When assessing a statement, sometimes it's useful to rephrase it in a more general way and see how well it holds up. I tried that with a passage I found in a popular blog (one of the very few I read every day). Where the author had referred to members of a specific profession I substituted in the word 'employees' except when talking about unions ('employees unions' seemed redundant). I also changed a couple of words for consistency, but other than that the passage was exactly the same.
The resulting paragraph (seen below) was much more extreme than I had expected and it got me to thinking, how would people react to this passage if they encountered it without all the baggage? I decided to post the generalized version with a brief explanatory note then give people a couple of days to think about it before filing in the details.
Here's the generalized passage:
If you concede that employers need to be able to fire bad employees, then you can't fully defend the role of the unions. You can defend the concept of unions, and you can believe that some of the things unions do, like bargain for higher aggregate wages, help society. But most unions demonstrably make it very difficult to fire bad employees. That is currently a core function of unions, and something that must change. You're also going to need higher salaries to attract a better caliber employee into the workforce, and that's something unions could potentially help. But being "treated like professionals" has to mean both the opportunity to earn a good living if you do well and the potential to be fired if you fail.And here is the passage Jonathan Chait (that's right, Jonathan Chait) originally posted in his blog:
If you concede that principals need to be able to fire bad teachers, then you can't fully defend the role of the unions. You can defend the concept of unions, and you can believe that some of the things unions do, like bargain for higher aggregate wages, help education. But most teachers unions demonstrably make it very difficult to fire bad teachers. That is currently a core function of teachers unions, and something that must change. You're also going to need higher salaries to attract a better caliber teacher into the profession, and that's something unions could potentially help. But being "treated like professionals" has to mean both the opportunity to earn a good living if you do well and the potential to be fired if you fail.There are obviously two possible responses Chait could make here (three if you count ignoring it entirely). He could say he agrees with the general statement or he could argue that teachers are a special case and should be granted less union protection than, say, policemen.*
Ironically, the more defensible position Chait can take here is the extreme one, namely that unions should not do anything to discourage employers from firing their members. It's not a position that most readers of the New Republic would embrace but, as a statement of personal belief, it is extraordinarily difficult to rebut.
If he tries to explain why teachers constitute a special case, he will have to deal with the data and in this particular debate, the numbers are not his friends. (It's worth remembering that Diane Ravitch started out on Chait's side. Her road to Damascus came when she realized she could no longer reconcile those views with what she was seeing in the research findings.)
Jonathan Chait can be a formidable debater but he has shown himself to be largely ignorant of the research behind these issues (no one at TNR even knew enough about PISA to catch the bait and switch in the intro to Waiting for Superman and in the education debate that's about as slow as the pitches get).
He'll be trying to punch holes in the findings of institutions like EPI and Rand and big guns in the field like Donald Rubin. He'll have to show precipitous educational decline without resorting to the aforementioned PISA (good test but absolutely meaningless in this context). He'll have to explain why schools that use his policies are more likely to underperform than to outperform unionized schools. He'll have to justify firing people based on metrics so volatile that a third of teachers in the top 20% could find themselves in firing range the next year, metrics based on data so confounded that "students’ fifth grade teachers were good predictors of their fourth grade test scores."
This is one time the smart money is on the other guys.
* Yes, we fire policemen. What we don't do is is fire policemen based on unreliable metrics that are largely outside of the officers' control and are easily manipulated by their superiors