Thursday, June 11, 2009

Alter Puts Kids First

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek has just published a noteworthy column on the prospects of educational reform under President Obama. The piece, entitled "Obama v. the Educrat Blob" and can be found here:

Alter reveals that, in California at least, the state evaluates its teachers without regard to the success of its students. That is to say, a teacher can apparently receive a stellar evaluation even if all of the students in his or her class regress during the year under the teacher's tutelage. (This is my example, not Alter's.) Alter also highlights a recent report finding that 99 percent of the nation's teachers receive "satisfactory" ratings, thereby contributing to the perception among policymakers and others that teachers are interchangeable/fungible widgets (or, as one of my economics professors in college would have put it "a lump of labor."). In point of fact, Alter notes, teachers are not fungible; some are very good, and some are very bad. In this environment, simply adding more teachers, or paying existing teachers more, is not a particularly efficient method of education "reform." Indeed, one might even say that it is not "reform" at all, but instead a continuation of our nation's binge spending on primary and secondary education. That binge, I should note, has left us spending more per capita on education than any other major country, with "major" defined as those nations with populations of 10 million or more. Indeed, even if one includes all countries in the comparison, the USA is third, behind only Switzerland and Norway. The data, from the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, via the U.S. Department of Education, are here.

At the same time, Alter notes that some states and localities are attempting to draw finer distinctions between mediocre and high quality teachers so they can reward and encourage the latter, although he does not go into much detail about these efforts.

Alter blames California's bizarre system of evaluations and the more general resistance to teacher accountability on those teachers' unions (not the teachers themselves or even all unions) that fight meaningful reform tooth and nail. (He also notes that some teachers welcome reform.) Although such unions strongly backed then-Senator Obama during his campaign against Senator McCain, Alter expresses hope that now-President Obama will use stimulus funds as a lever to reward and encourage those states and localities that are, in fact, seeking to identify, encourage and reward top teachers. Let's hope that Alter is correct, i.e., that the Administration and Congress will deploy stimulus money, and other spending for that matter, in a manner that rewards successful efforts and declines to prop up failure. But, as Alter himself notes, such an approach will meet resistance in Congress, where Senators and Representatives prefer to spread such money around pro-rata to various states, regardless of desert. Moreover, it appears that the Obama administration will resist one obvious way to encourage reward success --- school vouchers that allow parents to choose where to send their children to school, thereby circumventing the monopoly school systems with which parents of poor children must now contend.

Of course, conservatives might rightly ask why the National government should be second-guessing local decisions about how to evaluate teachers. This is a very good question. One response might be that, by bolstering unions, including teachers unions, the national government has helped create this mess and thus should have a role in getting us out of it. That is to say, the first best solution might be to withdraw federal support for collective bargaining by teachers, thereby diminishing the power of what Alter calls the "Educrat Blob" to influence education policy. Absent such a step, which one cannot expect from this President or Congress, the next best approach might be to influence policy directly by providing a national counter-weight to the disproportionate power wielded by teachers' unions. One might also note that states like California, whose tax and spend policies reduce economic opportunity for their citizens, likely expect their best educated students to depart the state for greener pastures elsewhere. And, in fact, California has been experiencing such emigration lately. In December of 2008, the L.A Times reported that the state had experienced net out migration for four years in a row. If so, the state might have little interest in maintaining a strong system of public education, since many citizens will depart soon after graduation. Finally, a federal tax policy that diverts 20 percent or more of personal income, and thus 20 percent or more of the productivity gains from education, to Washington reduces the incentives of individual citizens to lobby their state governments to develop cost-justified educational policies. Ironically, then, the unwarranted expansion of government and associated taxation can provide a (second best again) rationale for federal involvement in education. These are not the strongest arguments for overriding a system of federalism, though.

Note that Alter is already taking some hits in the Blogosphere, from some who say he is "scapegoating teachers." See here.   I don't read Alter that way. Instead, I read him as expressing frustration that good teachers do not receive sufficient rewards, and teachers who are not so good receive too many rewards. This is hardly teacher bashing. It is, instead, quite 'pro-teacher."

Finally, if you liked this column, you also might like this one, where Alter advocates a "Grand Bargain," i.e., higher pay for teacher, coupled with much tougher accountability.