It’s looking like a mutually beneficial deal is coming soon in the Chicago teacher strike, and I’m glad if so. Matt Yglesias has a post up that I think is really worth reading. One of the things that I’ve been trying to tease out in this discussion is a contradiction within the conventional, shall we say, market friendly progressive take. Many in the ed reform world both a) claim that American teaching is suffering from a serious dearth of talent and b) oppose the Chicago teacher union in their strike. I find this problematic, particularly when it comes from those who typically express value in purely monetary terms: if you think that a given occupation has failed to attract talented enough workers, simultaneously arguing to make the job worse is counterproductive. Yglesias avoids this, to his considerable credit, by arguing that the teachers are well paid and deserving.
As he says
What I think this drives home is that not only is Chicago compensating its teachers unusually generously, but Chicago is right to do so. The national average teacher is paid a low amount for a college graduate, which is not a smart way to try to attract and retain the best possible teachers. Chicago, by being unusually generous, is offering a level of compensation that seems modestly above average for a college graduate. That’s exactly what I would want to see from my city—a real effort to invest the money necessary to hire and retain quality people.
One thing Yglesias might have mentioned is that, by almost any measure, Chicago is a particularly difficult environment in which to teach. 90% of Chicago public school students are eligible for federal school lunch subsidies, and I don’t need to tell anyone the considerable educational disadvantage associated with low socioeconomic status. Chicago has also been subject to a recent spate of truly terrible violence, and has crime and violent crime rates that have not decline at the rates of many other major American cities. It’s a tough, tough job.
The question is where we go from here. Yglesias rightly identifies the issue of standardized testing as a major source of contention.
The city wants to make test-based, “value-added” models of teacher performance a very important part of retention and compensation policies. The union, reflecting the views of most classroom teachers, hates that idea. And here’s the crux of the matter. Chicago’s teachers aren’t living lives of luxury, but the city really is investing in paying them an above-average amount. Now it wants to ensure that it’s not just investing a lot of money but investing that money in quality. Chicago teachers don’t want to be subjected to that kind of regime and reject the premise that the test-based model the city’s elected officials favor is a good proxy for quality.
Again, credit where due: this is a fair and evenhanded gloss. And it really is the rub: what portion of a student’s educational output is student-derived and what portion is teacher-derived? My frustration with a lot of education reformers is that they, at an extreme, find that question somehow disqualifying in and of itself, or otherwise treat it as a dodge, a ruse, or a kind of wagon circling. (Yglesias is occasionally guilty of the latter.) The trouble is that divining the exact mixture is, well, really goddamn hard. Probably impossible on a per-student basis; the confounding variables are just too numerous. For myself– and I will risk saying that my opinion is not uneducated– I am confident both that the teacher side of the mix for the average student is far from nothing, but also that the general assumption places far too much power in the hands of teachers to determine student outcomes. I also believe that the mixture is probably not static or universal. Literacy skills, in particular, are likely dependent on students meeting certain thresholds of relevant exposure at a particular age. It’s possible, in other words, that an energetic and bright teacher might have a huge impact on a student who has already developed the prerequisite reading skills but have essentially no chance with a student who lacks them.
Yglesias’s economic intuitions, which frequently contribute to really valuable analysis of current events, fail him here because of these dynamics. A teacher’s control over his students just isn’t the same as a factory worker’s control over a widget. That’s why, for example, merit pay has such a poor track record. (Here’s an informative blog post, written by someone who is frequently critical of teacher unions.) I truly believe that a large part of a better educational discourse is just getting past analogy to conventional economics.