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Why the Rhee Scandal Matters

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Yglesias:

But while I have no problem with the idea that there should be consequences for Beverly Hall or Michelle Rhee or any other school chancellor who presides over cheating, I’m genuinely puzzled by what anti-reform people think these cheating scandals prove.

Well, first of all, the Rhee scandal seems directly relevant to the claims of the “reform” movement given that the alleged gains in student achievement under her tenure were often cited in defense of “reform,” and Rhee herself remains a highly influential figure in “reform” circles. The fact that the alleged gains in achievement under her tenure were almost certainly the product of cheating seems highly relevant to whether her “reforms” are effective to me.

This also seems like missing the point:

Now if you wanted to say that these cheating scandals prove that we’re never going to come up with a workable control system for organizations as large as big city public school systems and so we need to move to an all-charter system, I’d say that’s an idea I’m sympathetic to.

Although perhaps some people have made this argument, I don’t think it’s the central issue. Since it’s possible for national tests to have high degree of integrity, I’m not sure why it’s impossible for local ones to. The point of the Rhee scandal is that the lack of testing oversight wasn’t just incidental incompetence. Rhee 1)used high-stakes tests as the sole criteria* for bonuses for ongoing employment for many teachers and administrators, and perhaps even more importantly 2)rather than using high-stakes testing to measure progress towards incremental improvements over time used them to demand ludicrously implausible immediate improvements in student performance. So of course there was going to be widespread cheating. Not only did educators and administrators need it to save their jobs, Rhee needed the cheating because without it she couldn’t have claimed the phony massive immediate improvements that made her a star.

There’s no reason that it’s impossible to have fair, well-monitored testing in a large school system. There is good reason to doubt whether extremely high-stakes tests will be applied with integrity, but since Rheeism is largely based on extremely high-stakes tests meant to show flashy immediate gains in some cases and results that can justify mass firings in other cases, this seems relevant to whether Rheeism is a good idea.

And finally, a classic fallacy of the excluded middle:

What about the fact that some people respond to performance-based systems by cheating should make me think that pure seniority systems are good?

I concede the point: the Rhee cheating scandal cannot prove that there should be no attempt at all to evaluate the performance of teachers beyond showing that they’re competent enough to get tenure. What I do certainly dispute is whether the only alternatives are “evaluating teachers using high-stakes testing as the sole criterion” or using a “pure seniority system.” Using standardized testing as part of a fair, well-constructed comprehensive system of evaluating teachers is a perfectly good idea. But that’s not what Rhee-style “reform” generally consists of.

…related:

Undeterred by the release of John Merrow’s report of widespread cheating on her watch, Michelle Rhee traveled to South Carolina to attack teachers. She said they were defenders of the status quo. She said they were protecting their self-interest. She said they ride a “gravy train.”

The average teacher’s salary in SC is $46,306.67.

Rhee is paid $50,000 for lecturing and taking questions for an hour.

*UPDATE: MY writes to note that the current D.C. system, originally implemented by Rhee, does not use test scores as the sole criteria of value. This is my error; I was referring to the fact that administrators had to commit to large test score gains or be fired, but teachers, at least on paper, are not solely evaluated by test scores. It’s hard to tell what weight qualitative measures receive in the overall evaluations, but they’re at least not formally absent. My point was overstated, and I regret the error.

To make the point in the more subtle form I should have in the first place, the legitimate concern with the introduction of high-stakes standardized testing is that the superficially persuasive-looking quantitative data will tend to swamp other, more qualitative standards that require more time, resources, and expertise to evaluate. This certainly seems to be the case with Rhee in practice. But this isn’t inevitable; it’s about the design and the application.

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  • spencer

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Yglesias is so persistently and stubbornly awful on education reform. I mean, I know he’s friends with McArdle, but still.

    • Is there anything he’s ever right about? I’m not sure Yglesias could become more of a “Fox News liberal” stereotype without actually endorsing Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin for the White House…

      • Malaclypse
        • sharculese

          That is just pure undiluted awful right there.

      • JL

        Yglesias has odd heterodox views, and is sometimes very frustrating, but this is unfair. The guy is to the left of most Congressional Democrats. He’s upfront about his desires for a robust social safety net and large money transfers to the poor. He opposes Grand Bargains and favors a carbon tax. He favors significantly more legal immigration.

        • Malaclypse

          Yes, and he knows so little about history that he thinks technocratic pity-charity liberalism will have a robust constituency.

          • JKTHs

            This. Technocratic heterodoxy won’t get you anywhere.

          • tt

            Broad-based “pity-charity liberalism”, i.e. social security and medicare, has the best constituency of any US social program. Much better than e.g. unions, which most Americans won’t do anything to defend.

            • Malaclypse

              Once a program is broad-based, then by definition, it isn’t pity-charity liberalism.

              • tt

                That’s not true. Most Americans aren’t in the 1%, which means you can improve the lives of the large majority by taxing the wealthy and distributing it broadly. What defines pity-charity liberalism isn’t that it’s focused on the poor, but that it doesn’t directly empower workers. In any case, it is this kind of broad-based social programs that Yglesias supports.

                • ??

                  I understood “pity-charity” to me “social programs that are perceived by key political groups as benefiting people who are not them and not on the basis of buy in, i.e., having “earned” them”. The reality of the program doesn’t really matter.

                  Two factors make being perceived as pity-charity hard to secure than being perceived as universal: 1) loss aversion — even if the benefit is small, we hate losing things! but we only lose what we have, so better to put everyone in and 2) snobbishness — if you are a beneficiary, it’s harder to tag beneficiaries as scum or undeserving.

                • tt

                  The term “pity-charity liberalism”, as I’ve always understood it (I believe Rortybomb invented the term in this post: http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/are-we-at-the-completion-of-the-liberal-project/), is a critique of liberalism that favors what might be called post-market redistribution; i.e., let the free market work, then redistribute to the relative losers. Almost all the people accused of belonging to this school of liberalism prefer broad-based social programs for exactly the reason you give. What differs them from other progressives is that they tend to be less supportive of labor unions, protectionism, zoning and licencing regulations, etc.

                • Got it! Sorry, I’d never heard that specific use before. I probably saw the term somewhere and made up something :)

          • I don’t think he’s a disaster; in fact, I think on most stuff he’s pretty good. I also think he’s admirably committed to examining his own assumptions on a lot of things and is good at admitting when he’s wrong. But his weakness is what you just mentioned, his technocratic bias. And I think that bias leads him in to where I think he has his most problems: he’s pissy about unions.

            He’s not philosophically anti-union, from what I can tell. I think his problem is he’s utterly clueless about the emotional and political value that comes from solidarity and the ability to exert power in the workplace. And because he’s so technocratically inclined, he ends up, I think, being mildly anti-union not because he opposes their goals, but because he thinks there’s not smart about their methods.

            That’s one of the factors I think leads him to being so wrong on school reform, that he seems to think teachers unions are kind of doltish, and the reformers are mostly people w educational pedigrees like his.

            • BTW, I wonder if he would have a problem with medical researchers lying about the supposed success of a treatment, which lead to the adoption of that method, compromised medical care and resulted in developmental delays among children. That’s similar to what Rhee and other cheaters have done, they cheated to validate their theories of how to educate children, and schools and districts that adopt their ineffective and counterproductive methods will likely end up contributing to development delays in their students.

            • mpowell

              It’s still crazy to me that he’s willing to support high stakes testing without any evidence that it’s better than the status quo. It just doesn’t make sense. Most of his positions I can understand the underlying logic, but this one really just seems to be based on a stubborn insistence that we need performance based measures even if the ones we get are terrible. It’s like thinking that we should invade Iraq if we can do it right. Well, you go to war with the army and leadership team that you have… I personally haven’t seen a teacher performance initiative that didn’t place an undue weight on testing.

              • sharculese

                I wonder if this is a common blind spot for supporters of education reform. I have an otherwise liberal friend who will defend high stakes testing to the death, and when asked to account for it’s total failure to produce results, always responds that it’ll have to do until we come up with something better.

                • I think there is a suspicion that in fact many people will defend the interests of teachers because they are unionized and even if it means lousy teachers don’t get fired.

                  Maybe that suspicion is wrong, but given education is really important, you definitely want some quality control.

                • Linnaeus

                  I think there is a suspicion that in fact many people will defend the interests of teachers because they are unionized and even if it means lousy teachers don’t get fired.

                  I’ve heard that as well. If, however, unions were at the root of educational problems in this country, then the states where teachers are not allowed to collectively bargain should all be outperforming states where teachers can collectively bargain. But those states aren’t.

          • LeeEsq

            I think the technocratic part sums up everything wrong with Yglesias. He simply can’t seem to understand why people don’t agree with him on density, transport, and land-use issues. I think his views on these topics are right but simply being correct doesn’t mean that your policy views are going to be implemented.

            Yglesias is completely wrong on educational reform and that again relates to his technocratic tendencies. Yglesias seems to be drawn to the most technocratic solutions to problems in most cases.

            • njorl

              The problem is that popular education technocrats are not good at being technocrats. A genuine technocratic response to Rhee and her approach would be to dismiss them as ill-considered, unfounded and demonstrably inadequate.

              • This.

              • chris

                And furthermore, a genuinely technocratic pundit would know that. Or someone with real statistical training.

                Matt’s biggest problem is that he gets caught up in fads and doesn’t think critically about things before supporting them. He gets enthusiastic when he should be getting suspicious. (See also: Iraq War)

        • This. When Yglesias is wrong, he’s very wrong, so why his most ardent critics insist on making asses of themselves with obvious hyperbole-meant-literally like this I can’t really figure out. I’m fairly certain that, at the end of the day, there’s an element of quasi-jealousy at the Blogger Gone Bigtime cohort.

          • Linnaeus

            I’m fairly certain that, at the end of the day, there’s an element of quasi-jealousy at the Blogger Gone Bigtime cohort.

            Probably some class resentment, too, which is understandable (even if it unfortunately leads to the hyperbole you mention). I mean, Yglesias and McArdle get to be Bigtime Bloggers on in area in which neither of them have any formal background.

            • I find it hard to believe that I care that they lack a formal background in what they write (if so, it’d be dreadful of me, having no formal background in what I supervise PhD students on). The problem is being ridiculously wrong in a way that resists all correction, including study and self-correction. Now, I don’t think MY is always wrong. I’ve had some value from reading some of his stuff in the past. Density, for example. But the problem is replicated in (at least some of) the stuff he gets right. I don’t see a lot of growth. So, he’s got a line on density (which I think is right) and a line on education (which is nuts) and not much changes. So since I got increasingly little value from reading him, I stopped when I had to switch to his latest home.

              He also has defenders who get a little over the top. tt and Aaron B have variously defended him (or some of his positions) ok and really off (for example).

              • Linnaeus

                I find it hard to believe that I care that they lack a formal background in what they write (if so, it’d be dreadful of me, having no formal background in what I supervise PhD students on).

                I don’t particularly care, either. I’m just describing some of the reactions I’ve seen.

                • I see lots of complaints that 1) they are mindboggling, uncorrectedly wrong a lot and 2) they never seem to pay a professional price for that. I don’t see a lot of “Well, they don’t have a PhD so they should shut up and me take the stage!”

                  Have I missed some awesome “I went to Oxford while MY only went to Harvard” threads somewhere?

                • Linnaeus

                  Have I missed some awesome “I went to Oxford while MY only went to Harvard” threads somewhere?

                  What I’m talking about is more like “I guess a Harvard degree in anything gets you entry into writing about anything you want”. Not much of that happens here, but I’ve heard it sometimes from people I’ve talked to about folks like Yglesias.

                • Oh, well, ok. Yeah, I’ve seen some of that. But that seems a bit different than the formal background complaint. (At least, in the stuff I’ve seen.) In this thread, for example, people complained that his “elite upbringing” shielded him from experience with public schools. That’s something one might advance against someone with a PhD in education policy.

              • Dana above states the experience is that he easily admits when he is wrong, and I think that is not an assessment I would agree with. I think he is not very changeable at all and is prone to sloppy or ill-thought out analogies in some cases to try to explain some of his contrarian thinking. I think he is too cute and is certainly too enamored with many of his ideas. But this becomes boring- but I would ask- why do we keep having these discussions? I think there is something to discuss for sure.

                • I would also add that he spends a lot of time on his contrarianism, and I would say less time on his “being Left of congress”- I’ve said before that many times he supports a meme that regulation for example can be bad- Brien and I have argued this before. Nobody would argue that any and all regulation is good- that is a right wing straw man, but it seems that Yglesias spends more times talking about where we need less regulation than where we need more. What meme does that fit into?

              • John

                Even on density, where I often agree with him, he goes about it in a way that I frequently find misguided – pre-conceived notions trump always trump actual lived human experience. So, for example, he constantly implies that the only way to create density is through skyscrapers (and never responds much to the idea that many very dense cities do not have them, not even to explain why those examples are not relevant), and he has an inordinate distaste for parks.

                And this seems generally to be the problem with Yglesias. Almost all of his positions seem virtually to be a priori positions derived by pure logic, to which actual evidence can make no difference.

                He is willing to admit to errors of fact or judgment, but he’s never really willing to admit that his guiding assumptions might be wrong.

        • #22

          and more yoga instruction

        • Josh G.

          The problem is that without a real and viable political plan to enact progressive change, all of this is little more than pious rhetoric.

          It’s just like what we saw with so-called “free trade”. The approved center-left position was to allow essentially unrestricted trade, including with nations that regularly violate labor and environmental standards, and then make up the losses to U.S. workers through a stronger social safety net. The problem, of course, is that while it proved very easy to pass the trade legislation, the safety net portion of this program just didn’t happen – and most of the center-left didn’t even really try that hard. Bill Clinton followed up NAFTA by “ending welfare as we know it”, not expanding it.

          The Yglesias position is what Freddie DeBoer has called “pity-charity liberalism”. It reduces the position of the middle class to that of petitioners begging crumbs from their new masters’ tables. And there is no guarantee that these crumbs will be granted. It’s morally appalling and politically unviable. It’s basically just a cover for the right-wing “Screw you, I’ve got mine” agenda.

          • MPAVictoria

            This! Fucking This!

            Matt Y is not our friend and we forget that at our peril.

          • Because the right wing is well known for their belief in a strong social safety net! Why am I not surprised that DeBoners is a big proponent of the idea that everyone on food stamps is inherently a loser?

            • I continue to be baffled by how many people who aren’t morons actually read and take seriously that DeBoer ninny.

              • Boners!

              • Malaclypse

                The undeniably true fact that DeBoner is a ninny does not preclude the idea that pity-charity liberalism can be a useful concept.

          • UserGoogol

            I don’t really understand why welfare is considered begging for crumbs from their masters table but working isn’t. Working is literally providing services for your employer in exchange for money, and is only available as long as there happens to be a market for your services. Welfare is the only way to have truly guaranteed income.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Is there anything he’s ever right about?

        Yes.

      • Greg

        He consistently beats the drum that Fed policy in unconscionably tilted toward protecting the interests of the investor class at the expense of workers, and IMHO, that’s one of the biggest contributors to the weakness in the economy we’ve seen in the last 30 or so years and one of the biggest drivers of inequality. There is almost no one else on the left talking about using monetary policy in the service of social justice.

        • mpowell

          This is an important point. He has a better understanding of how overall fiscal/monetary policy impact the middle class than just about anyone I am aware of with that wide of an audience. Paul Krugman is the only other comparable figure, but I actually think Yglesias does a better job of simplifying things and getting to the heart of what is at stake while Krugman focus more on the technical issues.

        • Malaclypse

          There is almost no one else on the left talking about using monetary policy in the service of social justice.

          Atrios. Baker. DeLong.

        • John

          I’ve never really gotten the impression that Yglesias actually has any idea what he’s talking about on monetary policy.

    • Pee Cee

      Matt Y is persistently and stubbornly awful on a great many things. It’s not like his horrible, ill-informed views on education policy are an outlier.

      • spencer

        I don’t think he’s really as bad as all that, generally speaking, but I suppose one’s mileage may vary.

        • BruceJ

          In this case he is. Study after study has shown that charter schools perform no better, if not worse than regular public schools, yet he’s still pushing those as a panacea. Yes the very best charter schools outperform most public schools, but Harvard outperforms Podunk State U, too.

          That’s irrelevant to whether the average charter school does any better than the average public school. They don’t; their only real value (in aggregate) to anyone is that they funnel public money into private pockets, further weaken unions, public institutions and trust in the government; all goals of the far right and their 0.01% paymasters.

          • spencer

            I agree that he’s awful on this subject – see, for example, the first comment in this thread, in which I said exactly that. I just don’t think he’s useless, as so many others seem to.

        • Pee Cee

          I don’t think he’s really as bad as all that, generally speaking, but I suppose one’s mileage may vary.

          I think my major problem with Matt Y is that he quite often pontificates on areas that I actually do have some experience, and in every single one of those areas he comes across as – at best – uninformed and uninsightful. Given that … if Matt Y says the sky is blue, I’m going to have to go outside and check first before agreeing.

    • c u n d gulag

      It could also be a case of “Those who are paid not to see something, will not see that thing.”

    • policy wank

      because he is a serious person, who wants – nay demands – to be taken seriously by wealthier and more powerful serious people?

    • Josh G.

      Matt has absolutely no experience with the public school system, not even as a student and certainly not as a teacher. He was raised in an upper-class bubble. It’s unlikely that any of his friends are career public school teachers; at most, some might have spent a year in TFA to burnish their resumes.

      I really don’t think it’s any more complicated than this.

      • spencer

        Having no experience or contact with the public school system is one thing. But I think it’s a bit more than that. On education reform, he’s an otherwise smart guy deploying weak arguments in favor of policy that doesn’t work. Other liberal writers and bloggers have repeatedly shown him the errors of his thinking. But for some reason, he appears to be completely resistant to it all in a way that is not the case when he’s shown to be wrong about other topics.

        • snarkout

          His wife is involved with the education reform movement; you don’t even have to assume conscious logrolling to think that a combination of no personal experience with public schools plus hearing his wife’s worldview (and it’s not like there are a ton of defenders of teacher’s unions in the upper echelons of punditry; also, DC’s public schools are in fact pretty terrible) means that he’s just operating off of Rheeism as received truth.

          • What’s his wife’s role/involvement in the school reform scam?

          • brewmn

            OK, this is the second time someone has claimed that a writer has argued (wrongly, IMO) in favor of school “reform” has a spouse who works as an advocate for said “reform.” The first was Jonathan chait, in an equally awful post defending cheating on these tests.

            I’m getting a pretty strong whiff of BS here. My googling has turned up nothing on either Chait’s or Yglesias” spouses being involved in the education reform movement. Links, please?

            • The Wikipedia article on Jonathon Chait says that he “is married to Robin Chait, an education-policy analyst at the Center for American Progress think tank.” A quick search of CAP’s website turns up many references to her role there as Associate Director for Teacher Quality at American Progress, including one co-authored page headlined “Don’t Put Education Reform at Risk // Administration’s Innovative Programs Shouldn’t Be Cut”. It certainly seems that she’s “involved in the education reform movement” with lower-case “e” and “r”. I’m not inclined to continue searching for signs of her involvement or non-involvement with Education Reform.

              • snarkout

                And the amount of Googling I was willing to do before I started to feel like a creepy stalker suggests that Yglesias’s wife works for a museum trade association in DC and I was passing along mistaken information. So Yglesias can be assumed to be in the pocket of Big Museum on his wife’s behalf, but this column is all his own damn fault.

                • Thanks for correcting this.

                • Ohio Mom

                  I made the same mistake once, assuming Matt had married the long-term girlfriend who was indeed a rising star in the school deform movement. But they evidently broke up and he married someone else when I wasn’t looking.

                  I’ll note that I probably would not have the love of jazz that I do if my first serious boyfriend had not been a serious jazz fan and amateur jazz musician.

              • brewmn

                Thanks. I don’t know if that reference got added after I checked Chait’s wiki page, but in any event I missed it.

                But my follow-up search turned this up, which pretty conclusively confirms that Robin Chait is a “blame the teachers” edcuation “reformer:

                http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0310/34819_Page2.html

          • Scott Lemieux

            His wife is involved with the education reform movement

            I don’t know if there’s any chance you’ll stop saying this, given its lack of truth and all.

            • snarkout

              See above!

              • Scott Lemieux

                Thanks.

            • John

              His ex-girlfriend, however, is involved with the education reform movement.

        • brewmn

          As they say around these parts, This.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      He’s certainly not wrong about everything, but he’s loudly and repeatedly wrong about many things. I do sometimes get frustrated at the double-standard that applies an anyone-who’s-this-wrong-on-one-important-issue-cannot-be-taken-seriously standard to some pundits (Greenwald seems to get this a lot), but not others (Yglesias and Ezra Klein don’t).

      • Scott Lemieux

        It seems to me that there are double standards applied to all three.

        • sharculese

          The difference is that in Greenwald’s case it’s more like ‘wrong on this wide swath of issues that don’t touch on his one pet issue.’

          • There’s also the fact that the other two can disagree without calling people bots, tools, hypocrites, hacks, etc who are abetting murder.

            There’s also the facts that Matt Y and Ezra K have never suggested people should consider voting for a libertarian, they’ve never railed on against immigration, and they’ve been far more honest about their position on the Iraq war than has Greenwald.

            • mpowell

              Yeah, this is an important point. Yglesias and Klein are just two guys with a particular viewpoints making arguments. And you can have a fairly honest exchange with them. The difference between an honest and dishonest interlocutor is not that subtle, but some people don’t appear to understand it. Greenwald falls on the wrong side of the line.

              • MPAVictoria

                “And you can have a fairly honest exchange with them.”
                I have not found this to be the case with Matt Y. He rarely responds to questions and when he does it is almost never in a substantial way.

                • mpowell

                  He doesn’t respond much to his commentariat. But I think he engages fairly well with other voices out there.

                • I’d love to see some examples of him responding to anyone about education in a sensible way. This post here could be a test!

                • Bloix

                  I’ve always had the sense that he doesn’t read his comments.

  • mds

    anti-reform people

    To quote Hijinks Ensue: “Shut up forever!”

  • prufrock

    Matty Y would melt under the pressure of teaching in a school that enrolls kids from poor neighborhoods. Especially if he landed in a micro-managed elementary school with extended hours (my wife has had direct, unpleasant experience with this).

    He is completely ignorant of the reality underpaid overworked teachers face every day. If we lived in a just universe, he would be struck by lightning every time he opened his mouth on the subject.

    • Kurzleg

      My wife confronts these things daily. Even talented teachers balk at having to deal with the breadth and depth of the challenges that these schools present. In my wife’s district the problem is exacerbated by district mandate that forbids moving students with chronic behavior issues into more resource-intensive settings, and so the teacher and the class suffer the constant disruptions that these students cause. My wife knows several teachers who either chose to retire or who decided to leave the district or profession specifically because of the stress of dealing with such students every day.

      • prufrock

        In my wife’s district the problem is exacerbated by district mandate that forbids moving students with chronic behavior issues into more resource-intensive settings, and so the teacher and the class suffer the constant disruptions that these students cause.

        Absolutely this. It generally takes someone getting seriously hurt before the student can be removed, at least in the economically challenged schools. It’s not nearly as bad in schools in better neighborhoods because the parents won’t put up with it. In that case, the problem children are then transferred to the poor schools, which of course are less capable of handling them.

        • It used to be that “students with chronic behavior issues” were packed off to “military academies”. If their parents were The Right Sort Of People (with the Right Sort of Money).

          Or so I’ve heard.

          • BruceJ

            Well now, we DO have the School-to-Prison Pipeline for this kind of thing.

            I hear it’s very popular in many of our oh-so-enlightened-states-who-don’t-need-to-be-vetted under the Civil Rights Act.

            Or so I’m told…

        • Bloix

          And the big advantage of charter schools is that they can expel these kinds of kids, who fall back into the public schools. It’s a kind of filtering system that puts the most difficult-to-educate kids in the public schools, which are then starved of resources.

    • cpinva

      “He is completely ignorant of the reality underpaid overworked teachers face every day.”

      so is ms. rhee, since there’s no evidence of her ever actually having done so. the woman is a total, unadulterated fraud. she’s been far more successful in self-promotion, than she’s ever been in improving any school system, one that she was in charge of, or anyone else’s.

      bob somerby had her nailed from the start, when she was first hired as the DC school’s superintendent, based on a questionable (and, as it turns out, unverified) resume’. the woman has left a trail of destruction in her wake, which is exactly what the GOP wants, with respect to the public school system in this country.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Rhee’s a Democrat, not a Republican…and she’s been pimped by Democrats. For better or for worse, school “reform” is not a partisan issue. It has powerful backers in both parties.

        • She’s a “Democrat” and has been pimped by some Democrats. Only one party is having any internal debate on this issue and it’s not the Republicans.

          • Ed

            She’s a “Democrat” and has been pimped by some Democrats.

            Sure. Only the president, and his education secretary, and other Dem honchos. Rhee is a product of the Democratic Party.

        • She’s a Democrat in 2013 like Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Democrat in 1981.

        • calling all toasters

          Hard to believe a scam artist would try to scam a group of Democrats by calling herself a Democrat.

  • spencer – CAP’s position on the issue sucks so baldy you’d think Monica Lewinsky runs the place.

    Matt is just following orders.

    • John

      Matt works for Slate, not CAP.

      • Malaclypse

        Where did he work immediately before his current job?

      • However, as a minute with Google found out for me, and as I noted above, his wife is Associate Director for Teacher Quality at CAP.

        • You said upthread it was Chait’s wife who’s at CAP, not Yglesias’ wife.

          • What, you expect me to be able remember things for five minutes??? Matt, Jon—two evangelists, easy to conflate… [excuses continue for another five minutes]

            Sorry.

            • Good thing this isn’t a standardized test.

              • Linnaeus

                Fire those teachers!

  • John Protevi

    Thanks, Scott, this is an excellent take-down.

    Here’s an example of a real exclusive disjunction with the “genuinely puzzled” about the scandal line: either Y is too stupid to understand the critique or he’s too cowardly to admit that it undercuts his position.

    • DrDick

      Agreed. That was a mind blowingly stupid and fact free screed Matt Y penned.

  • Kurzleg

    The other problem with high-stakes testing at least as it’s been applied in DC is teacher and principal turnover. The high turnover in the DC schools creates instability, and that’s the last thing that young kids who are struggling in school need.

  • The analogy to a professional athlete using banned drugs is especially bizarre on its face.

    • Joshua

      It really is. If teachers had the same level of scrutiny and evaluation that athletes had, then needless to say we wouldn’t need to use a crappy proxy like test scores to judge them.

      The analogue to the cheating scandal would be if LeBron James performed a memory wipe of everyone who watched his every game and then doctored all the stats so that everyone thought he did better than he did.

    • Greg

      If people were arguing that professional basketball players should be paid solely on the basis of their field goal percentage to the exclusion of every other relevant criteria, that comparison might be a bit more apt.

      • But it still wouldn’t make any sense re: using banned methods to ACTUALLY increase your field goal percentage, as opposed to simply cooking the books.

  • ralphdibny

    My first reaction was like spencer’s–“What is wrong with this guy?”

    But then I went back and re-read the piece; as a teacher myself, I am genuinely interested in how smart people get this stuff so wrong.

    My new take: MY is concerned, first and foremost, with being able to fire bad teachers. The “reform” movement makes it easier to fire teachers, therefore it’s better. Full stop.

    Like the conservatives who want to gut the welfare system because someone, somewhere might be getting away with something, MY would burn the school system to the ground in order to punish those lazy, good-for-nothing teachers. Somewhere in MY’s past, there is a 10th grade history coach or senile English prof who has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

    It’s the worst kind of anecdotal thinking: we’ve all had bad teachers, therefore there must be a huge percentage of lazy moochers out there who need to be fired. (Of course, I had a ton of bad teachers, too– because I attended a private, fundamentalist Christian school where the only qualification to teach was a luv of God.) When you define “bad” teachers as teachers who can’t or won’t work 80-100 hours a week, then surprise surprise–a lot of teachers suddenly become “bad” simply because they aren’t martyrs.

    • FMguru

      Somewhere in MY’s past, there is a 10th grade history coach or senile English prof who has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

      Unlikely. Ygs went to a very pricey, exclusive Manhattan private high school (Dalton) that serves as a major Harvard feeder.

      • CaptBackslap

        That does make sense…after all, those places pride themselves on producing well-rounded people.

    • Malaclypse

      I attended a private, fundamentalist Christian school where the only qualification to teach was a luv of God.

      I still remember when my 7th-grade “science” teacher, while simply reading from the (Bob Jones University Press) textbook in class, was delighted to discover what Hz (which, all year, she pronounced Huzz, and rebuked my 12-year-old-Radio-Shack-geek self for having the impudence to try and correct her on this) meant. Seriously, she stopped reading, and told us the definition was important, because she had taught about electromagnetism for years and never knew it. But she was a minister’s wife, so she was qualified!

      Huzz. 31 years later, and I’m still pissed that I became an object lesson in why questioning authority was Satan’s work.

      • Bloix

        My son’s 4th grade teacher: What kind of animal is a spider?
        Jimmy: A reptile!
        Teacher: That’s right, Jimmy.
        My son: No, Ms Jones, it’s an arachnid!
        Teacher: No, Tommy, a spider has no hair, it’s cold-blooded, it lays eggs, and it doesn’t give milk, so it’s a reptile.

        This was a public school.

        • Malaclypse

          Who do you think is more likely to be shown the door – your kid’s teacher, or the minister’s wife?

          I haven’t even mentioned how we were all allowed pretty much unsupervised access to look at the interesting physical attributes of mercury, or as she called it, quicksilver. Our safety instructions were ‘be careful if you have any cuts’ and we poured it down drains after class. Good times…

          • sparks

            You ever drop it on a concrete floor and see what happens? We did that in junior high. Thankfully, that school has been razed. I can’t believe today how many ridiculously dangerous things we did then.

        • wjts

          I thought spiders were classified as either “innumerable ones” or “those that, at a distance, resemble flies”.

          • At a distance, you all resemble flies.

    • JL

      Like the conservatives who want to gut the welfare system because someone, somewhere might be getting away with something, MY would burn the school system to the ground in order to punish those lazy, good-for-nothing teachers. Somewhere in MY’s past, there is a 10th grade history coach or senile English prof who has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

      Not sure if it’s true for MY, but IME as a young highly-educated technocrat who is friends with a lot of otherwise-liberal-or-even-leftist young highly-educated technocrats, this is very common, right down to specific terrible teachers in their past that they never forgot. Often they don’t believe/realize what a negative impact their preferred policies would have.

      There’s also, among some such people, a genuine, but misdirected, concern about social justice here. The logic goes something like this: Some teachers are very bad. These teachers are more likely to be inflicted on poor students and students of color, whose families don’t have the political clout to fight it. If these students don’t get a decent education they will be disadvantaged for life, which is unjust. These at-risk students are also affected by their general socioeconomic condition, and we should be doing something about that too, but that will take a long time, so we should be going for the low-hanging fruit. So the achievable way to mitigate (though obviously not end) the injustice relatively quickly is to hold schools to performance standards! Sure it might lead to less creativity in the curriculum, but let’s worry first about getting the most disadvantaged kids to the point where they can read and add and subtract!

      Keep in mind, I am not attempting to describe the mindset of rich right-wing education reform corporatists here. I’m trying to give some insight into the mindset of a particular subset of liberal education reform proponents.

      • sophist

        Yglesias is neither highly educated nor an actual technocrat.

        • spencer

          I can understand how some people might mistake “highly credentialed” (i.e., a Harvard degree) for “highly educated.”

          • sophist

            Yglesias isn’t highly credentialed either though since he only has a BA he earned a decade ago.

      • Kurzleg

        This rings true to me. One valid criticism of the role teacher seniority plays in public schools is that to a large degree experienced teachers get to choose their assignments. Typically, they avoid the schools with low-income students because they can be quite challenging. So it is often the case that less-experienced teachers end up tackling the most challenging education situations. I suppose these are the “bad” teachers to which people refer, but really, it’s a case of not being able to allocate teaching resources where they can do the most good.

        If you want experienced teachers to tackle the biggest educational challenges, then there needs to be a non-trivial compensation bump to make dealing with challenging situations worth the effort.

        • Of course, education reform’s “fire the lazy, bad teachers: is not supporting keeping veterans at high-needs schools. If anything, effective teachers at high-needs schools in states that have gone Race to the Top are more likely to seek easier placements – their job security depends on higher standardized test scores, and test scores are lower at high-needs schools.

          I also don’t think it’s just compensation. I am a veteran (effective) teacher at a high-needs school, and frankly the lack of heat, lead pipes, semi-encapsulated asbestos insulation, and the need to buy my own copy paper get me down more than my paycheck. When Yglesias and the education reformers focus on those bad, lazy, immoral teachers failing children, they are ignoring the reality of conditions in high-needs schools. This came up in the Chicago teachers’ strike, what with the CTU’s unreasonable demands for airconditioning and so on.

      • I think that is half of it.

        The other half is I am not sure many union supporters understand how unpopular seniority systems are. The idea that your employer keeps the good employees and fires the bad ones, even if they are older, doesn’t strike people as unfair.

        • chris

          The idea that your employer keeps the good employees and fires the bad ones, even if they are older, doesn’t strike people as unfair.

          But who decides which is which?

          Unlimited employer discretion is a recipe for petty abuse.

          Of course some people don’t mind if teachers are abused by petty tyrants…

          This is where the testing is supposed to come in, but educational outcomes are determined primarily by factors outside the teacher’s control (SES and home life especially) and teacher quality has only a weak connection to educational outcomes.

          This makes it hard to use the outcomes to measure the teachers, but it also means that the “low-hanging fruit” of firing “bad” teachers and hoping that will fix the problem isn’t fruit at all — it’s just a shiny object that distracts you from any attempt to find the real fruit. It’s the same principle as the parable of the keys and the lamppost — testing may be a lamppost, but that doesn’t mean the keys to improved educational outcomes can be found under it.

          Even people who aren’t deliberately running a scam can be lured in by the truthiness of “education isn’t working, teachers do education, so those teachers must be doing it wrong”. And its even dumber cousin, “We have to do something, firing teachers is something, therefore we have to fire teachers”. When people who are actually inside the educational system try to point out that those slogans are overly simplistic, it gets ascribed to self-interest rather than a deeper understanding of the real complexity and scope of the problems.

          • Anonymous

            Unlimited employer discretion is a recipe for petty abuse.

            Maybe. But bear in mind, most of the working world lives with almost unlimited employer discretion. And they probably don’t think that their boss is that abusive, or even if they do, they don’t think the principle that a non-abusive boss should be able to fire bad workers without regard to seniority and keep good ones is particularly unfair.

            This is just a really big disconnect between union advocates and the rest of the country, including a lot of liberals.

            Of course some people don’t mind if teachers are abused by petty tyrants…

            That’s not how they view it. They view it as “teachers having no more job security and being subjected to performance evaluation to the same extent as most other workers”.

            Another way of putting it is this. We all know there are some horrible employers. And even perhaps many horrible employers. What, specifically, is the reason why teachers should get a unique protection against horrible employers (and one that could get in the way of non-horrible employers firing bad teachers) that other professions don’t receive?

            Note that I am not making a comment about what is best for education policy. I know very little about education policy and frankly have no idea what we should do to fix the schools beyond the pretty base idea that we should spend a lot more money on them.

            I am making a comment about political popularity. I think a lot of pro-union types think that seniority is a perfectly natural system of determining employment, and much of the rest of the country thinks that’s crazy and that the default rule should be that an employer should be able to quickly fire anyone who isn’t doing the job.

            • John

              You’re just advocating a race to the bottom. And, of course, seniority rules are not in any respect unique to teachers.

              • I don’t really know enough about educational policy to know whether seniority is a good system. So I am not advocating a race to the bottom.

                I am saying something else. The topic of discussion here is “why are those neoliberals like Yglesias so suspicious of teachers’ unions?”.

                And I’m suggesting to you that one reason they are is because seniority systems are highly unpopular outside of union households, because people think in terms of employers keeping the best workers rather than the oldest ones.

                Go back to Yglesias’ column. He makes a sports analogy– nobody (including a players’ union) would argue for a seniority system in sports! Of course you can’t keep an older player with deteriorating skills while laying off a younger player!

                This is exactly what people think about seniority systems.

                And yes, they are in place in other professions, not just teaching. But the common denominator is unions. Unions like seniority because it protects all the union members, and any costs are borne by non-members, whether it is job applicants or members of the public.

                But as I said, most of the public works for at will employers. And they think seniority is NUTS, because of course the employer should be able to keep the best employees even if they are not the most senior.

                Until unions convince the public that this is wrong, they are going to have a lot of neoliberal critics, I suspect.

            • Teachers fortunate enough to have union protection CAN be fired without regard to seniority.

              We have due-process rights.

              Indeed, it is not even that hard to fire a teacher in my state (California). The problem is that administrators are overworked too and don’t want to deal with the paperwork; it is easier to encourage a teacher to seek a transfer than it is to keep a record of evaluations, improvement plans, and so on. I have heard principals blaming “the union” for their inability to remove teachers who are flagrantly failing to fulfill contract terms. It’s not the union.

              Which is not to say that there is a huge body of very low-performing teachers; I don’t believe there is one, because teaching (especially in high-needs schools) is an emotionally and physically demanding job. There are easier ways to earn money whilst being lazy. In general, I think education reformers do not really understand what teachers do and don’t understand this.

              • We have due-process rights.

                This begs the question. Again, WHY should teachers– and a few other professions– have a due process right to their job when the rest of the country can be fired at will?

                I don’t quarrel with the rest of your comment. As I keep saying, education policy isn’t really my bailiwick and I’m perfectly willing to believe that a lot of the reform efforts may not be good policy.

                But, as I said, the governing rule most of America lives by is “if my boss identifies a bad employee, there’s no due process at all– he or she is fired on the spot”. And most of America thinks that is a very sensible rule, and our legal system reflects that in a preference for at will employment contracts with no due process protections at all (only nondiscrimination rules).

                Unions have to convince a wide swath of the public why that is wrong. And as I said, I don’t think many union advocates even realize that people think seniority / due process is a dumb system.

                • And most of America thinks that is a very sensible rule

                  This begs the question. Again, WHY should teachers– and a few other professions– have a due process right to their job when the rest of the country can be fired at will?

                  That’s an infantile question though. The question to ask is “Why do I risk being fired at will?”

            • chris

              But bear in mind, most of the working world lives with almost unlimited employer discretion.

              Yes, that’s how I know it’s a recipe for petty abuse. Evidence from all those industries where there is no check on the employer’s ability to declare someone a bad worker.

              What, specifically, is the reason why teachers should get a unique protection against horrible employers (and one that could get in the way of non-horrible employers firing bad teachers) that other professions don’t receive?

              So if teachers have this useful thing, and other workers don’t, the answer is not to expand it to cover more workers, but to take it away from the few that do have it?

              Please complete the following sentence: Workers of the world, _____.

    • Josh G.

      My new take: MY is concerned, first and foremost, with being able to fire bad teachers. The “reform” movement makes it easier to fire teachers, therefore it’s better. Full stop.

      And where does he expect their replacements to come from?

      Tenure protections are a large part of current teacher “pay”. It’s one of the reasons why districts can get away with pay scales that are considerably lower than for most other professionals with similar levels of education. If it becomes easier to fire teachers, then you’ve made teaching a less attractive job than it currently is. Which means that either the quality of the applicant pool will go down, or pay will have to go up. And I don’t mean by a paltry few thousand dollars, and certainly not “merit pay” where only a handful of teachers get the extra money. I mean that to maintain the quality we have now, you’d probably have to come close to doubling existing teacher pay in most areas if you switched from tenure to year-to-year contracts.

      • mds

        If it becomes easier to fire teachers, then you’ve made teaching a less attractive job than it currently is. Which means that either the quality of the applicant pool will go down, or pay will have to go up.

        Illinois has apparently decided to gut tenure protection. The justification is that a newer teacher might be doing a better job than a more senior teacher, and so shouldn’t automatically be the first one on the chopping block when teacher positions are eliminated, if administrators can “demonstrate” inferior performance by more senior teachers. Note that it’s all about firing teachers for economic reasons, and that now districts have a figleaf for firing senior teachers merely because they’re more highly paid. So given that higher pay and long-term commitment are now officially bad, I’m gonna have to go with “quality of the applicant pool will go down.”

        • sparks

          Every senior teacher is going to get the hell out sooner or later, and who’s left won’t be looking at Illinois as a place to make a career of teaching, just a springboard to another, more stable position elsewhere. Seen it before in other industries where seniority was discarded.

          • spencer

            just a springboard to another, more stable position elsewhere

            Where, though?

            • sparks

              A state where there’s better pay or better tenure. You can stay one step ahead of a patchwork process that goes through one state at a time.

    • DrDick

      I think this gets at the central flaw in the “education reform movement”. Their emphasis is entirely on punishing underperforming teachers. As Finland and the other Scandinavian countries have show, the way to build a world class educational system is to reward good teachers. Pay teachers a good wage to attract better applicants, aggressively reward excellence, and offer mentoring and help to struggling teachers.

      • Kurzleg

        offer mentoring and help to struggling teachers.

        This would go a long way to improving teacher performance. It’s especially critical for young teachers, and that’s in part because they tend to end up at challenging schools because more senior teachers don’t want to deal with those challenges.

      • Josh G.

        Finland actually doesn’t pay their teachers much more in absolute terms than the U.S., but since they have a much lower Gini coefficient, their teachers are better able to compete for positional goods than ours, so their effective pay rate is higher. Also, they have far fewer children growing up in poverty, which helps to improve their educational outcomes.

        This example shows why the “education reform” movement is a fraud. It’s a desperate attempt by the rich and powerful to delay the overdue root-and-branch restructuring of American society. The educational system can’t fix a winner-take-all economy or a society where far too many children grow up in dire poverty. If we want our educational outcomes to be more like Finland, we need our society and its institutions to look more like Finland’s. And there would be numerous other advantages to doing so, as well.

      • JKTHs

        Indeed this should be the solution. The problem is given states’ frequent funding problems, paying good teachers will become a piggy bank for states to drain during recessions when they have big cuts to make. This type of thing would have to be done at the federal level to work and we know that ain’t happening anytime soon.

        • DrDick

          The states’ funding problems are generally self inflicted, owing to Republican tax cuts and misplaced spending priorities (wasting money fighting the PPACA in court, building more prisons, militarizing the police, etc.) The problem is that states generally, and Republicans in particular, always want to provide vital public services on the cheap rather than trying to provide the best services possible. Scandinavia also shows that providing better education (and welfare benefits) to all of the children also makes them more employable and can increase tax revenues.

  • Manta

    “Rhee needed the cheating because without it she couldn’t have claimed the phony massive immediate improvements that made her a star.”

    Well put: this Albatross should hang around her neck.

    • sparks

      That’s why Rheeism needs to become the word for performance test fraud in public education.

      • FlipYrWhig

        Rheeification.

  • sharculese

    Now if you wanted to say that these cheating scandals prove that we’re never going to come up with a workable control system for organizations as large as big city public school systems and so we need to move to an all-charter system, I’d say that’s an idea I’m sympathetic to.

    The spectacular failure of my first bad idea is only evidence that we should consider my second, even worse one. Christ.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The spectacular failure of my first bad idea is only evidence that we should consider my second, even worse one.

      Pretty much the “reform” movement in a nutshell, there.

    • Wins the internet.

  • Sometimes he spouts things that we might agree with, many times not. Once we agree that the appropriate verb is “spouting”, can we please keep this munchwagon at a distance? He shouldn’t even be trusted on things he gets “right” because what is his process?

    • sharculese

      what is his process

      depends on how many TED talks there are on the subject

    • The irony of a comment like this in a blog comment section.

      • mds

        So … it’s flagrantly unreasonable to hold a paid pundit to a higher standard than blog commenters? The irony of a comment like this in a thread about teacher performance metrics.

        • Are you paying his salary?

          • mds

            So … no critique of a pundit’s public assertions or methodology permitted unless you’re actually paying his or her salary? The irony of a comment like this in a thread about Michelle Rhee.

            • I didn’t say you couldn’t critique it. The idea that he’s over-stepping his bounds by “spouting” things while you are not simply because you’re doing it for free, on the other hand….

              • Was Pinko saying that MY was “over-stepping his bounds” by spouting things? I believe the point was that MY does nothing but spout things and is thus unreliable even if you agree with that which was last spouted.

                Furthermore, I think the key problem with spouting (if you have a paper trail) is not spouting per se, but e.g., whether there’s any error correction. If he spouts the same thing regardless of critique or time or feedback or change in facts, then don’t be so very happy when he happens to say something right.

                • Brien,

                  He is a pundit. He is actually paid to spout. Nobody gives any value to my comment here on the internet. What do we want from our pundits, and what do we expect from them? If you are arguing that we can afford MY the same process and scrutiny that we afford Thomas Friedman, then I actually would yearn for that day to come. MY only has to be wrong on education for 6 more months before I start to evaluate whether he is useful to have in the room.

                • Nobody gives any value to my comment here on the internet.

                  I, most evidently, do :)

  • Cheating is just the start of it. The real problem is that teachers are teaching to the test, which means that meaningful skills, and useful knowledge outside the scope of the exam, both get passed over.

  • aimai

    The phrase that always recurs to me when I am forced to read anything by MY is something a friend’s grandmother used to say “Smart, Smart–and still you’re dumb.” If he can’t see the reason why a top to bottom cheating scandal calls into question the entire regime of abusive teaching practices based on the idea that you can test to success then he is simply either too dumb to grasp it or he is being paid not to grasp it, or both.

    Simply put the entire testing thing is absurd–its nothing but the conserva-liberal form of a soviet five year plan. In other words, it entirely disrespects the nature of the practice that is being studied and measured. If it were easy to create a 10 percent improvement, or a 40 percent improvement, in the behaviors of small groups of people on a year by year basis it would already be being done. Its not. In the case of children who are learning–learning to be in groups, learning to be in classrooms, learning new things in a number of fields it is even less likely. Some things have to be done intimately, one on one, with care and with attention. And even so there will be some number of people in this system who come along at different rates or who improve to the limit of their ability but still fall short of an A, B, or even a C.

    If you penalized a hospital for working with amputees because it failed to help them regrow a limb it couldn’t be any dopier. If you penalized a doctor (which some systems do) for taking hard cases and then losing them you’d end up with a situation in which doctors simply refused to take sick people at all. We know this. We’ve known this for a long time.

    The entire rationale for this testing to destruction model of the schools is to destroy them–not to measure, quantify, simplify and respond with educationally respectful methods to improve instruction. The fact that its applied to the work of individual teachers alone in a classroom makes the entire thing more suspect and more farcical. In reality children are team taught or at least team affected in every successful school–my children’s private education included nurses, eye doctors, hearing specialists, reading specialists, a full time librarian, a growth education specialist and team teaching between physical education, music, art, and their two teachers per classroom. And even within that system there were kids who had trouble learning to read, learning to do math, seeing without glasses, sitting still etc..etc..etc…

    The error that these people make, willfully or foolishly or with good intentions, is looking at a huge system with a huge number of students and thinking that you can create a good outcome by first determining that the problem is poor teaching. Its probably not but even if it is that is probably worth discovering at the local level by interviewing and studying classrooms in an ethnographic way, interviewing parents about their experiences, and interviewing teachers about the classes directly below their own.

    The supply of good teachers is not infinite, even in a down market. You can’t routinely fire people and hire people without qualifications or background and get good results. You have to invest in teachers and communities and schools and that takes money, it can’t be done on the cheap or by siphoning the money out of the system and paying it to test scorers and number crunchers who wouldn’t know a child if they stepped on one on the way to the bank.

    • scott

      I completely agree with this. Rhee in particular made it her mantra that she was all about “the data,” but as aimai points out the “reform” movement sh heads has seemed very uninterested in trying to figure out the many, complex, and inter-related reasons kids in particular schools in particular parts of the country may be doing better or worse. For all MY’s mystification about why the cheating stuff matters, it points out how uninterested in the data the so-called reformers really are. If you’re all about the data but you blow off indications that people are cooking them in order to please you and not get fired, that really shows you don’t care on the merits whether your reform actually work. It means you’re acting in bad faith and aren’t entitled to any more trust than anyone else hustling for a buck.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Well put (and welcome back!)

      • aimai

        Why thank you Scott. I guess I just can’t quit you guys.

    • Kurzleg

      Great comment, Aimai!

    • mpowell

      I agree that the effect will be to destroy schools, but I don’t think that’s the intention with most of the people pushing this stuff. On the Democrat side you’ve got roughly two groups: people like Rhee who are doing it solely for self promotion and people like MY who are just deluded. The latter group is inexplicable to me.

      • Malaclypse

        The latter group is inexplicable to me.

        As I have previously admitted, in my naive youth I spent time working for a charter school management company (in my defense, 13 years ago there was less data showing this to be a bad idea). And I think the logic most of us were working under was: 1) A lot of education is working badly! 2) Something should be done to fix this! 3) We’re doing something!

        • sharculese

          That would be around the same time my parents were naively working to set up a service-learning based charter middle school as an alternative to the prison-like atmosphere of the local one.

        • mpowell

          Yeah, this is actually a pretty reasonable explanation. Too bad people like MY, who should be doing their research, continue writing dumb stuff and probably influencing a lot of people who don’t have time to figure it out on their own but trust people like him.

      • aimai

        Well, I think the MY position is quite common on the “liberal” side–you can see what it is when you see how rapidly he jumps to “charter schools” and we had this discussion with Chuckling over at Alicublog.

        The basic and well known problem with schools is that impoverished schools are produced by an impoverished parent and tax base sending children who are ill prepared or have other unmet needs in numbers that overwhelm the teaching and support staff. We could “solve” the problem of poor children doing poorly in poorly funded schools by changing the way we fund public schools and funding schools according to need and not according to the wealth of their property tax base. But in the absence of that the “liberal school reformer” believes that it might be possible to do this on the cheap by leveraging the expertise and demands of the remaining educated middle class people who send their kids to public schools. “School choice” and “charter schools” (which are definitionally not limited to a certain geographic student base i.e. the ghetto) are both ways to try to keep the vanishing middle class parent and their presumed interest in their child’s education in a given school. This is supposed to magically produce a better and more docile class and also a happier and more successful teacher/parent/classroom interaction.

        We’ve had school choice in my city for a number of years–you enter a lottery to get your child into your top three school choices in kindergarten. This was explicitly done in order to enable middle class parents who couldn’t afford the best school district/housing costs to stay in the system and also because it was presumed that their energy and interest would pull up the lower performing schools. It was quickly discovered, not that anyone cared, that lower and working class and immigrant families did not have the social pull or the time to madly research each school and choose “the best” for their child and would probably have preferred at less cumbersome city wide busing program and would have liked their kids to walk to school but oh well.

        The thing is that it wasn’t really thought possible to teach a largely immigrant/lower class/minority population in their own schools by simply pouring money and energy into their needs. Because it had to be done on the cheap, without shifting resources from the upper/middle class schools where they weren’t needed, it was decided to jury rig this bizarre process.

        This is all about educating people on the cheap, without rocking the boat with the middle class white parents who turn out and vote and complain. Charter schools are another way of shifting responsibility, draining energy, isolating parents from other parents, and shifting public monies into private pockets. But for true believers in “market” solutions it seems like a good idea. And MY is nothing if not a true believer.

        • sharculese

          When I was just out of college I was dating a fairly conservative young woman who taught third and fourth grade and one of the things that always stunned me when we talked about education was that ‘spending more money’ just didn’t factor into her ideas about how to solve problems. Not that she was against it, she just assumed that it would never ever happen and should be ignored as a solution.

          • aimai

            I always say to people who complain about a new school tax or levy:

            “You ate breakfast yesterday and you ate it today. Do you not have to eat breakfast again tomorrow because you already took care of that? Education (like healthcare) is going to cost money. Its not like a hat that you “have.” Its like a process that you must continually go through: get energy, do work, expend energy, refresh energy, do work.”

        • chris

          We could “solve” the problem of poor children doing poorly in poorly funded schools by changing the way we fund public schools and funding schools according to need and not according to the wealth of their property tax base.

          I disagree — I think the problem is even worse than you think it is. Even if the schools themselves had adequate resources (they don’t), the fact that the students have such poor home lives (literally and all too often figuratively too) means the low outcomes will persist.

          As for charter schools being a market solution, the market only serves those who arrive there with a full wallet. And it only serves them *well* if they also know how to distinguish good wares from bad. This is why it works much better at solving some problems than others.

          • aimai

            I think if we had a creche system like France does which gave every toddler a good breakfast/lunch and a beginning understanding of language and culture that was free and locally based we would begin to go very far in creating a culture of healthy learning for all our kids regardless of SES. If we continued it at the gradeschool level and brought health care (nurses, doctors, dentists, glasses, hearing aids) and enrichment (dance, drama, art, sports, afterschool homework help) directly into the schools and gave lower SES kids what upper class kids get routinely we could of course solve the problem. But we probably can’t do it within the context of the same educational pot of money without causing suburban schools and their voters to utterly rebell–this is what happened in Vermont (I think it was vermont) when they tried to just even out funding between poorly funded and well funded school systems on a statewide basis.

            • DrDick

              I think the Finnish system, with a robust social safety net and comprehensive free daycare, along with heavily investing in teachers and schools is a good model.

        • DrDick

          Excellent analysis, as usual. Your last paragraph is dead on.

      • I don’t think they’re that inexplicable. I basically look at “firing bad teachers” like I look at “having a good bullpen” and its value to winning baseball games. On the whole, you’d like to incorporate it into the big picture, but individually it just isn’t that big of a factor in its own right. The problem is that a lot of people look at it as low hanging fruit (you can get an elite reliever for the same price as a third/fourth starter type on the free agent market; firing bad teachers is a hell of a lot easier than making big progress against poverty, especially at the local level), and so it sort of kind of makes sense to go ahead and deal with it, but they fail to realize that it’s in many ways counterproductive to do that BEFORE you’ve addressed the bigger problems. Putting an emphasis on teacher evaluations before you’ve addressed the much larger socioeconomic factors is very likely to drive good teachers out of the profession by making it a total shit job, and if Houston goes out and drops $40 million on their bullpen this winter they’ll just be wasting a ton of money.

        • Bloix

          well, this is not relevant to the thread, but have you ever had kids in an elementary school with bad teachers? Everyone knows who they are. The parents hate them, the kids hate them. They undermine morale and discipline. Their presence teaches the kids that parents are powerless and that the world is unjust, so why bother.

          In my son’s transition year from 3rd to 4th grade we saw four families leave the system in order to avoid two bad teachers. Three went off to Catholic school, one to a private school.

    • Marek

      Harrumph!

  • scott

    Once you understand his underlying political philosophy and his allegiances, which he actually doesn’t want to hide, it makes sense. MY is a mildly redistributionist liberal who doesn’t really want to combat or even address the economic and political power enjoyed by our financial elites. He was pretty explicit about this in 2009 and after: as long as rich people pay slightly higher marginal tax rates, he’s not that interested in contesting or reforming their use of a bloated financial statem to scarf up more and more assets. One of the assets that financial elites are interested in now is the school system, turning it from a public service paid by taxes to a private system run by companies that they start up and invest in. MY is not going to cross swords with that effort because that would require the sort of confrontation that he’s uninterested in, and he really does have a soft spot for the idea that articulate rich people that he went to school with or knew at Harvard are the better sort to whom we ought to entrust our fates and our children. What that means, though, is that when he subordinates his analytical chops to his interests the results (like now) can be incoherent and little better than what an expense-account lobbyist could come up with.

  • At this point, I find Yglesias’s continued weak reasoning to be impressive. I read him for a long time before he switched over to Slate as an econ writer which I considered to be sign that I should just give up on him.

    It’s not that I disagree with his politics 100%, but he is unable to make a strong argument for almost anything. If you can’t think through problems you’re naturally going to make logically incoherent statements, will be unable to challenge your own preconceived notions, and will mistake smoke for fire. It made me uncomfortable when I agreed with him and annoyed when I disagreed.

    The fact Yglesias went to Harvard for PHILOSOPHY and is still unable to think his way through a children’s book is above all troubling. If they aren’t teaching reasoning skills to their students I’m worried how they’re really spending their time. Though it does help my understanding of “The Best and the Brightest.”

    • aimai

      Maybe its my bias against Philosophy (and philosophers) showing but a guy who totalizes the way MY does (No tests = no firing bad teachers therefore testing to destruction is good) hasn’t learned much of anything. Its actually the same damned argument the gun nuts make when they say “all these gun laws don’t prevent EVERY death so they are useless.” [ They explicitly argue in the case of the NRA suicide that “since peopel weren’t supposed to bring guns to the NASCAR event the fact that this one guy did and shot himself is proof that there is no point/its stupid to have laws penalizing people from bringing guns to public events.” The fact that thousands of other people were put on notice that it was illegal and therefore didn’t bring guns simply escapes them. And of course they make the same argument w/r/t chicago by arguing that the city has “the strictest gun laws” and also a high rate of gun violence without acknowledging that laws are only as good as enforcement so since there’s no enforcement in the surrounding areas the gun laws are nullified.

      At any rate my point is that MY’s thinking is contrarian to the point of literal stupidity and therefore is quite similar to that of many libertarian and conservative viewpoints.

      • Maybe its my bias against Philosophy (and philosophers) showing but a guy who totalizes the way MY does (No tests = no firing bad teachers therefore testing to destruction is good) hasn’t learned much of anything.

        I wish I could speak up for my former profession and say that the problem lies with MY and not his instruction, but I don’t think I can.

        I don’t think all the crappiness of MY’s work can be laid at philosophy’s door. It’s been a long time since he was doing any philosophy per se. The big problem I see from philosophy schooling (and I fell a bit prey to it) is wild overconfidence in one’s analytical abilities. It’s appeared in some threads here as part of a defense of MY (“philosophy rewires your brain”).

        There are plenty of other fields prone to such hubris, but I find it generally sad that professional US philosophy does so little to teach its students what they do not know.

        • FlipYrWhig

          The big problem I see from philosophy schooling (and I fell a bit prey to it) is wild overconfidence in one’s analytical abilities.

          Yes yes yes this this this. You can pretty much tell that Yglesias figures he can out-think anyone on any subject.

          • chris

            There’s no one easier to con than a guy (it is usually a guy) who thinks he can’t be conned.

      • Barry

        “Maybe its my bias against Philosophy (and philosophers) showing but a guy who totalizes the way MY does (No tests = no firing bad teachers therefore testing to destruction is good) hasn’t learned much of anything. ”

        Oh, he’s learned something. He knows the exact name of the fallacies that he’s using.

    • Vance Maverick

      I remember him writing that one value of a philosophy education, for him, was being able to evaluate arguments. Not to make arguments, mind you — the Rhetoric department is down the hall. And the line between picking apart arguments fairly or sophistically is a fine one.

      • The funny thing is that there are whole classes of arguments that most philosophical educations will in no way render you fit to evaluate even a little bit. Statistical arguments, for example.

        • aimai

          My Uncle is, in fact, a philosopher and I used to drive him crazy by “not letting him make the easy argument” which he’d decided to use in his attempt to argue something in a step by step fashion. I’m not saying this is really philosopher stuff or anything. But I’m saying there’s a lot of weak thinking in philosophy as its practiced that MY seems to opt into. The point isn’t to advance by small stages to an arguable conclusion–at least not in the case of an issue like the real life education of children or vaccination or war. Its to get it right. And you could be kinda-sorta correct on many basic premises and still get it wrong in the aggregate.

          As for the arrogance–physicists and engineers are as likely to fall prey to it as philosophers. A conviction that they are so smart and from such a rarefied background that this other stuff must be easy.

          • mds

            A conviction that they are so smart and from such a rarefied background that this other stuff must be easy.

            Engineers are definitely led astray by this; e.g., climate change denialism and “intelligent design” are endeavors in which engineers are overrepresented, at least from the viewpoint of anyone who hadn’t spent a portion of graduate school teaching engineering students. See also: M.D.

            As for physicists, well … all this other stuff is easy. :-)

            • spencer

              I almost married an engineer who was the epitome of this mindset. She was a civil engineer, dammit – all you people with your inferior majors can’t hold a candle to her beautiful mind, and she had no problem letting you know it.

              It felt good when, a few years later, I took a mostly-math-free background, went to graduate school and sailed through differential equations, which is one of the two classes she’d failed as an undergrad.

              • Bill Murray

                the funny thing here is Civil is often considered the easiest engineering discipline. Lots of bust it and break it and don’t think about it.

            • DrDick

              Yeah. My father was an engineer and MDs have nothing on them when it comes to the whole infallibility/god-complex thing.

              • Barry Freed

                My dad’s an engineer too. Same deal.

          • I know quite a few engineers from my college days and would agree with this assessment. Though I think the largest sufferers of “too smart in their field makes them think they understand everything” are doctors.

            They too go through college having to spend most of their time studying very difficult fields which leaves little room for the social sciences and humanities. They’re too highly intelligent. But they also enter a market that’s unlike anything else in American society which gives them very little understanding of practical economics. They also develop god-complexes over matters of life and death making them think they certainly know how people SHOULD live their lives. At which point the crazy sprouts like weeds.

            I don’t think it should be too surprising that both Ron Paul and Jill Stein went to medical school.

          • My Uncle is, in fact, a philosopher and I used to drive him crazy by “not letting him make the easy argument” which he’d decided to use in his attempt to argue something in a step by step fashion. I’m not saying this is really philosopher stuff or anything.

            Well, that surely is :)

            Being methodological and picky and bottom up is drilled into us, for sure. “Close reading” is a highly valued skill. “Argument reconstruction” as well. All of which is perfectly fine and often useful. There’s also plenty of exposure to e.g., wide reflective equalibrium and other reflective or holistic methods and situations.

            There’s often some work on fallacies (at least those related to deductive arguments). There’s very little (in my experience) on cognitive biases, which you would think should be core!

            But I’m saying there’s a lot of weak thinking in philosophy as its practiced that MY seems to opt into.

            Well, and defence of the weak thinking by claiming that one is superduper awesome because of philosophical training.

            The point isn’t to advance by small stages to an arguable conclusion–at least not in the case of an issue like the real life education of children or vaccination or war. Its to get it right. And you could be kinda-sorta correct on many basic premises and still get it wrong in the aggregate.

            I’m often surprised by the lack of sanity checking that people do.

            As for the arrogance–physicists and engineers are as likely to fall prey to it as philosophers.

            Oh hells yeah.

  • Cody

    Shorter Matt: The increase in test scores proves that reform worked – and the teacher’s cheating just proved we need to fire them all. Thus confirming both my beliefs!

  • In fairness to MY, this is pretty much the orthodoxy. So while the take down is great, it’s important to pivot to the bipartisan consensus on education and how to break it up.

  • Bob

    “Now if you wanted to say that these cheating scandals prove that we’re never going to come up with a workable control system for organizations as large as big city public school systems…”
    As one who has worked for the US Army for 30 years I find that baffling. The Army is a huge organization, much larger and more complex than any school district in the country. Yet somehow they manage to train, employ and track every soldier. The amount of time spent on each one is considerable, yet the Army does it routinely and quite well. The up or out progression is managed brilliantly from day 1.
    So Matt, a “…workable control system for organizations as large as big city public schools…” is not only possible, but being accomplished every day right here in the US.

    • Barry

      “The up or out progression is managed brilliantly from day 1.”

      Well, no.

      • Bob

        Of course there are complaints about that and I shouldn’t have said it was “brilliantly” managed – but overall, from what I’ve seen, it’s not a bad system. It does tend to weed out the worst, advance the best and do with the muddied middle about what should be done with the muddied middle. Do some good people get screwed? Yes. Do some bad people get promoted? Yes. But overall is that the exception or the norm? For the most part it’s the exception.

        • Corey

          It does tend to weed out the worst, advance the best and do with the muddied middle about what should be done with the muddied middle.

          Why on earth do you believe this to be the case?

          • Bob

            30 years of experience with the system.

          • Bob

            Two last points and then I’ll leave it to you two to keep pounding this tangential point into the ground.
            From personal experience I will tell you the military promotion system is far more merit based than the Civil Service promotion system. And I say that as a person who has been hired into every job he’s ever applied for, so no sour grapes underlay that belief.
            On the military side of the house I have never known a person passed over for promotion who believed he/she was fairly passed over but with one exception I had NO problem understanding why the promotion board decision was what it was.
            Is it a perfect system? Of course not. Can you name a better promotion system at play in the United States, public or private sector?

            • aimai

              Yes, but what does “up or out” and merit based promotion in a voluntary army have to do with universal public education? In a memorable essay, entitled (IIRC) “blueberries” or “blueberry icecream” a teacher takes on the argument that education can be like a coporate processing of high quality icecream in which inferior products are rejected. Thats because the brief for public education is that everyone who comes to the door of the school as a child gets an education–they can’t (or shouldn’t) be thrown out, held back, or destroyed because they don’t measure up.

            • This is interesting. However, knowing little about actual promotion criteria, my 2 questions would be whether 1) the promotion critera are more straightforwardly assessed and 2) it works best when there is a labor supply glut.

              The latter seems really worth focusing on. IIRC, recruitment standards dropped dramatically over the course of the Bush administration. I wonder if the recruitment and retainment situation for schools is more like the strained military situation.

  • jake the snake

    The average teacher’s salary in SC is $46,306.67.

    Rhee is paid $50,000 for lecturing and taking questions for an hour.

    Grifters gonna grift.

    • Joshua

      I want to know everyone who is paying Rhee that type of money, so I make sure I never listen to them again.

      It’s amazing to me that this con artist can still make that type of bank. We’re not talking about someone like Michael Milken being brought back into his gang of thieves, Rhee did a great deal to harm the movement she was pushing.

  • Bloix

    The “education reform” movement is about two things:
    (1) Channel taxpayer money to Republicans. It works like this: (a) replace unionized school with non-union “non-profit” charter schools; (b) have the charter schools contract with for-profit national corporate entities to run them; (c) instead of paying government funds to teachers, whose union dues fund pro-labor candidates, pay the money to the charter schools, which will hand it over to the for-profit contractors, whose management will authorize political contributions to Republican candidates.
    (2) Track kids by performance in order to have high-performing public schools for the middle class while pushing the poorest and most underprivileged kids into the worst schools, where they can be warehoused until they can be encouraged to drop out at 16. It works like this: set up government-funded charter schools, which require active parent participation to get in and stay in, and which can flunk out or expel kids who don’t perform. Leave all the under-achievers and discipline problems and for the remaining public schools. Defund the public schools while channeling as much money as possible to the charter schools. (see #1). Impose test standards that cannot possibly be met on the public schools in order to discourage and drive out all but the most cynical or unemployable teachers and administrators.

    Yglesias, who is a very bright guy with no understanding of the world as it is, has no idea that this is the context of the debate he’s wandered into. He thinks he’s reasoning with two good faith positions, reform and anti-reform, and he wants to make a reasoned choice between them.

    I’m showing my age I know, but it’s like he’s trying to puzzle out which is really right – does Miller Light taste great, or is it less filling?

    • mds

      He thinks he’s reasoning with two good faith positions, reform and anti-reform, and he wants to make a reasoned choice between them.

      While this is true of MY’s approach to a number of subjects, this subject is not one of them. He goes out of his way to tar those on one side of the issue as genuinely against any and all reform of public schools.

  • Corey

    MY’s analysis is flawed of course but I think it’s hilarious that folks in comments are attributing this to some kind of congenital hatred of Good Working Class Politics. I believe his thought process goes something like this:

    1) I went to Dalton, had excellent teachers, then went to Harvard, and had even more excellent teachers. It is to these excellent teachers that I attribute my education and therefore my comfortable place in life.

    2) But, I recognize that I’m privileged and that most teachers aren’t as good as the ones I had. But what if everyone’s teachers were as good as the ones I had at Dalton and Harvard? What if they were almost as good, or were moving in that direction? Then everyone would be as well-educated and as comfortable as I am.

    Seriously, I think that’s the extent of his thought process. It’s Yglesian to a T – broadly acknowledging the economic problems of American life and endorsing a redistributory frame for their solutions. Is it limited and wrong in a lot of ways? Sure. But it’s not Wrong in that he starts from the wrong premises.

    • Malaclypse

      It’s Yglesian to a T – broadly acknowledging the economic problems of American life and endorsing a redistributory frame for their solutions.

      How does Rheeism further redistributionist policies? Or is that what we are calling “divert tax dollars to for-profit management companies” now?

      • DrDick

        Well it does redistribute income – upwards.

    • chris

      But it’s not Wrong in that he starts from the wrong premises.

      Yes it is. The premise 1 you attribute to him is complete BS. His comfortable place in life derives mainly from his parents’ socioeconomic status and a fair bit of luck. So does his educational success, but those aren’t even the same thing in the first place.

      Teaching wealthy students with involved parents in a school with abundant resources is the easiest kind of teaching there is. Succeeding at that doesn’t make them excellent teachers.

      Premise 2 is wrong too, of course — a good education isn’t sufficient to be economically successful and comfortable, heck, it isn’t even necessary. And even if more educated people are more comfortable *now*, that still doesn’t imply that educating everyone would make everyone comfortable. If everyone has a postgraduate degree, then janitors have postgraduate degrees, but they’re still janitors and their degree won’t necessarily make them better-paid janitors.

      And that’s assuming you can give everyone an excellent education in the first place — if there are teachers that are better than others, there may be a limited supply, so everyone can’t have them all at once.

      If it’s a matter of technique, why don’t you just retrain the bad teachers instead of firing them? Even mandatory retraining would probably get a lot less resistance from unions. The fact that firing is insisted on as the only possible solution signals that the purpose of firing teachers is firing teachers; improving the outcomes is only the cover story.

      You don’t need a Harvard philosophy degree to spot huge holes in this argument (if it really is his argument), so if he has one and still can’t, what does that say about the value of Harvard philosophy degrees?

  • JRoth

    People above have alluded to MY’s milieu, but I think it can’t be overstated the extent to which DCians of his ilk (white UMC, engaged with Village activities) viewed the last mayoral election as a moral choice between Good Government Fenty and Bad Machine Gray, and Gray’s victory as a product of evil, selfish teachers’ unions who punished Fenty/Rhee for upsetting their gravy train, kids be damned.

    Once you realize that their entire window onto local politics has that tint, then you can understand why they simply can’t see certain things. Rhee in particular, and EdRef in general, became a fetish object for that crew.

    I’ll leave the racial politics of this group looking down on poor, deluded DCians who voted Gray as an exercise for the reader.

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  • As an aside I’m doing a little reading about Korean education, in which the high-stakes test features (and where Rhee spent a year). South Korea does pretty well on international testing like PISA and TIMSS, though there’s this:

    Once they reach age fifteen, South Korean students attend school on average 1020 hours a year. This is higher than the OECD average of 902 hours a year, and does not account for additional time spent in extra classes, with private tutors and in hagwons. Some estimates put the average total amount of time spent in school or studying as high as fourteen hours a day, five days a week, though other measures are more tempered; an OECD study indicates that overall, Korean students study, on average, an additional three hours a day compared to their counterparts in any of the other OECD countries. They also sleep an hour less compared to students in the US, the UK, Sweden, Finland and Germany and exercise 22 minutes less. Korean class sizes are also larger, on average, than in other OECD countries. Elementary school classes tend to enroll 28.6 students and lower secondary school classes enroll, on average, 35.3 students. These are both significantly larger than the OECD averages of 21.4 and 23.5, respectively.

    Authorities have been introducing and encouraging other assessment methods since test-preparation has gotten so out of hand.

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