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The High Cost of Ignorance: Education and Information Flow

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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.

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  • sozo23

    You miss a simple outcome of Eggers’ call for teacher salary increases: growing the teacher talent pool. Higher potential earnings will draw more people into teaching and slow down turnover, ultimately helping to weed out the “bad” teachers: competition for positions would be too fierce.

    As far as standardized testing goes, I don’t trust it: there are too many variables and other important facets of education are lost. It’s too easy to manipulate test results (as Michelle Rhee now knows). Schools are not assembly lines. Is what we really need a whole lot of people with degrees but no critical thinking skills? It’s no wonder that corporate America is the entity driving these reforms…

  • John Thompson

    I appreciate the way you present your argument. The distinction SHOULD be between traditional reformers versus data-driven reformers. Our real difference is between data-INFORMED vs data-DRIVEN reform.

    But we the traditional reformers did not pick this fight. And make no mistake, many of the Accountablity Hawks are calling us racists. Since we are the ones who live our lives with poor children of color, it sometimes make me angrier than I’d like. (and it lets my black daughter get in extra jabs …)

    In addition to defending the liberal arts, we are defending the principle of peer review and social science. Remember, social scientists are virtually unanimous in opposing their value-added models and challenging their hypotheses of teaching and learning. They deny the results of cohnitive science based on … ? their personal experiences? If more of them had teaching experience (or submitting their opinions to peer review)they would realize that teaching is more an affair of the Heart than the Head.

    In fact, if Gates is proven correct, he’ll have engineered the ultimate paradigm shift. In addition to being remembered as a Newton, he’ll have also achieved a Copernican revolution. He will has created a system based on huge amounts of data of all types and validity and have replaced quality with qunatity. He’ll have, in effect, devised a meta-analysis that replaced the scientific method.

    But I don’t think he’ll pull it off. Rhee, Klein et. al will learn that any jackass can kick down a barn but they have no clue how to replace “the status quo.”

  • Hmm… you overread a bit, I think. I wasn’t intending to stay centered — I announce my loyalty in the 4th paragraph. I wanted to treat the opposing side of the debate fairly, not to paint them as outrageous or irrational, and I think I did okay with that.

    That said, I think you offer a much more substantive plan here than Mr. Eggers offers. He never mentions administrators’ comparative level of accountability or salary. I would strongly support an evidence-based argument to the effect that you’re making: that the current system could be improved by removing bureaucratic red tape and redistributing funds from administrators down to teachers (although still, I would prefer it be linked to an assessment of merit, rather than pure seniority).

  • rtimbuc

    This summation is not that bad, but it’s not good either, and despite your stated attempt to stay centered you don’t. I think you miss the point of Mr.Eggers op ed. What I got out of it is that school administrators aren’t getting any of the blame for underperforming students, but they are getting most of the money that the districts bring in. Maybe a better solution would be to take a closer look at the distribution of the available funds and eliminate the bureaucracy that exists in the school districts, along with the inflated salaries of the administrators. Because of this elimination, teachers’ salary could increase and with this increase their morale might follow. I’m not saying that the teachers are all good and some checks and balances could be put in place to weed out the poor teachers. But lets not make this whole discussion about teachers not doing enough with the many resources given here in the US, when in fact, when the money trickles down to them, its really not that much compared to the work they do.