The debate on educational policy in this country is rough and divisive. In fact, I believe it’s the most divisive debate happening right now that doesn’t depend on vapid sensationalism (that is to say, it’s more substantive than debates over abortion, evolution, or even gay rights). The two sides have dug in hard, and as with most debates of this type, each has carved out a rhetorical identity that includes a sort of built-in self-justification.
One side is the reformer’s side, identifying themselves as economic realists, clear-eyed critics, and advocates for the students, even if that puts them at odds with the entrenched traditional educational system. This is the Michelle Rhee and “Waiting For Superman” camp. The other side is the pro-teachers’ side, which views itself as a liberal, open-minded lot, advocating equally for both the teachers and the students, defending traditional liberal-arts education against the callous forces of excessive structure and bureaucracy. This is the position of the Teachers Union and Curriculum Development students.
These are strange beasts, when looked at through a partisan lens. The reformers are oriented by measurable outcomes. They are liberal in that they seek systemic change, but may be joined by the conservative forces of privatization and free-market competition. The pro-teachers’ side is guided more by broad educational philosophies and commitment to the liberal arts. In a certain academic way, they come from a leftist free-thinking platform, but they also align themselves with a certain intensely traditionalist conservative mindset: defend teachers, preserve the community status quo, and keep federal government bureaucracy out of our schools.
As I’ve become more aware of these interwoven issues, I’ve gradually found myself aligning with the reformers’ camp. From a philosophical point of view, I think this is because I’m a technocrat at heart. When I see something as a problem (and the US educational system is now widely accepted as problematic, no matter who you’re talking to), I consider it a mandate to find a way to solve it. And in the case of a problem like this one, where there are measurable effects and identifiable goals, I see scientific tools — assessment, analysis, redistribution, application of social and economic pressures — as the most valuable route to solutions. I’m a big fan of information, which is available in ever greater abundance, and of organization, which allows us to understand and act upon that information. Cybernetics. Information technology. Social and economic mechanisms, sanctions, stimulus. The reformers are offering a fairly uniform, goal-oriented solution using these tools, as opposed to the pro-teachers’ side, which are offering… well, I’m not exactly sure what.
Dave Eggers recently published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, and though he glosses over the more fundamental policy differences between these two camps, he comes down fairly clearly on the “pro-teacher” side of the argument (I’m trying to represent them fairly, but forgive me if I lapse into calling them “anti-reformers” once in a while). The telltale signs: he defends teachers from an unidentifiable enemy, saying “When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame teachers and restrict their resources.” And he advocates a broad increase in teacher pay, raising the starting salary from $39,000 to $65,000, and the maximum from $69K to $150K. These are both points that are strongly consistent with the pro-teacher side of the argument.
He’s an important writer, and he will draw some significant attention to this issue, so I feel this editorial deserves some dismantling. I can see that Mr. Eggers is making an earnest attempt to argue this point, but the article is basically a bundle of self-refuting points. Let’s start with his hook: the comparison between the school system and the military.
Okay, so we don’t blame the soldiers for the failures of missions — if anything, we hold the commanders responsible. And (in a later point), if we can fund two wars, why can’t we fund a serious, high-status educational system? Let’s consider this.
If Mr. Eggers wants our teachers to be treated like grunts at the bottom of a strict heirarchy of command, so be it, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. Rather, I think he’s saying that the military is fully trusted in a critical role, with due respect given to every level of operation, and this is what allows them to be considered “among the best in the world.” He’s right about this, and it’s primarily because the military is run at high efficiency, with an overriding goal (“strategy”) and a sequence of secondary goals (“tactics”). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there’s a constant opportunity for promotion to officer level, and for those who don’t move up in the ranks, there’s a constant “exit strategy” — if you perform to acceptable levels, but no further, you’re eventually cycled out. If you perform below expectations, you’re discharged, court-martialed, and/or moved to a platoon where you’re a better fit.
Sound familiar? It should… these are exactly the strategies that reformers are trying to put in place in schools. The emphasis on assessments is to create measurable objectives — “prime targets,” if you will — like math versus reading scores, scores among lower income versus high-income students, scores at different ages and in different types of communities. The teacher turnover, one of the grand bugaboos of the pro-teacher side, is actually a process of distributing teachers to where they’re needed: better teachers in lower-performing and higher-impact areas. Obama’s Race to the Top program has been all about targeting deficiencies and rewarding meticulous, goal-oriented approaches to education. Intensely strategic. See, Mr. Eggers? See where your analogy leads us?
The merit-based pay idea is among the most powerful and controversial of these reformist proposals. Yet, consider: there is a solid opportunity for soldiers to move up in the military ranks, if they show themselves to be highly effective. This is in direct opposition to the Teachers’ Union approach, which attempts to reward seniority alone, with no accounting for efficiency… effectively flattening out the whole system of compensation in public schooling.
Mr. Eggers’ evidence makes this clear, as well. Discussing what he sees as tragically low pay for teachers, he notes that teacher salaries start at $39,000 and max out at $69,000. Now, the base starting salary for American jobs is around $40K, so that $39K starting salary really doesn’t sound too bad, when you consider the summers off, strong federal benefits, and stuff like that. But then you look at the $69K end of the spectrum — really? That’s the most you can work up to? — and you realize that it’s not the raw compensation that’s the problem. It’s lack of mobility, and lack of intelligent distribution of those salaries. As Mr. Eggers says, there’s a massive turnover within the first five years… about the amount of time it takes these new teachers to realize their high-pressure job has no long-term opportunity for growth or attainment.
Again, this is precisely what the merit-pay systems of (for instance) Michelle Rhee were intended to solve.
Mr. Eggers massively oversimplifies this problem. His editorial seems to suggest that the American government just massively short-changes its educational system (thus, the tired, but accidentally instructive, “what if the army had to hold a bake sale?” analogy). This may seem a little confusing when you look at certain numbers, which make it clear that the US actually does a decent job of funding its education system. Check out this chart… the US spends an average of $10,000 per child, which puts us above pretty much all the other developing countries, except for Luxemborg (?).
Source: “Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators”, see www.oecd.org/edu/eag2010
So the problem obviously isn’t mere volume — it’s efficiency. We have one of the lowest rates of attainment given our expenditure on education. And this lack of efficiency is because in our country, there is a deficiency in information. The system for distributing teacher pay is parasitic — schools are so heavily funded by local property taxes that they only pay what their locality can afford. Poor areas get poor teachers, wealthy areas get decent teachers, and the problem gets more entrenched. There’s no internal logic, no flow of information, no apparatus for evaluating and tweaking the way the money gets around. Evaluations and standardized tests are one way of collecting information; standards (i.e. baselines) are a way of organizing that information; merit-based pay and teacher redistribution are ways of acting upon it. These are the tools of the reformer.
Mr. Eggers’ traditionalist insistence on empty, abstract solutions doesn’t help. We can’t just institute “teacher respect” policies, and we can’t just raise teacher salaries by $25K across the board. First, everybody is freaking out about the budget. Second, we’ll just feed the inefficiency of the system. Nobody is trying to attack teachers, and treating calls for accountability… i.e. calls for the system to be streamlined and for efficiency and effectiveness to be rewarded… as direct attacks on the teachers? Simple obstructionism.
And statements like this: “People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly.” — these kinds of statements demonstrate that Mr. Eggers is intent on avoiding the specifics, the real policy questions required to solve this problem.
The traditionalist view has its merits, and it’s essential to counter certain tendencies of high-intensity, dissociated policymaking. We don’t want to treat kids as machines, or teachers as disposable commodities. However, as Mr. Eggers demonstrates, it’s easy for this approach to turn into pure avoidance and obstructionism.Powered by Sidelines