I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 8, 2011

Beltway "Liberals" Love "Reform"

Thank goodness that dirty hippie bloggers like yours truly have "serious" "liberals" like Jon Chait to save us from ourselves:
It's certainly nice that Damon wants to defend teachers. But, first of all, the fact is that not all teachers are dedicated and good. A few are lazy and bad. Their badness and laziness has serious consequences for children, because it is extremely hard in practice to fire even obviously incompetent teachers.
Chait, like so many other psuedo-libs, knows for a fact that there are bad, tenured teachers; he just won't say how many there are, or how big of an impact they make, especially compared to other factors. So he says, "a few are lazy and bad." Welcome to the human race, Jon; what's your point?

Again: teacher effects account for 10-15% of student achievement. Of course, teachers change kids' lives in many ways other than test scores; my point is that Chait's reflexive worry about teacher quality is overblown, especially considering he can't even quantify how "serious" of a worry it is.
Damon gives voice to the old idea of teaching as a monastic profession, a difficult job with bad wages. He concludes that only people motivated by love of children would do it, which may be widely true but is probably not universally true.
Dear lord, is this some weak tea or what? "Probably not universally true"? It's probably not "universally true" that New Republic bloggers give a crap about what they do either - so what? Where is any proof that "bad" tenured teachers remaining in the classroom is a serious problem? Especially when we know what the real problems with kids' lives today are?
What's more, his entire vision rests on maintaining teaching as a monastic profession. The old liberal slogan always demanded that we "treat teachers like professionals." That entails some measure of accountability -- we can debate the metrics -- which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. 
Damon is NOT putting forth a "vision"; he's describing reality. Did Damon say anything that would lead a reasonable person to assume he is FOR teachers getting bad wages and no respect?

What Damon did was point out the absurdity of the corporate reformers' view of teachers: that they are lazy, unaccountable, and unmotivated. He's not promoting treating teachers in a "monastic" way; he's showing how ridiculous the arguments about "bad" teachers really are.

Further - and I'm getting really tired of saying this over and over again - no one is saying teachers shouldn't be accountable. The fact is, they are already accountable. The barrier to entry in the profession is already fairly high. Tenure is hardly granted automatically: 40% of teachers in NJ do not get it after three years. Teachers can be and are dismissed for incompetence even when they gain tenure. Yes, we need to reform the system so hearings are efficient, quick, and fair, but even the unions agree to that. Any failure to remove bad teachers is clearly on the policy makers who won't give enough resources to do the job.

Chait is living in a world that simply doesn't exist; it's a neat trick, but it seems especially easy to pull off inside the Beltway.
That's the definition of a professional career track, and the current absence of it is what drives most of the best college graduates into other professions.
Here we go: "If only more teachers were like ME, we'd save the profession." I don't know when we decided that college GPA was correlated to teaching success; I guess I missed the meeting. I do know that you could probably count on one hand the number of courses an engineering major and an education major take at the same college, so an apples-to-apples comparison is transparently stupid.
Damon argues that teachers love their jobs, and therefore that career incentives are irrelevant to their performance. Well, I love my job. I love it so much that if somebody handed me $10 million and I never had to work again, I'd still do it. Nevertheless, if I were guaranteed a fixed salary that was tied to my tenure, I would work a lot less hard than I do.
First of all, Damon never argued that career incentives are irrelevant. He argued that people want to do what they want to do. The cynical presumption of the reporter - that people are inclined to do the least amount of work possible - is belied by the fact that teachers want to teach even though the job doesn't pay nearly as well as other professions and requires long hours of work.

Further: there ARE career incentives in teaching. Teachers are paid on a scale where they make more each year than the previous one. That is a powerful incentive to stay in the field. There is no "fixed salary" in teaching.

But maybe Marty Peretz ought to change how his writers are paid. I'm all for paying Chait a guaranteed fixed salary if it means he writes less crap like this.

Personal Note: I saw my first copy of The New Republic back in 1985. I'd never seen anything like it; essays about policy from a liberal point of view. As an undergrad, I'd go to the library and read it when I wasn't practicing. I subscribed in grad school and read it on the subway; people at my conservatory just assumed it was Downbeat.

Then came the 2000 election, and Andrew Sullivan's trashing of Al Gore. I stopped reading out of disgust; the nasty, spiteful, juvenile nonsense that spewed forth from TNR during that campaign was more than I could take. As Bob Somerby has shown, in nauseating detail, TNR did more than just sit out the press's War Against Gore - they were active participants.

I throw the mess we are in today at Marty Peretz's feet; him, and all the other careerist, Beltway liberals who should have been standing up for the progressive principals they say they espouse but never really fight for. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that they've signed on to the corporate "reform" agenda, because the entire point is to divert attention from the fact that our self-appointed elites have failed us miserably.

1 comment:

Dave White said...

I think the last line in the essay says more about Chait's work ethic than it does the generalization he's trying to make about teachers.