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The Failure of Rheeism

[ 125 ] January 14, 2013 |

I thought this Post article on Michelle Rhee was going to be a total puff piece, but it at least presents some facts that show her claims are never backed up with reality.

“She’s got a very simple message that is highly seductive because it appears to give an answer to our difficult education problems,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning research group.

It would be great if her ideas translated into good results for kids, Kahlenberg said.

“But, in fact, we’ve got two grand experiments of her theory,” he said. “The first is the American South, where teachers unions are weak and the schools are not lighting the world on fire. The other is charter schools, which are 88 percent non-unionized. In charters, you can do everything that Michelle Rhee wants to do — fire bad teachers, pay good teachers more. And yet, the most comprehensive studies looking at charter schools nationally find mediocre results.”

So Rhee’s premise is faulty, he said. “But it’s a simple idea, and in the media, it’s powerful to have heroes and villains,” Kahlenberg said. “The fact that evidence doesn’t back her up doesn’t seem to prevent her from getting wide notoriety.”

I want our children to get the best education possible. Were teachers’ unions an impediment to that education, I might take Rhee’s arguments seriously. But they aren’t. There’s just zero evidence that Rhee’s policies work. What I see are teachers’ unions telling authorities that students can’t learn when schools don’t have air conditioning. There’s not a single institution in this country more invested in children learning that teachers’ unions. The real problem with education is poverty. But Very Important People don’t want to deal with poverty. As Kahlenberg notes, Rhee provides the media a nice simple message they can repeat without research, thinking, or questioning their own privilege. Unfortunately, our children and our middle class suffer as a result.

Comments (125)

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  1. c u n d gulag says:

    Well, the MSM looks for easy-to-digest memes and motifs.

    And, the “Union IS BAD” one, has been around since the first unions were formed in this country, siphoning off a few pennies out of the millionaire owners bank account(s).

    Rhee has tapped-into this.
    And, our cowardly, compliant, and complicit, MSM, just recites what they’re told.
    After all, some of the same corporations who own most of the MSM, are in on her grift – since they also run companies that want some of that tax-payer education money.

    For over 30 years, I’ve been telling people to run when they hear the word, “PRIVATIZATION!”
    All that means, is that instead of elected and accountable government officials, who can be ousted, being in charge of tax-payer dollars, some private company, with ties to those politicians, will have their hands in OUR wallets.

    And, even if we do vote the politicians out, they will have lifetime positions in those companies, as a reward.
    And, new politicians, in the place of the old ones, with their hands out – to the company – and not the people.

    Privatization, is the greatest grift of all time.
    And all that it does, is privatize tax-payer money, into private hands.

    Michelle Rhee is a grifter. PERIOD!

    • Jon says:

      It’s a two headed monster. There are the privatizers who want to grift and the religious nuts who want to teach everyone Jeebus.

      But what no one, including “liberals” ever mentions is this:

      Even if every school could be made perfect, the lack of living wage jobs for everyone regardless of their level of education simply helps continue the idea that being poor is your own damn fault.

      Of course not every school could be made perfect and most of the troubles they face are caused by the outside lives of the children, which largely stem from… the failure of the New Economy to produce living wage jobs! Fire all the teachers you want. All you’re going to do is replace young people who will burn out for those there for decades who have shown the commitment. It won’t move the test scores legitimately, and it certainly won’t end up with 100% proficiency.

  2. TT says:

    ….Rhee provides the media a nice simple message they can repeat without research, thinking, or questioning their own privilege.

    This aspect of the debate is certainly critical. Treating poverty as the most important factor in determining educational outcomes would lead many in the national media to start asking their friends in high finance and corporate America in general some very uncomfortable questions, which is why they’ll never do it. Instead it makes them feel better to look at poverty as a big, feelgood, character-building obstacle to overcome, rather than a crushing burden they and their own children have never faced and will never face. It’s sort of like the Susan G. Komen approach, in that cancer is a big test anyone can overcome, all you need is a positive attitude and no excuses. And if you die, well then you obviously didn’t try hard enough.

  3. Thers says:

    Yglesias can be such a prick. From Facebook: “Again if ‘The real problem with education is poverty’ shouldn’t we spend less on teachers and more on transfers?”

    Spend less than WHAT on teachers? Less than the less already? Put poor kids in a government institution with no air conditioning and underpaid, harassed staff held in contempt by smug Twittering tits…

    Poor kids will get that message pretty damn clear.

    I’ve defended Yglesias before but now I’m sorry I did. He’s only going to get smugger and nastier the more he never ever has to get a job. He’ll be worse than a fucking Kagan when he hits 40, the git.

    • Joshua says:

      I appreciate that Yglesias supports generous transfers to the poor, but yes, this stuff is maddening.

      I’ve been reading the guy for almost ten years, and watched his jerk media economist persona develop. It won’t be too long until it consumes him, maybe NPR will give him a Planet Money gig.

    • Dan says:

      Yglesias is a smart guy, but he’s very similar to many private schooled, privileged liberals in that his sympathy for the poor is matched with a near contempt for the middle class. Has the man ever even set foot in a public school?

    • Corey says:

      Is there an actual answer to this question, though?

      If the main determinant of student learning is family socioeconomics, shouldn’t that be the lever by which you influence student learning?

      • Dan says:

        The answer to the question is that we should spend more on both.

        • Dan Miller says:

          Why? If we’re conceding the argument that poverty causes poor outcomes, with teachers just along for the ride, what’s the argument for spending more on schools?

          • Jon says:

            Because we do need better schools. But the point is valid: living wage secure jobs for wayyyyy more people would do more for schools than anything else.

            • Corey says:

              Agreed that secure employment for the parents of students enrolled in a given school would lead to better outcomes for those students.

              I do not see the connection between raising the wages of teachers and the lever above.

              • delurking says:

                (1) Many of the teachers in those schools do live the community. (My mother did, for instance.)

                (2) Putting money in the hands of teachers (lots and lots of what used to be middle-class workers are teachers) would put more money into the community, which would put (some) money into the hands of the small businesses in the community, which would put it into the pockets of the parents. (Yes, in many places some of that money would just end up making Wal-Mart heirs richer, which is another issue.)

                • Corey says:

                  I mean, if the choice is between direct transfers to poor families on one hand, and higher wages for teachers (that hopefully would then trickle down and out to those poor families), I know which one I’m picking.

                  I mean, there are two separate conversations going on here. I agree teachers should be paid more because I think that public servants, in general, should be paid more. And maybe higher wages will lead to higher quality teachers. But I do not believe you’ll get better student learning outcomes out of the deal, and I think people should just own up to that.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  It’s not either-or, Corey.

              • Liam says:

                Part of the poverty problem is that schools in poor neighborhoods already don’t spend enough on teachers because of the wat public schools are funded by local property tax reciepts. Transfers need to go not just to people in poverty but to the public schools in poverty-stricken areas because the schools themselves are affected matertialy by the poverty of the surrounding communities.

                • Liam says:

                  ”The way”, no “the wat”. BTdubstep, arguing about ed policy with someone who dosen’t seem to know that school resources are linked to the wealth of the surrounding community is like arguing tax policy with someone who doesn’t understand how marginal rates work.

          • Dan says:

            We’re conceding that argument?

          • John says:

            This is asinine. One of the ways that poverty causes problems is that poor areas have much less money to spend on their schools than rich areas. Spending money to have decent school facilities, and to hire good teachers and administrators, is important.

            • Corey says:

              No, the argument is specifically that poorer students do worse in school independent of teacher and facility quality.

              • John says:

                It is true that poorer students do worse in school independent of teacher and facility quality. But that doesn’t mean that teacher and facility quality are irrelevant.

                • DrDick says:

                  Right. When I was in Chicago, the Tribune did a series on the conditions in schools on the South and West sides. They were literally falling down. Broken windows went unrepaired for months in the winter (there was actual snow in some classrooms) and the heaters often did not work. There were also massive unabated lead and asbestos problems.

      • L2P says:

        Why are you making this so complicated?

        Examine two inputs, X and Y, to educational success. X is extremely important, but also extremely expensive. Y is important, and much less expensive. Depending on how much X and Y matter, and how expensive the inputs are, that might make sense. Let’s see how it works out with “X” being poverty and “Y” being teacher salaries.

        We spend about $600 Billion on primary and secondary education. We spend about $80 Billion on food stamps alone, and everybody knows that’s inadequate. So double the food stamp program, add a “clothing” program (let’s be nice and say that only adds another $80 Billion), do something about housing besides just more Section 8 ratholes ($100 Billion? Maybe more? Who knows?), transportation, access to parks/museums/libraries/zoos, and after school (Lord knows – let’s say $20 Billion? Could be lots more), computers, school supplies, etc. ($25 Billion? $50 Billion?). That’s $250 Billion and you’re just getting started.

        So you’ve raised people out of “poverty” and into “lower middle class” (maybe), but now you’ve cut your education budget in half. Do you think getting teachers that want to work for half of what current teachers make, but teaching kids in the lower middle class instead of in poverty, sounds like a good plan? Do you think paying teachers less than they can make as a cashier at Costco sounds like a great plan?

        If yes, then you and Matty can form the Coalition for America’s Future and get to it!

      • If the main determinant of student learning is family socioeconomics, shouldn’t that be the lever by which you influence student learning?

        Sitting around until there isn’t any poverty isn’t going to cut it. We need to teach these kids now, and we need to do the extra work that is necessitated by existing poverty.

      • Because not everything is a clear choice between commodities; there are complex interactions between anti-poverty programs and education programs.

        To take a really straightforward example: free school meals are effectively income transfers, but it’s also been shown that hungry children can’t concentrate or absorb material as well as children who aren’t distracted by their hunger. So one could conceive a threshold effect, where increasing spending on anti-poverty programs without decreasing education spending will reap larger benefits (because the improved ability to learn has impacts on the entire educational process) than increased anti-poverty/decreased education spending.

    • Andrew says:

      I’d be interested to know if there are studies showing that teacher salaries are correlated with student learning or other education outcomes, controlling for other socioeconomic factors.

      • drkrick says:

        Isn’t kind of a given of free market economics that salaries in any line of work are at least somewhat correlated with the quality of people willing to enter and remain in the jobs? I don’t know why that would be any less true of teachers.

        • Andrew says:

          Not necessarily. If teacher talent is not a limiting factor in education, then attracting better talent with higher pay won’t improve outcomes. It’s like if you go to a show and buy the best seats in the house, you can’t get a better experience even if you offer to pay more. This is exactly the point Iglesias is making, and I’d be interested to know what the studies say, or if any have been done.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            The problem with this line of argument is that it presents a false choice. Obviously teacher quality matters somewhat. And paying teachers more, so you could attract even better teachers, would be useful. But there’s no evidence that Rhee’s policies of being able to fire teachers at will makes any difference at all in ensuring good teachers. But none of this matters as much as the economic class of a student and the individual family’s commitment to see their children get an education.

          • Liam says:

            But offering greater-enough pay to applicants for treaching jobs would effectively be creating new, better seats, maybe floating in mid air 15 feet in front of the loge railing, where there were none before. The idea is to expand the pool of possible teachers, not merely acquire the best out of currently-existing pool.

    • BarrY says:

      Yglesias is just a data point that somebody should send T-800 back to terminate Sarah Mankiw.
      And the rest of the Harvard econ dept..

    • I agree with Yglesias a lot more often than not, but I have no idea why he thinks this silly zero-sum question is clever. I guess it’s possible that moving some money from teacher salaries to social welfare spending would improve educational outcomes, but it’s pretty obvious that the much better course would just be to increase the amount of money we spend on child welfare at the expense of, I don’t know, a few foreign wars and a tax cut for the rich.

      • Malaclypse says:

        I agree with Yglesias a lot more often than not, but I have no idea why he thinks this silly zero-sum question is clever.

        Notice that he did not ask whether cutting military spending, and increasing direct transfers to the poor, would lead to better educational outcomes.

      • Jeremy says:

        Basically, Yglesias seems to be proposing to redistribute income from a relatively small number of middle class workers, who get paid decently well, but nothing crazy, all things considered, to a large number of poor families. This seems like a really dumb way to go about class struggle. Hell, you start cutting teacher pay nearly enough to make a real difference, you’re going to have to use that money to give back to teachers who have families of their own. If we’re going to target a group of workers to get the pay cuts to finance our redistribution, why choose teachers? Why not make, say, neoliberal hacks take a pay cut?

        Or, you know, we could focus our efforts at reducing income inequality at the beneficiaries of the increase in income inequality. Yes, that’s politically harder than pitting middle-class teachers against poor parents in what you’ve arbitrarily decided is a zero-sum fight for scarce resources.

  4. Kali Orkin says:

    I am not a Rhee defender but you can’t tell me that unions aren’t needlessly protecting horrible teachers that cling to their tenure and do little else inside a classroom. I know they do, because I lived it.
    Luckily I live in Washington state where I was given an opportunity to attend a great community college while I was still in high school to earn credit for both. It was an escape to a place with teacher that actually taught. It blew my mind.
    What we need are curricula newer than say… the 1970s. School is boring. We need to integrate technology, translate the material to real world doing, get kids engaged in the community and the job market. We need to excite teachers and students alike with innovation. Some charter schools are doing that and that is why they are successful. I know not all of them are and thus the mixed result.
    Spending money on poverty is pouring water down the drain if we can’t make school relevant and engaging. And teachers should earn a higher salary and should attract successful people to come in and teach.

    • Joshua says:

      How do you determine who those horrible teachers are? Note, I’m not talking about the tiny tiny fraction of dangerous and harmful people in the profession (child molestors, etc.).

      I’m talking about the large number of teachers who come in and do their jobs every day in good faith. Like in any profession, a small number are very good, slightly more are good, many are mediocre, some are bad, and a small number are very bad. How do you figure out which is which?

      • BigHank53 says:

        And once you have that system in place, how do you keep that system from being abused? Can a racist school board fire the Hispanic math teacher? How easy should it be for a principal to get rid of someone he just doesn’t like? Some subjects are just boring to start with: grammar and geometry.* If we give extra points to the classes students like…well, there’s a reason that students don’t get to vote on the curriculum.

        Nobody wants the bad teachers teaching. But the union has to defend all the teachers. And if there were any kind of reliable and foolproof way to sort them, the unions would probably support it: that would let them argue that their members are worth more money.

        But there isn’t any reliable and foolproof method.

        *Selected at random; individual experiences may vary.

      • LeeEsq says:

        I can’t determine whether any of my teachers were bad. Some knew their subjects better than others and were more passionate about teaching than others. Others had better personalities than others. However, I never had a teacher that failed to give a decent, workman like presentation of the subject matter.

        • John says:

          I definitely had a few teachers whose personalities were such that they should not have been allowed to teach – teachers who were actively nasty and malignant towards students. Some of them were actually quite good about delivering the subject matter, but they still shouldn’t have been teaching.

          I had some other teachers who were just lazy and not very good teachers – one of my high school physics teachers was basically out sick for a large percentage of the semester (intermittently – one or two days out every few weeks), and was completely phoning it in when she was there. I still learned the subject matter, but she probably oughtn’t have been teaching.

          And it would be good to have some sort of process that would help get burnout cases or people with personality disorders out of the classroom. The question is how to do that.

        • Philip says:

          I know it’s just one data point, but I had several teachers who were mediocre at best, and over the course of K-12 (all in good public schools) I had 4 or 5 who anyone in their classroom for more than 10 minutes would agree had no business teaching. On the other hand, I had several absolutely fantastic teachers as well. As someone said upthread, it’s like any other profession. There are people in it who are good at it, and people in it who are bad at it.

      • Sly says:

        How do you determine who those horrible teachers are?

        Slash salaries, gut pensions, restrict or outright eliminate collective bargaining rights, and increase the workload. Declare anyone who stays in a rapidly deprofessionalized environment to be “in it because they love children,” and thus superior teachers.

        Then as the turnover rate gallops past 50%, content yourself in the assumption that there will always be plenty of suckers willing to go through a five week Teach For Awhile crash course in pedagogy to provide a permanent stream of temps to plug that black hole.

    • Cody says:

      Sure. I don’t think anyone will say there aren’t bad teachers. And some get defended by the Union.

      But the Union isn’t against getting rid of bad teachers. It’s against getting rid of teachers because they got bad test scores, the Mayor doesn’t like them, the principle doesn’t like them, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t like them, etc. etc. etc.

      It’s not perfect and some people are going to get through the cracks, but it’s necessary in my opinion.

      Also, yes to curriculum. My mother is a teacher, but she is not part of the union. She’s a free rider. I glare at her whenever we talk about it, but what she’s described of the Union they’re pretty worthless.

      They should really be setting curriculum.

      • Murc says:

        If your mother is taking advantage of a defined benefit pension plan and comprehensive health benefits, her union is not only not worthless, she owes it a debt of gratitude.

        • John says:

          Non-unionized teachers generally have comprehensive health benefits, I think. Less so with the defined benefit pensions.

          • Murc says:

            Non-unionized teachers generally have comprehensive health benefits, I think.

            And they generally have them because of unions, either locally or because many teachers are unionized and the presence of sweet, sweet union benefits in one locale tends to encourage even non-union workplaces to adopt them.

      • “But the Union isn’t against getting rid of bad teachers.”

        And to add: if we made a serious effort to address the underlying social problems with educating underserved children who don’t have enough food, family/social support, healthcare, etc. to the point that those weren’t major problems in educational outcomes, I’d bet dollars to dimes that teachers unions as a whole would be happy to sit down and discuss methods for evaluating teacher performance.

    • witless chum says:

      Unions have their job to do and they have to defend their members. School administrators who refuse to go through the bargained processes to fire a teacher for doing a bad job are a big part of the problem, or so I’ve been told by current and retired teachers. My mother is also a retired teacher and administrator and she believes that administrators are frequently at fault for not wanting to do the work of firing a bad teacher, so they just let it go. If the administration won’t use the system they agreed to, I think teachers are pretty justified in worrying about what will happen if the administration had more of an ability to hire and fire at will.

      • DrDick says:

        This to 1,000. Everybody carps about unions protecting teacher, which is their job. Nobody ever talks about administrator failing to actively pursue dismissal of bad teachers, which is their job.

        • But it’s SO HARD and that’s why they get the big bucks.

        • apocalipstick says:

          About fifteen years ago a small school in my general area fired a young teacher because she gave a “magic rock” to each of her pupils on the last day of school. Said rock was for them to use if they were in a tough spot; they could rub the rock and think positive thoughts to and about themselves (older elementary students, BTW).

          Local wingnuts get knickers twisted about “witchcraft” being taught in school, teacher is dismissed, NEA (there was no local union; many, many teachers in our land are no more unionized than the local Wal-Mart) steps in, teacher is reinstated.

          Twist is, friend of mine also teaches there, and he says she was a bad teacher and everyone knew it. Administration didn’t want to do due diligence, so they let it slide, jumped on what they thought was an easy solution to the problem, and everyone ended up looking ridiculous.

          Also, in many small towns, bad teachers are protected more by family/local connections/small town power structures than by any union (see earlier parenthetical aside).

    • sparks says:

      “attract successful people to come in and teach”?

      I’ve known a number of very successful people who couldn’t teach at all. Also, why should they go into the field if they don’t have any real incentives like stability of employment? I can’t believe they’re going to make more money teaching than doing something they’re already successful at.

      I’ve lived through “innovations” in teaching. A few of them even worked.

      • Western Dave says:

        If I have to sit through one more successful person boring my students to tears in a poorly thought out monologue, I might have to do something drastic.

        Not you Jeff Chang (if you are reading this), you were awesome. The rest of you, I’m grabbing the mic out of your hand and berating you publicly.

        And if any of you says, “I can’t tell you what to do” one more damn time, I swear I’m gonna beat you with an ugly stick. We hired you to tell kids what to do, and give them the tools to do it. Did Nancy Reagan really scar you all that badly?

    • Gepap says:

      Anecdotal evidence is not particularly useful – I attended public schools as well and noticed none of your concerns – we had some teachers in my high school accused of some terrible things, and they were removed from teaching as soon as the concerns were aired.

      Second, “innovation” is vastly oversold. what people need is a basic foundation of knowledge. Reading and arithmetic haven’t changed in millennia – why change known methods of teaching. More kids need to be be writing by hand than typing on keyboards.

      • NonyNony says:

        Reading and arithmetic haven’t changed in millennia – why change known methods of teaching. More kids need to be be writing by hand than typing on keyboards.

        Um, no. This is exactly the kind of crap that good teachers have to fight against.

        Reading and arithmetic themselves might not have changed in millennia, but a major change happened a little over a hundred years ago that you may or may not have noticed. See a century or so ago the expectation was that a privileged elite would be literate and have the ability to do basic math. The rest of the world was supposed to, essentially, live illiterate and innumerate. And that was a decent assumption to a degree because the vast bulk of the population could live a live of illiteracy and innumeracy and be reasonably okay.

        A hundred years (or so) ago that changed. Now everyone in a developed country is expected to be literate and numerate. And if you aren’t, good luck living a “normal” life. But the techniques that have historically been used to teach literacy and numeracy are not actually very good for the bulk of the population – they work great for some, terrible for others. So innovation in teaching methods is needed because education is now democratic and not elite.

        • DrDick says:

          There have also been advances in neuroscience which give us a better understanding of how learning and memory work, which can allow us to teach more effectively.

          • L2P says:

            Absolutely. Look at “Singapore Math,” “New Math,” “Basic Math,” and “Elementary Math.”

            Teaching arithmetic is HARD. There’s a bunch of different methods that, arguably, are better or worse at teaching it. People should really know what they’re talking about before they start saying stuff like “arithmetic hasn’t changed in centuries.”

            • DrDick says:

              Teaching foreign languages is an even better example. Research on language aquisition have shown that the traditional methods of teaching foreign languages (in use when I was in school) are close to the worst possible way to teach languages.

            • Bill Murray says:

              I would say work better or worse for different people teaching and for different people learning. Teaching/Learning is a cooperative activity

              • DrDick says:

                It is also the case that far too many “educational innovations” have been much like the so-called “business innovations.” They really do not add anything to the process and often confuse students who started under a different process. I speak as someone who had “New Math” inflicted on him in 8th grade, when he was taking the advanced placement algebra I class. I never really understood algebra until I took statistics in graduate school as a consequence.

                • Linnaeus says:

                  Even some of the rhetoric I’ve been reading about education “innovation” sounds like it was taken straight out of Fast Company.

                  Which doesn’t mean there’s never a place for pedagogical change, just that I think the rhetoric in which such change is couched can be quite revealing about the values behind it.

    • Joseph Slater says:

      There are studies that compare results in charter schools, schools in states where public sector collective bargaining rights are weak or nonexistent, and unionized public schools. These studies and data, even plausibly fairly read, do not indicate that teachers’ unions hurt educational outcomes. Some show that teachers’ unions are at least positively correlated with better educational outcomes.

    • Liam says:

      but you can’t tell me that unions aren’t needlessly protecting horrible teachers that cling to their tenure and do little else inside a classroom.

      You can’t tell me that public defenders aren’t needlessly protecting dangerous criminals that want to rape and kill our children. Let’s make them illegal and call it Right To Speedy Trial legislation.

  5. ceolaf says:

    No one is saying that students cannot learn without AC. They are saying that students (and teachers), like other workers, can be more productive if they do not have to work in sweltering heat.

    Does YOUR office have AC? Do you think you would be less productive without it?

    • sparks says:

      What’s the average high temperature and humidity of summer where you live?

    • John says:

      I think Erik is, in fact, arguing that students can’t learn without AC – he’s saying that’s a reasonable concern by teachers’ unions.

      • DrDick says:

        Which is true in many, if not most, areas of the country. It is much harder to learn when you are uncomfortable or, worse actually suffering from the heat (which can impair cognitive function).

        • saucyturtles says:

          My father in law was a teacher in the early 60s in California. He said when it got hot they didn’t close the schools (as they do now in my East coast city), they just stopped teaching and came up with other activities for the kids – I think he mentioned watching movies. So it’s not a new problem.

        • John says:

          Indeed. How can you expect 7 year olds to pay attention when they’re sitting in 100 degree class rooms?

      • And to put an even finer point on it: to say that teachers’ unions are unconcerned with education reform is to implicitly accept a theory of education reform that assumes that low productivity among teachers is the causal factor in low performance among students. Teachers’ unions are pointing to a whole host of other issues that impair student performance, but Rhee isn’t interested in them.

  6. Jon says:

    The real problem with education is poverty. But Very Important People don’t want to deal with poverty.

    The real problem with school performance is poverty, yes. But the fake education crisis is actually one way that they use to avoid dealing with poverty. See, if you suck at school it’s then your fault you’re poor.

    • DF says:

      This is an excellent point. The media has created this crisis in education, and society at large has accepted its validity, because we do not want to talk about the social crisis of income equality and all its pernicious effects. This has always been true. ESEA was an alternative to addressing structural problems in American society, education funding being a more palatable, band-aid anti-poverty measure that could actually pass Congress.

      A large portion of Americans don’t want to face up to the problems that our system causes and address them in any real way. This is especially true of our elites, for whom this system works quite well.

      • Philip says:

        This is almost right. The one thing I disagree with is this:

        This is especially true of our elites, for whom this system works quite well.

        Even wealthy white kids are mostly failed by our school system. Fixing all the problems of poverty would still leave us with a school system that is not set up to encourage independent thought or learning, to foster learning for the kids on either tail of the curve (both unusually intelligent and mentally handicapped children are done a disservice by most of the “mainstream classrooms” they are placed in). There are two crises in education, one caused by poverty and the other caused by the structure of our school system. Addressing one does not mean we cannot address the other.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Even wealthy white kids are mostly failed by our school system.

          True elites never enter the public system.

        • John says:

          Even ignoring the fact that the truly elite go to private schools, as Malaclypse points out, in what sense are upper middle class white kids failed by the public school system?

          I certainly wouldn’t say that system is perfect, but upper middle class kids come out of it with the basic skills to function in society and to get into decent colleges. Perhaps we could do better, but that seems like a less important societal problem than the massive failure of schooling for the poor.

  7. Sebastian H says:

    “I want our children to get the best education possible. Were teachers’ unions an impediment to that education, I might take Rhee’s arguments seriously. But they aren’t. ”

    Have you ever seen a case where you recognized unions as a big part of the problem?

    “There’s not a single institution in this country more invested in children learning that teachers’ unions.”

    This is a sentence that may be both true and simultaneously damning to the importance placed on education. Teachers unions are about protecting teacher’s jobs, reducing scrutiny regarding workers, and making it difficult to impossible to fire workers. Actual student outcomes are never a priority over those things. Which is fine for a union. Unions never represent the consumers, they represent the workers. But pretending that the represent the children is willful blindness. Whatever teacher’s unions are, they aren’t advocates for children’s educational outcomes, and in fact they resist with full force any serious attempt to independently measure those outcomes.

    Which again makes perfect sense–the union is there to protect teachers.

    • Murc says:

      and in fact they resist with full force any serious attempt to independently measure those outcomes.

      Cite please. I’ve seen unions fight against massively unserious attempts to measure student attainment in ways that are transparently designed to break unions. Not so much the other way around.

    • dave says:

      This is complete bullshit. Find me a teachers union which opposes the NAEP.

    • These naked assertions you’re throwing around about teachers unions – are they based on your years working as a teacher in a unionized school district and observing your colleagues? Extensive interviews with union members?

      Tell us the truth – are they based on anything at all except you checking your gut and dutifully transcribing your pre-existing beliefs?

      Because I actually have worked in a school district with a strong union, and you are slandering a lot of people who bust their asses and do everything they can for students.

    • “Have you ever seen a case where you recognized unions as a big part of the problem?”

      Ummm…have you read any of Loomis’ “this day in labor history” posts, and specifically the ones that point to labor’s problematic history when it comes to issues of race, or environmentalism, etc?

    • DocAmazing says:

      Have you ever seen a case where you recognized unions as a big part of the problem?

      Yes. The police.

  8. Murc says:

    Something I feel that’s worth pointing out is that when it comes to the quality of educational institutions and structural social factors in affecting educational outcomes, there’s a fair amount of evidence we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in the former until we address the latter.

    I’m not saying that either our teachers or our schools are perfect, especially ones that struggle to pay the bills. But the fact of the matter is that we actually bust our asses to produce decent schools. Any teacher out there holds a Masters, and getting one of those is no joke. People have spent literally billions of dollars studying and implementing effective pedagogical techniques, and educators spend hundreds of thousands of man-hours a year trying to figure out things like ideal class size and the relative effectiveness of various texts, kinds of homework, methods of testing, etc.

    But we really have reached the point where doing more of that is not nearly as effective as making sure the kids in class aren’t constantly hungry, that they’re not concentrating most of their mental energy on figuring out how not to get the shit beat out of them on the way home, that they aren’t working for eight hours after school instead of studying or playing to help their family make ends meet. We really have reached the point where dedicating more money and time to combating those structural factors will produce more educational bang for the buck than getting class size down a bit more or having some more art and music classes.

    This is in the aggregate, of course. There are lots of schools that could realize some massive gains just by throwing some money at them. But on the whole, we actually have a pretty decent educational infrastructure, even though it’s backslid somewhat in recent years. To continue to improve it we need to work on the other side of the equation. Bring THAT up to par while holding steady on the educational side. Then take another look at things.

    • L2P says:

      Everything you say makes sense. Except there’s no majority to make American more equal. And there IS a majority to make the schools produce better outcomes for students, even poor students.

      You can pass virtually every school bond measure. You think you can get them to pass a “making sure the kids in class aren’t constantly hungry, that they’re not concentrating most of their mental energy on figuring out how not to get the shit beat out of them on the way home, that they aren’t working for eight hours after school instead of studying or playing to help their family make ends meet” bond measure? I think we all know the answer to that.

      If the way we can do something about inequality is to make the schools better so that poor kids get a better education and at least a shot, then that’s what I’m in favor of. Not that I don’t want lots of other stuff, but it’s not on the table.

      • RedSquareBear says:

        And there IS a majority to make the schools produce better outcomes for students, even poor students.

        But the measures at issue in the school reform debate as it currently stands (NCLB, Rheeification, union busting, for-profit charters, “choice” schools) don’t (or at least haven’t been shown to) improve educational outcomes (at least not as far as we can tell with available data).

        You’re begging the question (in the original sense of the term, as I understand it: assuming to be proven that which your argument seeks to prove).

  9. byeates says:

    Here’s a thought. Since education is the goal, why not pay students for their academic achievements–this addresses both the socio-economic disadvantage of kids in underserved districts and incentivizes positive education outcomes for those at-risk students who are least likely to have positive incentives in the home. I agree that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to investing in teachers/faculty and spending taxpayer money in those communities instead, and as long as teacher’s unions are going make the case that “it’s not the teachers, it’s the home environment” and “we can’t teach them 24/7″, it sounds like they’re admitting income transfers would offer more bang for your buck.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      this addresses [...] the socio-economic disadvantage of kids in underserved districts

      Giving a first grader 50 bucks for an A doesn’t begin to address the deficits that the last 6 years of substandard housing, nutrition, healthcare, and a thousand other factors will have inflicted on him. It would be offensive if it weren’t patently hilarious that you think it somehow would.

      Or, to put it more succinctly, Cracker, please.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Since education is the goal, why not pay students for their academic achievements

      Back when I taught, there was nothing worse than the times students would come to me and say “If you give me a D, I’ll lose my scholarship.”

      I can’t imagine being an elementary school teacher, and knowing that a student’s parents might not make rent if I don’t inflate a few grades.

      • Linnaeus says:

        Back when I taught, there was nothing worse than the times students would come to me and say “If you give me a D, I’ll lose my scholarship.”

        I remember being in a similar position a couple of times. That was never fun to deal with.

    • Because a lack of incentive isn’t the problem.

    • “why not pay students for their academic achievements”

      This has been tried repeatedly. It doesn’t work:
      http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/febartefa/0065.htm
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-kobliner/paying-for-grades_b_1975557.html

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        It can’t not work. It’s not-even-impossible for it to not work.
        All that is, can be bought or sold.
        All that cannot be bought or sold, is not.
        This is just temporary problem — the market-clearing price just hasn’t been determined yet.

        The Market will not be denied.
        Baruch atah ha Shuk, ha dayan emet.

    • Liam says:

      Here’s a thought. Show conclusively that high-stakes educational assesment does anything at all to help struggling students achieve. For bonus points, show how Rhee’s tenure in DC us the exception that proves the rule.

  10. byeates says:

    When you have situations like Chicago, where teachers are taking home $75k/year average while children languish in un-airconditioned, overcrowded facilities, I think there’s a pretty obvious mismatch of priorities–it’s clear who’s interests are being served first. The answer can’t always be “more money” when that money goes to the faculty and not the students. But the idea isn’t to redress all the inequities and disadvantages inner-city kids will face in their lifetimes, it’s to show that learning bears fruit, and to create the sort of culture within the classroom where students take an interest in their education. The lesson that learning should be it’s own reward is far too abstract for a class full of hyperactive third graders to appreciate. I daresay a majority of high school graduates never arrive at that conclusion. Better to draw a clear line to tangible rewards that learning and hard work can produce than paint vague and idealistic pictures of personal self-improvement that bears no resemblance to the world these children actually live in.

    • past contingent says:

      Chicago, where teachers are taking home $75k/year average while children languish in un-airconditioned, overcrowded facilities
      URL me.

      I will be cross with you if the mean pay is figured across the suburbs, unless the suburban schools languish un-air-conditioned too.

      • Bill Murray says:

        even if the numbers are correct, you could fire 100 teachers to maybe fund repairs to one or two schools if the funds can even be used across these accounting codes. Usually new schools and major repairs require bond issues that are voted on by the people of the district — http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/School_bond_and_tax_elections_in_Illinois. It looks like in Illinois about 40% of bond issues pass, and of the specific ones I can find for Chicago and Cook county 1 in 4 passed.

        Factors influencing bond passage in Texas are examined in the link below

        http://teep.tamu.edu/pubs/bonds.pdf

      • byeates says:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/11/how-much-do-chicago-teachers-make/

        Yes some of that goes to pensions, but in a two teacher household you are sitting squarely in the top 15% of US household income earners.

        And here is a breakdown of spending per pupil by state. http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/acrossstates/Rankings.aspx?ind=5199. What I’m saying is that setting aside $50 per student to draw from each semester, and seeking matching funds from within the community by local businesses, restaurants, theaters, might just get you more bang for the buck than giving teachers another 2% raise.

        • Bill Murray says:

          in some states setting aside money like you suggest is in fact illegal. I know it is in South Dakota because school districts used to do it and the state legislature outlawed it, so building renovation and new buildings are only fundable through bond issues passed by the district voters.

          • byeates says:

            I was floating an idea of paying students, rather than teachers for their achievements. One can imagine getting something like “School Bux”, $4 per A, $3 per B, $2 per C and so on, then using those credits at a school store where they can be exchanged for gift certificates that local businesses might sponsor, or various items the school purchases. Of course this shouldn’t take priority over basic amenities like breakfast and lunch served, A/C, and a desk for every student–but again we have an education budget, a fixed amount of money to spend each year, where will spending do the most good and for whom?

        • past contingent says:

          If you have a Dual Income No Kids professional couple in the middle of their careers in a major city, I’d expect they would be making well above the nationwide median household income, yes.

          http://factfinder2.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/11_3YR/B20004/9700000US1709930 is lots of fun since it does in fact let you ask for median income for people living in a school district. Residence in CPSD scores $50k median for people with bachelors. I’d expect a certain bump over that for teachers since they actually are using their credentials as condition of employment. The $60k mentioned in the story doesn’t sound horribly of line. I forget whether deferred compensation like 401(k) matches or pensions etc counts as income in the Census definition.

          I’d also expect (unionized) teachers to be doing better than their peers at the end of a long, grinding recession. But that’s just truthiness; you can go look at the 2000 census data to see if they beat the curve during boom years too.

          • Liam says:

            Particularly if both household members hold advanced degrees. The links in the linkes Wonkbook post above seem to indicate that CPS teacher pay tops out at less than 89,000, and that’s if you have both a PhD and more than 15 years experience. What would you expect a household with two people holding MS degrees in an engineering field to be making? Also, the links above seem to indicate that median pay is slightly less than 67,000 and that’s after accounting for pension. I’d much rather have a school system made up mostly of somewhat-experienced teachers in the midf]dle of the pay scale than a rotating cast of first-year teachers who get shown the door when their skillks brcome too expensive.

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