioritize statistical computations based on student test scores, because all you need is one statistician and the test score data. Classroom observation requires having lots of people to sit in the back of lots and lots of classrooms and make judgments.

In the interview, Max Ehrenfreund makes a stupid statement, “Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter.” How can he even say this? The education “reform” movement wants to make the lives of teachers harder. It wants to destroy unions and it wants to make employment more risky. This does not say, “We respect you!” But Rothstein provides an excellent answer to Enhrenfreund’s ultimate question about what could be done to make teaching a more respected profession:

We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They’re looking for easy answers, not hard answers.

He’s actually a lot more positive toward the education “reform” movement than I am. I agree with everything he said. They are looking for easy answers — easy for their funders, that is. But above all, the funders have particular policies they want to push that have little to do with educating children. And the people in the movement itself are only interested in perusing policies that the funders will pay for. In the end, the rich will get what they paid for: fewer worker rights and a more compliant workforce. What we won’t get is better education.

H/T: Jeff Bryant

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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