Home / General / Richard Kahlenberg Is Making Sense

Richard Kahlenberg Is Making Sense


The whole thing is essential reading, but a teaser:

But if the strike has been bad for Democratic presidential politics, it may ultimately be good for Democratic education policy, which for too long has aped right-wing rhetoric in the name of education reform. It can’t hurt to force a leading Democrat like Emanuel to spend a little more time negotiating with actual teachers and a little less time wooing hedge fund managers, many of whom passionately back the education policies that rank-and-file teachers despise.

Applying business school principles to the education of young children, Emanuel and his wealthy supporters favor firing teachers based heavily on student test score results and deregulating education by expanding the number of charter schools. But while much of the press equates standing up to unions with education reform, key reforms that unions opposed have not worked out as planned. Although 88 percent of charters are nonunion, giving principals in those schools the flexibility that reformers prize, the most comprehensive study of charter schools (backed by pro-charter foundations), concluded that charters are about twice as likely to underperform regular public schools as to outperform them. During the strike, nonunion charter schools have bragged that they remained open, but the lack of teacher voice in these schools helps explain why charters nationally have extremely high rates of teacher turnover.

The theory that a nonunion environment, which allows for policies like merit pay, would make all the difference in promoting educational achievement never held much water. After all, teachers unions are weak-to-nonexistent throughout much of the American South, yet the region hardly distinguishes itself educationally. Indeed, the highest performing states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey—and the highest performing nations, such as Finland—have heavily unionized teaching forces.

Firing Marty Peretz really has done wonders for the New Republic!

It’s also good whenever someone can carefully distinguish the truth from union-busting non-sequiturs. In particular, believing that teachers should not be promoted or fired based on solely on standardized test scores is not at all the same thing as saying that bad teachers shouldn’t be fired.

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  • djw

    Excellent piece overall, of course, but I continue to demand some sort of evidence, or at least a more plausible narrative account, of how this strike could be relevant to the presidential election. It would be vaguely plausible if a) the teacher’s strike were wildly unpopular, and b) Illinois was some kind of swing state, but neither of those things are the case. Kahlenberg’s “Emanuel distracted from fundraising” speculation is the closest thing I’ve seen to a plausible account of how the strike might have a discernable impact on the presidential election, but it’s still pretty far from persuasive.

    (I appreciate that he stops short of actually making the claim, but I’ve seen it come up without any pushback a number of times.)

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, I think it’s a combination of warmed-over DLC-type “the Democrats are once again caving to the SPECIAL INTERESTS” and the general tendency among pundits to engage in too-clever-by-half speculations about how stuff that won’t affect the presidential election will affect the presidential election.

    • Sullivan Hyde

      Yeah, Kahlenberg kind of tries to make that happen at the beginning and then doesn’t succeed and goes on to talk about the strike anywy.

      I think the bigger point, which he at least sort of alludes to, is that politics don’t stop after the election; also, politics within the parties is as important as politics between the parties.

    • FMguru

      It seems like a (editorially mandated?) hook to pull the TNR audience into the article by tying the strike to the hottest political story of the moment (Romney/Obama) and implying that it could be a complicating factor in the Presidential race (so if you want to be ahead of the cure when following the race, you need to read this article about a big city labor strike). I noticed that it almost completely disappeared from the article after the first few paragraphs.

    • sue

      It might have something to do with Obama’s statement back in 2007(?) that if workers were on strike, he’d put on a good pair of walking shoes and join them on the picket line. A lot of people here in Wisconsin bring that up to express disappointment that the White House didn’t get more involved in the uprising last year, and I’ve been hearing people bring it up again in the last couple of weeks. It may not be a factor in Illinois, but it’s something that might dampen enthusiasm in a swing state like Wisconsin.

      Caveat: this is all anecdotal, and I don’t know that there will actually be an effect. Most of the few people I know who grumble about this still plan to vote for Obama; those who will sit it out or vote for Jill Stein would likely have found other reasons not to vote for him.

      • cpinva

        why yes, i want the sitting president to take time out, from considering issues of national security, or how to fix the joblessness problem, so he can go take part in a strike. that certainly seems like a very judicious use of presidential time to me. ok, maybe not.

        sure, obama hasn’t been the bestest possible liberal/progressive president i could imagine, but i never imagined he would be, unless he’d been faking it all those years before. he isn’t that good an actor. those that thought he would be were simply projecting their own ids onto him, in an alternate reality. they now bitch that he hasn’t been what he never was going to be in the first place (even aside from republican obstructionism in congress). whatever drugs they’re on, i would like some please.

        • Ed

          Unfortunately many of Obama’s supporters lacked your clear-eyed vision and are consequently disappointed. Suckers.

        • The greater fools we, actually listening to his promises.

        • sue

          I think most of people who actually thought it was reasonable for a president to come walk a picket line have never actually been in the vicinity of a presidential visit and have no idea of the logistics involved or the security demands that are made. Not to mention, a presidential visit when the uprising first started would have turned a grassroots movement into a political thing, and it probably would have died right then and there.

  • DrDick

    “Applying business school principles” to anything, especially business, is generally, if not always a bad idea. From all the available evidence they do not work in business and are absolutely disastrous in any other context.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Indeed, the highest performing states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey—and the highest performing nations, such as Finland—have heavily unionized teaching forces.

    You can’t refute a theology.

  • Patrick Pine

    As an MBA but also relatively ‘liberal’ in my political views, I must question the term “business school principles” – because I am not sure what that means.

    When I was in both graduate and undergraduate economics and finance classes, there was a clear outline of the conditions necessary for a pure free market and a clear understanding that some services are not really susceptible to be treated as ‘free market’ – including education.

    The problem is that there are many – including Romney and Ryan – espousing philosophies that many mistakenly think are consistent with ‘business school principles’- when actually they are not at all consistent.

    As to the teachers’ strike in Chicago, there is a clear conflict as to the appropriate way to evaluate teacher performance.

    While it is often the case that much of American business has increasingly applied more quantitative methods to assess performance – we do not consistently apply the results to CEOs, for instance. We often reward CEOs, CFOs, Presidents, and others with bonuses, compensation increases, etc., even when the corporate stock has lost market value and many of the metrics supposedly used by the corporation are ignored for purposes of senior execs.

    So a teacher resisting the application of evaluation methods that are not proven to be fairly applied is perfectly understandable and that resistance is not actually inconsistent with the same arguments that go on in the boardrooms of corporations all the time.

    • Davis X. Machina

      – we do not consistently apply the results to CEOs, for instance.

      To do so would be presumptuous to the point of blasphemy. Might as well rank bishops on their OPS.

    • Mea

      An excellent point. Thanks for highlighting the howling chasm between what is touted as “business principles” that will work in any context, and what the actual theory and experience says about those approaches. Context matters.

    • DrDick

      Sadly, that is not what is taught in many business schools.

      • L2P

        I think this is unfair.Most business schools teach two different types of things, both of them incredibly useful.

        One is, essentially, how to value investments. This is really complicated, involves a lot of math, and in the end comes down to making lots of assumptions that is hopefully based on facts, evidence, and reason. Everything they teach is the stuff Buffett used to become a bazillionaire and incredibly useful – I use a lot of it every day (no MBA, I just took a lot of the classes at UCLA in a cross-program). The problem is most MBAs only barely master the math (think Megan McArdle) and never master the, you know, getting the facts right, so that part of the MBA is useless.

        Actually, McArdle is a perfect example of why the MBA is useless in the hands of a lot of graduates; it’s not the MBA itself, but that the graduates just don’t learn from it. They just look for something with numbers (oooh! Shiney!), then say they’ve quantified the return, and then say they have a sure-fire, no-lose investment.

        It’s not what the MBA program teaches. It’s the laziness of the people with the MBA that matters. They’re not like lawyers where they can get, you know, sued for malpractice, or disbarred, for getting stuff wrong.

        • I don’t think it’s unfair, just uninformed.

          Plenty of value in learning what a good business school teaches. Plenty of examples of dysfunctional behavior and unethical cronyism in the business world. They are separate subjects.

          And just because some superficial kids take undergraduate business school courses because they aren’t qualified enough to be a gym teacher is not a reflection of what value a business school education can offer to a person interested in a professional business career, rather than just a job.

          Of course, you don’t learn the classics in business school and you don’t learn how to value a business opportunity or do market research to make informed business decisions in the humanities.

          Snobbery is of no more value than unbridled greed.

          • DrDick

            My comments are a reflection of things I have heard from actual business professors, who seem to all be closet Libertarians.

            • firefall

              Closet? You’re lucky there

    • Jager

      If we apply “business principles” to public schools, shouldn’t professors at business schools be graded on how many millionaire CEOs they produce?

      • No, they should be graded on the ROI based on the aggregate value generated by their students in their professional lives divided by the cost to provide them with the knowledge needed to create that aggregate value.

        Just like the ROI of medical school professors should be measured by the aggregate value of longer lives, higher quality of life for patients generated by their students in their subsequent professional lives compared to the cost of providing the education necessary to deliver better preventative and remedial care.

  • Tribeca Mike

    For many years, the only reason I’ve ever checked out TNR has been my affection for the long-time (as in since the Mughal Empire long-time) Stanley Kauffmann. But I’ve been noticing lately that they’ve begun introducing into its pages a hitherto unknown novelty to them concept that can vaguely be defined as “almost making sense.”

    My question is, is this an appropriate response on my part to this recent phenomenon, or should I seek professional help?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Sly

    In particular, believing that teachers should not be promoted or fired based on solely on standardized test scores is not at all the same thing as saying that bad teachers shouldn’t be fired.


  • LeeEsq

    Besides Peretz, the New Republic was never that bad. Hating Peretz is appropriate but I never understood the entire guilt by association. Its like if the anti-Greenwald faction on this site hated everybody who published on Salon, included this site’s bloggers, because of Greenwald.

    • Bad comparison. Salon used to give a regular soapbox to David Horowitz and Camille Paglia. Greenwald is a treat by comparison.

    • heckblazer

      I believe the difference is that Greenwald is neither the owner nor editor-in-chief of Salon while Peretz was both at The New Republic for several decades.

    • FMguru

      Besides Peretz, the New Republic was never that bad

      Ruth Shalit, Stephen Glass, Andrew Sullivan, Betsy McCaughey, “The Bell Curve”…

      Modern-era TNR has always been a illiberal shit factory that somehow managed to convince slow-thinking dumbasses that they were otherwise

      • You didn’t even mention Michael Kelly.

        • FMguru

          Nor did I mention launching the careers of Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, or Lee “Sprezzatura” Siegel, or Camille Paglia’s cover article on Hillary Clinton, or…

          There’s only 24 hours in a day, and if I sat down and tried to list ALL of the ways that the Even The Liberal New Republic has taken a giant shit on liberal policy and thinking, there’d be no time left for me to sleep or eat.

          Although Kelly gets bonus points for managing to drown in the middle of covering a desert war.

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