No one who achieves success does so without acknowledging the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude. ~Author Unknown
That little scamp, Megan McArdle, is such a scatterhead! She's been pulled off her epic deconstruction of Elizabeth Warren (Day 29 and counting) to pour over reports of teacher incompetence in Los Angeles. She prefaces her new topic with a post on one of her pet peeves; schoolteachers, and how much they suck. As a former schoolteacher I recognize one of my pet peeves, a student who thought that his or her teacher was stupid and lazy. Attitudes are easily misinterpreted and anecdotes do not do reality justice, however, so let's look at the issue in McArdle's own words.
The unhappy corollary of [unionization] is that the metrics will not only tend towards simplicity and ease of measurement; they will also tend to reward mediocrity. Again, this is not an accident of history. A collective bargaining unit run by a "majority rules" system is always going to look for a system that rewards the median or modal worker, not the best.
A merit pay system can work in one of two ways. It can benchmark teachers against the average, and reward the people who achieve the most improvement. Or it can set some minimum standard and give a bonus to any teacher who bests that standard. (You could set three tiers, or what have you, but the concept is basically the same).
In my opinion, the first system is probably going to best maximize productivity (though this is an interesting discussion for another blog post). But it would never pass a union vote, because the majority of teachers wouldn't benefit from it, and those who did would have to work harder. The second system might pass. But the union would make heroic efforts to water down the benchmarks until the majority of their members were receiving at least some "bonus" pay.
But compare either system to what now exists in our nation's schools. Every single teacher can stay on for years unless they do something direly wrong. Every single teacher can get a useless education degree, which basically requires a pulse. They have a system that spreads benefits absolutely evenly among all their members.
Teachers are inevitably mediocre people, since their unions only want mediocrity because teachers are lazy and want to be paid for incompetence.
We should pay teachers much more than we do. Right now, they take a substantial portion of their "pay" in the form of near-total job security. People like this benefit. But in most cases, they shouldn't have it, because it has predictable effects on performance--particularly when it is coupled with a pay scale that relies on measurable but not very useful traits like advanced degrees (totally useless) and seniority (the benefits of experience eventually level off). The only thing teachers have a financial incentive to do under this system is keep their butts in the teacher's chair, and acquire useless degrees from programs that mostly teach students how to sit through long and pointless classes.
The obvious thing to do is to strip the protections and up the pay, while using merit metrics to determine how that pay is allocated. But the union has very good reasons to resist this. For one thing, depending how you implement it, you'll substantially reduce the role that the union has in setting salaries, and thus its value to the membership. For another, more than 50% of their membership are, definitionally, average or below-average. Merit pay is probably not a good deal for them. Especially if they've spent valuable years of their lives acquiring useless M. Ed. degrees.
On a life-cycle basis, merit pay is only good for the minority of teachers who can produce outstanding results early and often. The rest used to have the comfort of knowing that they would eventually get to the top if they just ground away long enough. Hopefully, we can overcome this if we throw in enough money to sweeten the deal--as we should, anyway, if we want to attract great teachers. But it's a grinding battle everywhere it's been fought.
Teachers don't want to improve because they are lazy. Teacher are stupid, with undergraduate degrees that anyone with a pulse could get, useless advanced degrees, and limited ability to improve themselves. Mind you, this isn't all teachers. McArdle approves of Ivy League teachers. She just dislikes inner city teachers.
Teacher's lobby for kids when it happens to coincide with their interest. Unfortunately, in urban areas, it often doesn't.
I should probably clarify that I'm talking about twenty, maybe thirty failing urban school districts/agglomerations in the United States. I could care less whether Scarsdale has a powerful teacher's union that negotiates triannual ten month paid leave in Hawaii. And the problem in rural areas is not the teacher's unions, it's the geographic fact of no possible competition, and often the net outmigration of educated people who might make good teachers.
They are really, really lazy.
But in those urban areas, the teacher's unions are a big honking problem. This is not some crazy right wing opinion about unions in general; it is a specific problem with public employee unions. The cops and firefighters have their own issues, about which I will happily wax lyrical some other day, but in the end most of them boil down to getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to do no work. If the laziest ten percent of New York's teachers spent all day drinking coffee and doing "literature review", this would be a fiscal problem, but not a desperate one. The problem is, we stick the teacher's union's problems in our classrooms.
They don't want to use the best teaching methods. But they're not just lazy. They don't want to spoil all the fun of teaching disadvantaged children in poor school districts.
They resist changes to their work practices that the best evidence (see Ayers, Supercrunchers) seems to show works with disadvantaged kids: rote memorization, and phonics. These replace the tools that upper middle class give their kids earlier--even if you went to a whole language school, if you're reading this blog it's a safe bet you had phonics, too, when your parents taught you to "sound it out".
McArdle is saying that poor children are not taught to sound out words. Because their teachers don't think it's creative.
Unions also give teachers power to resist changes that make their jobs less fun. I think the teachers genuinely believe that these changes are bad; but I also think that they strenuously resist learning anything to the contrary. There is really good evidence for the benefits of direct instruction in teaching disadvantaged children. But direct instruction moves the teacher into being more of a technician and less of a creative professional.
Direct Instruction is the purchase of instructional materials from a corporation, which will be delivered to the student via anyone off the street. Teachers obviously must control the State Board of Education curriculum process, especially in Texas, which is very influential in textbook adaption. And has no teachers unions with any power.
In conclusion, teachers suck. So what does McArdle think will solve the problem of sucky teachers and incompetent school districts?
I want a voucher system not because I have it in for teachers, but because I want a school system that is more responsive, child focused, creative, outcome-oriented, and effective. I think that schools that have to meet basic standards and treat parents like customers are more likely to be this way than government monopolies[...].
The solution is to treat schoolchildren like customers and privatize their schools, handing over control to corporations to run at a profit. Because of the free hand of the market and market equilibrium and Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand. I must say, it's a tremendous coincidence that the fact that public teachers suck fits so perfectly with Megan McArdle's economic ideology. It's like a miracle!
By the way, what kind of a student was McArdle?
Don't get me wrong, I know that undergrads love [easy] classes. I too took Human Sexuality, along with a number of other fluffy courses designed primarily to allow me to get an A for staring dreamily out the window and occasionally dashing off a paper that mirrored the most trivial philosophical discoveries of whatever Beat poet or PoMo deconstructionist had formed the professor's intellectual framework. However, the fact that most undergraduates would like to spend their four years getting as little for their parents' money as possible, does not mean that the university is obligated to abet them in this pursuit.
Yeah, we thought so.
ADDED: In the comments we discover that the bad teacher described in McArdle's post was a in "typical rural, conservative district" and "This particularly teacher's family has been in the community for generations, she's married into another old family, family on the good 'ol boy power structure." The problem was not unions or Democrats or "inner city" teachers; it was the conservatives taking care of their own, getting them jobs and protecting them when their incompetence is revealed. McArdle should have related to the teacher, not sneered at her.