Jonathan Chait wields the power of logic

Alerted by the lovely and ferocious Jane Hamsher, I was treated to the display of Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, promising to deploy the power of logic. badteacherJC defends eliminating teacher tenure standards, joining a movement that is now spurred by the recent not-Sophia Vergara court decision in California. (Showing my mad SEO skillz.) I regret to report that his use of the power proves somewhere short of awesome.

JC notes correctly that due to tenure restrictions a government’s need to lay off teachers in the teeth of the Great Recession causes the bad to be released along with the good.

This immediately raises two issues with which JC’s power of logic fails to reckon. One is, who says there had to be all those lay-offs? My answer is Federal policy that failed to backstop the inevitably pro-cyclical (meaning counter-productive — lower spending/higher taxes) state fiscal policy during the economic downturn. Two is, supposing there is no tenure, how do we know that administrators, given the opportunity, would effectively cull the chaff from the wheat, in terms of teacher effectiveness? Who after all are these administrators, but people who decided they’d rather do something other than teach?

It should be noted that tenure rules vary by state. Many teachers lack union protection. Even with tenure, there could be a probationary period of years that provides principals the opportunity to reverse their bad hiring decisions. Insofar as there are bad teachers, this apparently hasn’t worked. If principals have been bad at managing teachers, why would higher-level administrators be good at managing principals, who as managers have no tenure?

A third question that JC does consider is, assuming some job security protections are eliminated, how would the public sector attract better teachers? JC suggests that weaker job security could be accompanied by higher pay. My question, following his logic, is do we observe this in practice, ever, or more than occasionally? In that case, are we observing genuinely elevated pay scales or mere hyping of limited bonus schemes? I don’t know the answer. I would like to.

A settled fact about public sector employment is that workers accept somewhat reduced salary in exchange for greater job security. I suggest that low turnover among teachers is a good thing, and a move towards more of a spot market in teachers goes against the grain of stable employment.

JC relates a theory that is out there:

The liberal education-reform theory is that the public will be more open to higher taxes to support higher levels of teacher pay if teachers are accountable for their performance. Likewise, those dollars will be spent more effectively if they are related to performance rather than to years on the job.

Which raises another question: can performance be effectively measured? JC thinks so. I am skeptical. Sadly, this is not susceptible to JC’s power of logic. It is a matter of empirical evidence. Jesse Rothstein is your go-to guy on that issue. (Here’s Jesse on not-Sophia Vergara.)

Then JC offers an explanation of the labor market:

In most fields, your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job. 

Sorry, this logic is simplistic to the point of being just . . . wrong. Labor is not a spot market. Labor markets do not inexorably march towards equilibrium. The marginal product of labor is a non sequitur. The public sector is not a profit-maximizer. Both the seller and buyer of labor comprehend non-monetary factors, not the least of them being job security. Wrong wrong wrong. To this ever so slightly advanced level of labor economics I would propose my own maxim: a government that manages tenured employees badly will hire and fire untenured employees inefficiently as well, since bad governments are going to be . . . bad.

How many bad teachers are out there? JC offers a report written by his wife, which connubial support I think is commendable, no snark intended. The evidence for the frequency of bad teachers cited in the report consists of surveys of teachers and administrators. It is thin. Moreover, the magnitude of bad teaching as claimed and summarized here is also not much. After all, one has to weigh the negative impact of reduced job security on the majority of teachers, evidently not-bad in light of the report’s evidence, against the benefits of nailing the purportedly bad teachers. Ms Chait provides estimates of the benefits of removing bad teachers but a) assumes you can accurately single them out in the first place, and b) test scores are a legitimate criterion for success.

Powerful economic forces beset the teaching profession. Those with the capacity to be good teachers can make more money elsewhere. The public sector and the labor market in general are going backwards in labor standards. The effectiveness of schooling depends hugely on factors outside of the school, as Jesse’s pappy has written. And finally, education reform schemes can be taken up under a lack of supporting evidence.


Jonathan Chait wields the power of logic — 3 Comments

  1. “And finally, education reform schemes can be taken up under a lack of supporting evidence.”

    Surely their working in theory is enough — do we really need to place the burden upon them of also working in practice?

  2. Sad to see this. Chait just went down in my book. Probably has something to do with this wife.

  3. Is that a serious question? Certainly any so-called reform agenda should be supported by demonstrative fact rather than a theory of what works better. Max’s points are all on the money. Charter school movement is just another step in the march to mediocrity of all things that serve the less than very rich.

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