Sunday, February 9, 2014

Jon Chait and Education reform

I honestly think Jon Chait and I are participating in completely different debates.  Consider this:
A major reason for this is obviously that charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones. This puts them at a crossways with teachers' unions and their allies, which defend paying teachers by seniority and subjecting them to minimal performance accountability.
Now match this up with Mike the Mad Biologists description of the games that are being played with these tests (example from here).  Or the compensation paid to executives.  Also, there are concerns about the retention rates that charter schools have of problematic students.

So these are my issues:

  • Are we really sure that an "at will" standard of employment is better than unions?
  • Can we be sure that the testing is fair, objective, and measures what we want to measure? And that it will not be managed for "optics"?
  • Is reducing teacher compensation to increase executive compensation where we should shift resources?
  • Private day-cares and universities can expel students for any reason  Are we sure that won't become an issue when there is not a strong public school system that has to take students in the absence of strong evidence of problems for other students?
I also ask this in the context of the TPM article arguing that the current evidence isn't showing superior student outcomes.  Because, if the students are doing the same, then I think we should pay attention to the teachers who are worth protecting as well.

These are really the unanswered questions that I have.  Now would I trade charter schools for other policy gains.  For example, robust and progression taxation could create the possibility of redistribution which might lead to wider social benefits (and make me less wary of the corporate model of shifting earnings to the top).    

Mark: This is more your area.  Any perspectives on your part?


  1. Joseph:

    I've said this before, that I wonder if some journalists' negative attitude toward unions, tenure, and other aspects of job security is related to the fact that journalism, as a profession, has very little job security. I could imagine Chait, or some other journalist, feeling like he works his butt off every day and doesn't have job security--indeed, traditional journalism jobs keep disappearing, and I can assume that Chait doesn't want to switch sides and take a job in public relations--and so, from his perspective, what's so special about 3 million public school teachers that they all get tenure???

    This is all a bit orthogonal to your discussions of what charter schools actually do. But, I can see that if a journalist such as Chait comes into the discussion with the perception that job security if unfair, or that unions and tenure are a scam, that this will drive the rest of his attitudes.

    1. I actually think that this is a very good point. Part of the issue is the social role of education. The state pays people to educate children and it is an obligation of children to attend. This creates some powerful principal agent problems.

      I see a lot of the same issues with private prisons. It looks like a great way to go (enforceable metrics, less cost) but in practice you get odd elements (guaranteed number of prisoners) that seem to misunderstand the point.

      But I agree that high job security is seen by many as an unwarranted benefit. But context is everything. Unions have a different social role in Germany and you get odd things like German car companies trying to form a union in the SE to meet massive resistance.

      But I think that many of us would be okay with less job security if it came with good performance metrics. I left a tenure track job for a non-tenure track job. Key to that decision was the (so far correct) perception that I would be judged on clear performance metrics.

    2. Joseph:

      Performance metrics in academic research is another interesting topic. In many places the ultimate performance metric is grant dollars. But of course this is highly dependent on the political climate.

    3. Andrew:

      While I strongly believe that you're on to something about journalists' attitude toward unions, I don't think it explains Chait's animosity toward teachers. As far as I can remember, he hasn't complained about any unions in any other context.

      I suspect part of the answer lies in Chait's aggressive style and somewhat black-and-white worldview. Mainly though, I think, though, the answer is found in the reform movement.

      Within the movement, reform is frequently referred to as the "Civil Rights Movement of our time," The teaching profession is often seen as an obstacle and is routinely demonized. (When you read accounts of people who lost faith with institutions like TFA or KIPP, many if not most talk about the moment when they realized that, despite what they had been told, professional teachers tended to be dedicated to their students and good at their jobs.)

      Chait is immersed in all this. He came of age in the journalistic epicenter, he's of the age and class that made up the movement's spine and he's married to an active figure in the movement.

      Given my posts on the subject, it's obvious that I don't agree with the Civil Rights Movement/ed reform movement analogy (tragically flawed is the phrase that comes to mind), but if you do accept the assumptions and rhetoric of the movement, Chait's positions are not surprising.