Teacher-blaming education reform efforts continue in DC

The Washington D.C. school system fired 206 teachers Friday in the latest installment of the teacher-blaming reform efforts implemented by the now disgraced former chancellor of the school system, Michelle Rhee. According to the Washington Post, the 206 teachers were let go because they scored poorly on the IMPACT evaluation system that now dictates much of the District’s personnel decisions.

It was also revealed that 663 teachers scored very highly on the evaluation system which qualified them for high bonus payments of up to $25,000. This piece of the DC system was highlighted by Matthew Yglesias, who then remarked that the “idea that it’s somehow ‘anti-teacher’ to want to identify and compensate the best people in the system is bizarre.”

This ignorance-fueled dismissal of the substantive criticisms of the new, teacher-focused brand of education reform has sadly become common. Instead of engaging the critics of the present reform movement, proponents of it — especially those with technocratic leanings like Yglesias — just disregard the critiques as foolish and bizarre. When critics are not being depicted as laughably off-base, they are often decried as being apologists for greedy union teachers who obviously do not care if their students learn or not.

The reality of course is much different than that. If you were to only read the perspectives and polished public relations pieces of the education reformers, you would think that those opposing these reforms were grasping at straws to fight against a movement with overwhelming evidence and reason on its side. However, the actual case is the exact opposite of that: it is the education reformers who are desperately trying to cling to their position in the face of decisive evidence to the contrary.

For example, consider standardized testing as a means to measure teacher performance, this the dominant feature of the Rhee reforms in DC. Using standardized tests in this way runs into a litany of problems that reform proponents cannot explain away no matter how many times they flippantly ignore them.

The first problem is that it remains debatable what standardized tests actually measure. On the most fundamental level, it is not clear that standardized tests are precisely measuring anything at all. In addition to the obvious objections that testing acumen might not line up with knowledge acquired, there are more subtle objections about the testing process itself. Not only is it narrow, but it also can be gamed in ways that increase scores for reasons other than learning. Test-taking strategies, which are apparently taught in DC schools, are able to boost scores just by teaching students to approach the test differently, something unrelated to knowledge acquired. That alone should indicate how unreliable testing is in capturing just how much someone has learned.

But even if we assume that standardized testing is an accurate reflection of how much a student has learned, that does nothing to tell us what role the teacher had in that learning. Reformers try to get around that problem by using “value-added methods” of evaluation which only measure how much a student has improved under a specific teacher, not what their overall proficiency is. But even this does not tell us what is actually accounting for the improvement or lack thereof. In fact, an Economic Policy Institute paper noted the following about value-added methods:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.

If value-added methods of evaluation truly reflected the impact teachers are having on their students, this kind of variability would be impossible. Clearly, something else is in play that is outside of the scope of teacher performance.

The final objection to standardized testing is that it distorts teacher incentives in a way that encourages narrowly teaching to the test. Placing high stakes on the testing results also encourages cheating on the tests, a reality that befell the DC school district after Rhee implemented her testing-focused reforms.

With all of these clear problems, it is bizarre that these testing-heavy approaches are getting so much play by Yglesias and those like him. What is especially alarming is those who cheer along the firing of hundreds of teachers based on testing scores which the evidence actually shows are significantly influenced by things outside of the teacher’s control.

That last bit — ignoring factors outside of the teacher’s control — is really what is most disappointing about this whole movement. It avoids the sticky problems of massive childhood poverty and social inequality which clearly have an enormously negative impact on the homes and lives of children who are affected by them. It is those children who do poorly in school, and the conditions of poverty that they have to fight against are not imposed on them by teachers, but by society at large.

This more recent reform movement has totally abandoned any discussion about improving the non-school conditions of these students which I would argue have a much more serious impact on their performance. Instead, they have decided to blame and praise teachers for student failures and successes despite the fact that teachers are not the only factor, and are arguably not even the predominant one. That is why this reform movement is anti-teacher, and there is nothing bizarre about labeling it as such.

What warnings about job-destroying regulations really mean

One of the favored rhetorical approaches of groups which represent business interests is to remark that businesses create jobs. This is often coupled with the claim that laws which prevent certain business practices — paying unlivable wages, polluting the environment, creating unsafe work conditions — destroy jobs, or make it harder for businesses to create them. In service of this rhetoric, the Chamber of Commerce building in Washington D.C. has a banner on the outside of it reading “Jobs: Brought to you by the free market system.”

This particular line of rhetoric is of course over-simplistic and misguided, but also kind of amusing. To suggest that a particular economic system or agent in an economic system is the creator of jobs ignores the fact that there are diverse ways to carry out economic production. I would imagine a Chamber of Commerce building in the 1850s displaying a banner that read “Jobs: Brought to you by the chattel slavery system.” In Middle Ages England, a similar organization might erect a sign with the slogan “Jobs: Brought to you by the feudal system.” Additionally, slave masters and feudal lords would be triumphed as job creators, and policies which made it difficult for them to use slaves and serfs would be depicted as job-destroying.

Despite what the banner says, jobs are not brought to you by the free market system. After all, the existence of jobs long preceded the existence of the free market system. If you were to dig deep into the conservative rhetoric on job creation, what you would really find it saying is this: In the capitalist system, private owners of capital must be willing to participate in production for it to occur at all.

What is meant by the claim that businesses create jobs is that capital — which is what business owners have — is necessary for production to take place. Without it, those bringing their labor to exchange in the market will have no place to sell it, and will thus be without a job. The argument that the use of capital is necessary for capitalist production is true by definition. The point is not compelling, and does nothing but describe the mechanics of capitalist modes of production.

So what then is the point being made when business groups say that a particular action is job-destroying? In many cases, that line is used in ways that are so disingenuous as to be laughable. For example, business lobbyists claimed that totally voluntary suggestions that companies not advertise unhealthy food to kids were “job-killing government outreach.”

In other cases, what business groups mean when they say some particular requirement is job-killing is that owners of capital are not willing to make productive use of it if the requirement is put in place. So when they say that a regulation which forbids a local plant from poisoning drinking water will kill jobs, what they mean is that owners of capital are unwilling to use their capital if they are not permitted to poison the drinking water. If they cannot cut costs by dumping their waste into the local water supply, the productive enterprise is not appealing enough for them to carry out. Instead, they might do something else with their capital like buy treasuries or take it overseas to places where they are allowed to pollute drinking water.

In essence then, this whole rhetoric about policies hindering job creation is really nothing more than a threat. Owners of capital are threatening to basically carry out a sort of “capital strike” if the policy is put into place. In the same way that laborers can shut down production by withdrawing their labor, capitalists can shut down production by withdrawing their capital. Claiming that some requirement will kill jobs then is nothing but a way of signaling — often bluffing — that business owners will refuse to employ their capital under those requirements.

What is important to note then is that it is not safety or environmental regulations that kill jobs; it is the reaction of business owners to those regulations which do so. Despite some evidence to the contrary, owners of capital are actually human beings with agency. They do not have to make the choice to withdraw their capital to avoid conducting their businesses in moral ways. That is a decision that they make.

If a business owner closes up shop to avoid requirements that she behave ethically, any reasonable person should blame her for being an awful human being. But instead, this clever rhetoric about policies destroying jobs has effectively masked what is really going on, and caused people to forget that the actual agent of job destruction is not the person who imposes the minimally humane regulations, but the person who refuses to comply with them.

Ways to think about government distribution policy

With the debt ceiling theatre nearly reaching its climax, remarks about spending cuts, tax increases, ending tax loopholes, and other sorts of deficit reduction approaches are being tossed out daily by politicians and political commentators. In addition to being a bit abstract, the debates surrounding these topics often devolve into a muddled mess. One of the primary reasons for the muddling is the confused ways that people try to understand government policy that affects economic distribution.

The chief confusion is centered around what we consider the baseline to be when making comparisons of different government distribution policies. With America’s strong laissez-faire tradition, it is common for individuals to take a roughly laissez-faire policy to be the baseline against which comparisons are made. Using a laissez-faire baseline, increasing taxes to fund programs for the poor is a form of redistrbution. Under the same baseline, decreasing taxes and cutting programs for the poor is not a form of redistribution; rather, it is a rectification of previous redistribution.

This logic also holds for tax loopholes and tax deductions. For better clarity, consider the mortgage interest deduction. Under this program, home owners are able to deduct from their income taxes the amount they pay in interest on their mortgage. If we consider the amount of income taxes paid at the established marginal rates to be the baseline, then the mortgage interest deduction is a form of targeted government spending. It is functionally indistinguishable from sending a check to homeowners for the amount of their mortgage interest. In the context of a marginal-rates baseline, targeted deductions are a way the government spends through the tax code.

Under a laissez-faire baseline, tax loopholes and tax deductions are not considered targeted government spending; instead, they are considered ways of rolling back — in a very narrow way — previous deviations from the laissez-faire norm. This is how conservative commentators are able to suggest that closing tax loopholes which permit corporations to pay far fewer taxes than the established marginal rates allow is a tax increase. Against a laissez-faire baseline, it is a tax increase because anything above no taxes is a tax increase. Against the aforementioned marginal-rates baseline, closing a tax loophole is not a tax increase; it is the elimination of a targeted government spending program.

It is clear then how confused this discussion can get. Depending upon your baseline, the very way that you understand and describe what a particular government action is changes dramatically. Although I mentioned two possible baselines above — the marginal-rates baseline and the laissez-faire baseline — there are dozens of other possible baselines as well. In an egalitarian framework, equal distribution of economic products would be considered the baseline, and anything which causes deviations from that would be considered a form of redistribution. Under a Rawlsian framework, a distribution of economic products which maximizes the minimum available to everyone would be the baseline, deviations from which would be redistribution.

None of these baselines can reasonably be considered a neutral default. The only group who might try to argue that their baseline is a neutral default would be the proponents of laissez-faire distribution policies. Within the political culture of the United States, that might be a safe bet rhetorically, but it is not a sound position. Laissez-faire distribution policies are just that: distribution policies. Proponents of a laissez-faire baseline like to think of their baseline as being what occurs without government intervention. But in fact, laissez-faire distributions are just as much a consequence of intentional public policy as any other distribution.

There are a whole set of government policies that are put in place to generate what we call laissez-faire economies. Municipalities create land title systems which establish a singular authority on who owns what land. They create property laws which permit individuals to exclusively control and own a piece of nature, while forbidding others from making any claim on that piece of nature. They build police forces to ensure compliance with those property laws. They create courts to enforce contract compliance. The list can go on and on. All of these actions are intentional policies set up to promote a particular lassiez-faire distribution.

Now laissez-faire proponents certainly have arguments they can make in favor of these policies. They might argue that they reflect certain narrow conceptions of property rights which they favor as the correct ones. They might also argue that laissez-faire distributions reflect merit. But in making those points, they are still arguing for the government to adopt and implement intentional public policies to generate an economic distribution that they favor. It is not a default, non-interventionist distribution; it is dependent on government policies just like any other approach.

No baseline should reasonably be considered a neutral default. They all require intentional public policy to realize. So it is not possible to suggest that tax deductions and tax loopholes are really government spending or that they are really lower taxes. From some baselines it is the former; from others, it is the latter. Although it might seem that we need a baseline to describe government actions, that’s not true. In fact, using baselines is precisely what causes the confusion inherent in divergent descriptions of the exact same government action.

The logical reality is that every set of government distribution policies is redistributive and unjust from the perspective of every other set of government distribution policies. Talking about one set while adopting the framework assumptions of another is always going to yield the conclusion that the set being discussed is wrong. Using baselines based on assumptions of certain frameworks is ideologically loaded from the very start which is precisely why those baselines yield such diverging understandings of identical government policies.

The real point of contention then should not be on what we name a particular government action since the names we use are already dependent upon ideas about what distribution policies the government ought to be pursuing. Instead, in a more honest debate, the discussion should simply be about what kinds of distribution policies the government should pursue and why it should do so. In that kind of debate — unchained from framework-specific naming disputes — there are many ways to think about government distribution policy.

Individuals can argue for a laissez-faire distribution policy if they are swayed by arguments for a certain narrow conception of property rights and merit. Individuals can argue for a distribution policy based on John Rawls’ Difference Principle if they think impartiality is central to economic justice issues. They can even argue for distribution policies which maximize a certain set of human capabilities in the population if they are impressed by the capability approach to economic justice championed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The list of course goes on.

What is important though is to understand that these are all different ways to begin thinking about government distribution policy, not ways to deviate from the default baseline (which does not exist). So long as political commentators continue to rely on unstated baselines in their analyses, they will never be able to avoid the pitfalls of that approach. This more expanded way to think about government distribution policy offers a way to turn the debate back into the substantive realm and to avoid the frustrations inherent in the existing approaches.