Education reformers are making teaching less attractive

Dana Goldstein has a worthwhile article on Slate today about the widespread breakout of cheating in schools that have adopted high-stakes testing models. These evaluation models — which are championed by the newest crop of education reformers — are plagued by a long list of conceptual and empirical problems, some of which I have detailed in the past. One additional problem that I think deserves to be raised is the possible impact these testing-heavy approaches — and the rest of the reform agenda — have on the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

As a background, it is important to note that the education reform movement has almost exclusively implicated bad teachers and schools as the cause of the country’s educational problems. Gone in this new movement are the more typical considerations of the impacts that poverty and inequality have on student performance. In its place is the very American idea that a child’s background has nothing to do with their level of achievement, and that therefore there must be something fundamentally lacking in the teachers and schools that serve students who perform poorly.

If you thought this was true, then the most logical thing to do would be to make improvements to schools and find ways to attract quality teachers. Even if you did not think it was true, attracting good teachers is still a worthwhile goal if only for the marginal impacts they are bound to have on at least some of the students. Given that the new reform movement is premised on the idea that we need better teachers, you would think that reformers would be doing all that they could to make the profession more attractive. However, what they are actually doing is the exact opposite.

Take high-stakes testing for example. I think it is safe to say that most individuals considering a teaching career are going to be turned off by a profession that forces them to narrowly teach to a limited test that then takes up their instruction time to administer. More than that, the high-stakes testing strategy is usually coupled with some sort of merit-based pay that is connected to student test scores. In this system, every few years a teacher might receive anything from a $25,000 bonus to a pink slip depending on the performance of their students which is at least partially if not primarily outside of their control. I can not speak for anyone else, but income and job instability is not what I usually look for when considering careers.

In addition to high-stakes testing, the movement also has a strange obsession with demonizing unions. If you were to listen to Michelle Rhee or watch the documentary Waiting for Superman, you would think that teacher unions were plaguing school systems and must be destroyed. In fact, one of the arguments often mentioned in favor of charter schools is that they are unencumbered by those awful union contracts. Like high-stakes testing, I am not exactly sure how attacking the collective bargaining agents of teachers is supposed to make the profession attractive to prospective teachers. Given the willingness of states to cut teacher salaries any time they are having a crunch, the last thing I would want to do is enter into a profession in which I had no protection against arbitrary policy whims.

Finally, the whole teacher-blaming focus of the reform movement is toxic. Teach for America, the darling program of the movement, is a complete slap in the fact to the teaching profession in that it suggests that green college students could do better than experienced instructors. Additionally, the almost exclusive focus on teachers as being to blame or praise for a students achievement level sets the profession up to be one of perpetual abuse. What do you expect to happen when inevitably a student performs poorly and the reformers are claiming that it is exclusively or primarily the teacher’s fault? Verbal abuse from parents and principles, that’s what.

Given the necessity of attracting high quality job candidates within the framework of teacher-focused reform, it is totally baffling that the reformers endorse so many remedies that are hostile to those in the profession. If attracting high quality teachers is already difficult, making the profession more rigid, more unstable, and more abusive is going to make it nearly impossible. How the reformers expect to fix the problem of bad teachers by making the whole profession less attractive is beyond me.

The anti-libertarian nature of right-to-work laws

Right-wing libertarians tend to have a hostile relationship with organized labor. Labor unions have a long history of endorsing socialism, communism, and anarchism, all philosophies that libertarian capitalists vehemently oppose. Unions are also, by their very nature, collectivist organizations that primarily act to move the equilibrium price for labor higher than it would otherwise be. These union behaviors and ideological tendencies certainly annoy libertarians, but they are not necessarily inconsistent with right-wing libertarian principles.

As long as individual workers form into unions voluntarily, and the owners that they contract with do so voluntarily, there is nothing non-libertarian about the collective bargaining process. What more clear-headed libertarians object to then are not unions, but government policies which coerce owners into recognizing and bargaining with unions when they do not wish to do so. Requiring bosses to negotiate contracts with unions elected by the workers is, for libertarians, a wrongful violation of property rights and the imposition of government force. On this picture, the National Labor Relations Act is a violent infringement on the rights of individuals to freely trade with whomever they want.

This all makes sense if you accept the first principles and axioms of libertarian philosophy. If you happen to think property rights exist, and then think further that they are absolute rights, the libertarian conclusions follow. Pragmatically speaking, the historical reason for the construction of labor laws was the existence of persistent industrial strife. That strife would boil up periodically and shut down entire industrial sectors which imperiled people across the country and negatively affected the economy as a whole. Nonetheless, in the narrow libertarian view, interventions even for those reasons are still unjust, and so they must oppose laws which protect union activity.

On the same note, however, libertarians should also be opposed to so-called right-to-work laws. These laws — which are on the books in 23 states — forbid unions and business owners from signing agreements that make union membership or payment of dues a requirement for those hired by the business. Government policies which prevent owners from voluntarily entering into an agreement to create a closed shop are as coercive and anti-libertarian as the union-friendly labor laws that typically attract much more libertarian ire.

Why should a union and a business owner be forcefully prevented from signing an agreement that requires prospective employees to join a union in order to be hired? It is not a violation of anyone’s freedom, not in the negative libertarian sense of the word. A worker looking for a job does not have a positive right to a non-union job. If this prospective employee does not want to join a union, she is completely free to avoid doing so by simply passing up the job. Government intervention in the form of right-to-work laws violates the property rights of business owners, dictating to them what they can and cannot contract for in the execution of those rights.

The anti-libertarian nature of right-to-work laws is pretty obvious which makes it a bit strange that libertarians focus far less attention on them than they do the National Labor Relations Act. One possible excuse a libertarian might provide is that although right-to-work laws violate libertarian principles, they are created to counteract other violations of libertarian principles. A libertarian who holds this view is tacitly endorsing the following preference ranking:

  1. No federal labor laws and no right-to-work laws.
  2. Federal labor laws and right-to-work laws existing simultaneously.
  3. Federal labor laws and no right to work laws.

It is clear that option 1 would be the preferred world for libertarians. In that world, there is no government intervention forcing businesses to recognize unions and no government intervention forcing them to not enter into certain agreements with unions. What is not so clear is why option 2 should be ranked above option 3.

In an additive sense, option 2 actually imposes two instances of forceful government intervention while option 3 imposes just one. In a more qualitative sense, both 2 and 3 are deviations from the libertarian ideal; they just attack property rights in different ways. As a theory that focuses on an ideal, libertarianism is incapable of determining which of the two non-ideal worlds is closer to the ideal than the other.

Despite this theoretical impasse, right-wing libertarians persistently attack union-friendly labor laws as unjust, while barely mentioning the business-friendly labor laws that are just as problematic in their worldview. If libertarians want to be consistent, they should be attacking right-to-work laws as adamantly as they attack the National Labor Relations Act. That they choose not to is somewhat telling.

Study misses what poverty is about

The Heritage Foundation released a report today about poverty that managed to get some traction in the media. There is nothing terribly new in the report; it is basically a statistically-rich rehashing of the idea that poor people are not really poor. The Heritage Foundation provides a long list of what are mainly cheap, consumer electronics, and then reports on what percentage of impoverished households have them. The suggestion is that America’s poor are actually living quite well because most of them have a television, coffee maker, air conditioning, and other similar amenities in their households.

The timing of this report is fairly suspect. All of the data in the figures is from 6 years ago which suggests that in addition to there being nothing new in the approach, there is also nothing new in the statistics. Of course, publishing a report like this right now makes sense politically as a background for a deficit reduction bill that is poised to take away trillions of dollars from the poor in the coming decade. If they are not really poor — as the Heritage Foundation suggests — then making them pay for the budget deficit must not be nearly as inhumane a policy as it sounds.

Responses to the arguments have been fairly limited. Derek Thompson at The Atlantic makes the point that although consumer electronics are getting cheaper, the more essential items like housing, food, health care, and education are getting much more expensive. A one-time purchase of a television set hardly makes up for the wage-eating rise in rents. Matthew Yglesias forwards a similar argument pointing out that although electronics are more accessible, “if you’re looking to live in a safe neighborhood with good public schools in a metropolitan area with decent job opportunities you’re going to find that this is quite expensive.”

These responses are worthwhile in demonstrating the absurdity of the Heritage Foundation’s selection of amenities to measure. However, they problematically rely on the same misconception that the harms of poverty are exclusively tied to some sort of objective material deprivation. Although being deprived of quality material goods is a big aspect of poverty — especially when talking about poverty in absolute terms — there are additional impacts of poverty that are just as damaging.

For instance, one of the most difficult aspects of living in poverty is being in a state of total instability. A family of three making $18,000 per year is always a single step away from total insolvency. If it is even possible for that family to find a place where they can make ends meet reliably, they will almost certainly accumulate no savings. They will live in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood with the threat of crime and violence always present — granted with a refrigerator and toaster in their apartment. Due to their scarce financial resources, any kind of disruption (e.g. an illness or a layoff) will leave them short on their bills, constantly in interest-accruing debt, and never certain whether this will be the month they get kicked out of their rental unit for failure to pay.

It is the utter terror and anxiety of that kind of life that is really the defining feature of poverty, and the reason why a moral society would be interested in doing whatever it takes to eradicate it. In the United States, it is not likely that someone will be so poor that they starve. They might be so poor that their food options leave them horribly unhealthy, but even the poorest in the society are typically able to find the absolute bare necessities to keep on living.

Debates about how much above those bare necessities should be considered legitimately poor completely miss the point. Having some index of goods does not make your life stable and secure, and consequently does not shield you from the psychological impacts of living in perpetual uncertainty about the next month’s expenses. That is what poverty is about, and that is why studies like those produced by the Heritage Foundation are so vacuous.