Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Saturday, February 19, 2011


As you might know, I was a teacher during my brief but interesting professional life. Let me tell you one little story from those years.

When I was a long-term substitute, before I had my first job, I had a student who fancied himself far, far above the maddening crowd of ordinary folk, including both his fellow students and his teachers. (I often found students in wealthy schools who expressed amazement that their teachers didn't just wander in off the street to teach them; they were raised on the adage that those who can't do, teach, and they are surprised that teachers have a university degree.) This boy refused to get into a study group with two Black students because, "They'll bring down my grade." His mother was a psychiatrist and the class was psychology; of course he would ace the test! He came from a family of academics who were intellectually intimidating! It would have embarrassed the other kids if I insisted so I left him alone in his superior glory. When the boy got a C on the test, I merely pointed out that it was a pity he didn't study with the other kids.

I'll bet you anything that boy is a libertarian now.

Which brings us back to our favorite example of emotional, ethical, and mathematical dysfunction, Megan McArdle. Miss Megan doesn't think much of teachers either.

Sandra Tsing-Loh is shocked and hurt that Obama sends his daughters to an expensive private school rather than the local public schools.

In Obama's defense, the public schools in Chicago are terrible. My parents struggled with the same decision--my father worked for a Democratic city administration at the time, and they had both ideological and political reasons to want me to go to public school. But the catastrophic condition of New York's public schools at the time was too much for them, and at considerable personal sacrifice they ended up putting me in private school.

Naturally, if the local schools are bad you have to send you children to one of the most expensive school in the country, the Riverdale Country School, which charged Mr. and Mrs. McArdle $38,000 a year to educated their precious princess.

Riverdale, too, knows that it needs to keep parents happy and test scores high. The New York City public school system, on the other hand, mostly has to get butts in seats, because that's how they get their money. It's not that the teachers don't want to teach kids; it's that they don't have to. And as anyone who's ever tried to write a novel in their spare time knows, anything onerous that you don't have to do generally runs afoul of other priorities.

And just as McArdle knew that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because she would have had weapons of mass destruction if she were a dictator, teachers must be lazy because if Megan McArdle were a teacher she would have been lazy. After all, since she was a lazy student, all students are lazy.

A Berkely student says the Berkely sex class scandal is a temptest in a teapot, and that the activities which purported to be part of the class were actually extracurriculars organized by certain students.

Well, personally, I wasn't as offended by the sexual activity as by the elevation of dorm-room bull sessions to coursework. Perusing the list of courses offered in the same program that gave us male sexuality, I was flabbergasted by the crap that was masquerading as academic activity.

Don't get me wrong, I know that undergrads love these [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. If University administrators had a spine, students would have to organize their own trips to strip clubs instead of getting their instructor to do it for them.
Which proves that teachers don't really want to work.

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.

Masters and doctorate degrees are pointless when teachers get them. MBAs, however, instantly make you an expert on economics.

Because they are so lazy, teachers like having unions that let them get away with being so lazy.

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. Ian Ayers talks about this in Supercrunchers, giving the example of bank loan officers, which used to be a skilled, prestigious jobs, and are now almost a clerical role. Doctors and teachers are resisting an attempt to do similar things to their jobs through, respectively, evidence based medicine and direct instruction.

Those awful teachers, all they want to do is sit around and have fun instead of work. But not all teachers are lazy; McArdle has repeatedly praised elite Ivy League teachers in Teach for America. She just thinks the, ummm, "urban" teachers are lazy.

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.

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.

My god, but those "urban" teacher are lazy!

In DC, nothing worked at all; the schools were doing more babysitting than teaching. (We can argue about why the problems existed--but if 8% of your eighth graders are reading at grade level, I think we can agree that the system is not performing its allegedly core mission of educating the city's children).

Those Who Can't Teach Steven Brill's new article on the teacher's union in New York City is absolutely savage. With good reason. About 5% of the teachers in the system seem to be hanging out on the payroll, doing nothing, either because they were made redundant at their old school and no other principal wants them, or because they are spending several years awaiting a hearing on charges of incompetence and misconduct.

On the other side, you have an equally bureaucratic union, and a set of job protection rules that make it virtually impossible to fire anyone for poor performance, or reward them for good. I don't think anyone who has actually gone through the school system thinks that length of service is a good measure of teaching effectiveness, but that's how they're paid--seniority, and accumulation of usually thoroughly worthless educational credentials. And unless they start molesting their charges, it's basically impossible to fire them.

Education credentials are "thoroughly useless."

I. don't. Care. About. The. Teachers.
I don't dislike them. Nor do I like them. I don't care whether they are, or are not, represented by a union. I think they should be paid more, not because they're lovely, special people, but because I hope that would let us attract and retain a higher caliber of teacher.

I care about educating the kids. Once we have done that, we can turn to arguments about the teachers. Until then, paeans to what great people public school teachers are are just completely irrelevant. The janitors are probably great guys too, but the school is not there for their benefit. If it made the kids better off to fire them all tomorow, I'd happily sign the order to do so. I mean, I'd feel bad for them. But not enough to keep them employed at the expense of educating the kids.

Nor am I interested in vouchers because I'm trying to prove a point. If the public schools in inner cities were managing to educate more than a handful of the students, this would be somewhere on my list of priorities around "privatizing the post office". The existence of public schools qua public schools simply doesn't interest me. The only goal I am interested in discussing is educating the kids. Any other goals, people, or ideology attached to the school system are stunningly uninteresting until that primary purpose has been met.

She cares so much about inner city schoolchildren. Just as much as she cares about the "urban" poor.

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.

I know I'm shocked and appalled at the idea of someone being allowed to be wrong day after day, year after year, after getting a useless degree. The only thing worse would be to find out that she gets around $200,000 a year in wingnut welfare to do it.

How would any alternative gather majority support from the union members? I mean, you can add on resistance to change, which I think is significant. But even if they were picking a new system from scratch, the seniority + degrees system is clearly going to satisfy many more members than either of the merit pay alternatives. It would probably be the majority choice no matter what. And of course, over time, teacher's unions select for the sort of people who prefer this arrangement to competitive merit pay for one reason or another.

Unions are set up to minimize frictions and maximize benefits for the bottom 55%. That's how they work everywhere--in schools, and out. That's how they have to work. No amount of cajoling, no number of white papers, is going to change that.

Those damn Democratic unions, that insists that teacher can be lazy and never get fired! Except they can, which McArdle surely knows, as DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers last year. Perhaps McArdle means that not enough lazy teachers are fired every year to suit her exacting standards of professional excellence?

But this is all nothing but preamble. Let's move on to McArdle's latest exercise in teacher, union, and Democrat bashing.

The circus in Wisconsin is rapidly blowing up into the national issue of the moment, thanks in no small part to President Obama and of course Organizing for America, the group that grew out of his 2008 campaign, which seems to be playing a prominent role in building up the protests.

When tea-baggers protest they are fine Americans, even when they harass a sick man. When teachers do it it is a circus, no doubt because teachers are nothing but clowns to McArdle. And the entire idea of supporting one's political bases seems to be utterly unknown to her. No doubt the Republicans slobbered all over Wall Street bankers because the latter were geniuses who contributed so much to our nation's well-being.

On one level, this is extraordinarily odd--is it really the president's job to be taking sides in a dispute between Wisconsin's elected government and its state employees? But in another way, it's logical, even necessary. State governments are where some of the hardest choices about taxes and spending have to be made. And thanks to a confluence of factors--ObamaCare rules that keep states from cutting Medicaid spending, poorly thought-out pension obligations that are now coming due, crashing revenue thanks to the recession, and in all but one states, a balanced budget requirement--those choices have to be made now.

Yes, it's all the fault of Obamacare and pensions, not a financial system that lied, cheated, securitized and stole their way to our--not their--ruin. How on earth did we ever let unions get more powerful than Wall Street?

Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion shortfall over the next two years. The money is going to have to come from somewhere.

Why is Wisconsin facing this shortfall?

Wisconsin's new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker's collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures -- service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money -- rolling back worker's bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker's doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

Mad In Madison: Wisconsin Workers Protest Against Governor's Budget Proposals
Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

"Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control," says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future -- a public interest think tank. "He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes."

Ezra Klein:

The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

But even that's not the full story here. Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular. And note that not all public-employee unions are covered by Walker's proposal: the more conservative public-safety unions -- notably police and firefighters, many of whom endorsed Walker -- are exempt.

But in Megan McArdle's hands, a union-busting governor becomes the helpless victim of lazy teachers who just don't want to lose any of their ill-gotten gains.

The pundits on both sides are teeing up the outrage. The right turns on the outrage that teachers are leaving students untaught in order to protest fairly modest requirements that they contribute to their health care and pension obligations. The left fires back that the cuts are just a sideshow, and that the real problem is the other provisions in the bill, which restrict collective bargaining to wages, rather than benefits, and state that pay increases cannot exceed the CPI without a public referendum. The New York Times angrily complains that the GOP is declaring a spending emergency after blowing a hole in the budget with a series of tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

I'm not outraged by either side. Of course the teachers would like to be paid more, contribute less to their pensions and health care, and be able to collectively bargain for their benefits. One of the prime attractions of a career in K-12 teaching is that you can almost never be fired, and you have a powerful union that spends a lot of time lobbying the legislature. Naturally, they are going to fiercely resist having this taken away after many of them have given a decade or two to a career based on this assumption.

McArdle has repeated the lie that teachers cannot be fired endless times. It's a major basis for her claim that unions are destroying America's schools. McArdle ignores the fact that many states don't have teacher unions and seems to think that because New York City hasn't fired all its bad teachers, teachers' unions prevent any teacher from being fired.

On the other hand, of course the legislature needs to balance what the teachers want with the other needs of the state. I am, as a matter of policy, against special tax breaks, so I agree that Wisconsin should not have spent $120 million on them.

But now that it has, let's take away some of the teachers' bargaining rights!

But the actual targets--businesses that hire new employees, businesses that relocate to the state, and health savings accounts--are not prima facie morally inferior to allowing teachers to collectively bargain higher pensions and health benefits. In fact, on average, they're targeted towards groups that are worse off than the teachers--the unemployed, and people with high medical costs.

It's too bad that those tax cuts don't actually help a lot of busineses. You might almost think that they were an excuse to bust unions.

Overall, as a matter of policy, I would prefer to spend money on those people than on teachers who are fairly well paid for the number of days they work.

"For the number of days they work." That's pretty rich coming from someone who refuses to blog on the weekends and doesn't put up any posts until far into the afternoon.

To the conservatives I would have to ask the same question: is it good policy to tie the hands of politicians in seeking to attract and retain teachers? On that question, I don't know the answer.

On the one hand, freezing your salary bumps at CPI doesn't seem like a great way to attract and retain the best workers; it seems like Wisconsin school districts will be at a competitive disadvantage with other industries and states. On the other hand, those things are already collectively bargained, and bumping the wages of an entire class of people in order to attract a few more workers does not seem to be a very efficient way to go--indeed, it's the basis of all those monopsony models of labor market failure.

This is the same woman who told us that Wall Street thieves had to receive huge bonuses for losing billions or they would go Galt.

So I have my doubts as to whether the current system does much to attract and retain the best workers, which means that the new rules can hardly make it much worse. Indeed, you can make a fairly compelling argument that teachers wages are not set so much on the basis of what's needed to get the workers, as how much political muscle the teachers can muster.

That's why a typical Wisconsin teacher makes about $45,000/year. Her political power. Incidentally, that's about the same as a Texas teacher, who doesn't have a union.

In case I didn't mention it before, Megan McArdle makes six figures a year.

In which case the proposed rules will probably help restrain the bad political incentives that put pressure on the state budget. There are legitimate reasons that politicians to seek to tie their own hands on certain questions.

Of course, there are also legitimate drawbacks, as the state of California illustrates. Over the long haul, these mechanisms break down one way or another--in the case of Wisconsin, I'd bet that eventually there will be a shortage of math and science teachers that will need to be rectified by legislative intervention.

But until then, is it somehow morally wrong for the Wisconsin legislature to change the rules under which it will bargain with its employees? It's incoherent even as a question. The legislature is the entity which is supposed to set those terms--and it's no more outrageous for the GOP to favor small businessmen and the self-employed than it was for Democrats to favor a constituency which has become (as we now see) a de facto arm of the Democratic Party.

If you bust unions you remove a source of money and power for Democrats. If you have to demonize teachers to do this, well, it's just the cost of business. Walker takes Koch brothers money (via TBogg) and attempts to eliminate any curb on power. So does Mr. Megan McArdle, P. Suderman. They have become (as we now see) a de facto arm of the Koch Political Party. And they will not rest until we are choking on Koch pollution and working for third-world Koch wages, while the Megan McArdles of the world grow rich in their service.


Anonymous said...

She really is a loathesome human being. I would lurv to see a documentary of Megan spending a year teaching in K-12 and trying to spread that paycheck to pay for her pink himalayan salt. - aws

Kathy said...

Megan is paid 6 figures to spout plausible sounding vicious lies; to reassure her social & intellectual equals that their unfounded contempt for the honor, integrity and high value of Teachers (who make 1/4 her wages), is reasonable and just. She sputters out her antediluvian slurs and threadbare insults, crams in a pile of unsubstantiated claims of stupidity, laziness and overpayment (apparently based on her own stupid & lazy personality & behavior!).

It almost defies belief, that someone so horrible, useless, destructive to a decent society, would be paid 4-times the average teacher's salary. Its very depressing. If I ever meet her I hope I have the gumption to spit in her face.

atat said...

Wait a minute. She's writing a novel in her spare time?

Gretchen said...

I'm with Anonymous - she wouldn't last a week teaching 7th grade.
She insists the only reason teachers teach is that they can't be fired. It reminds me how Christianists wonder why atheists don't spend all their time stealing and murdering, since they're not afraid of God's wrath? Such people can't even conceive of doing something for the benefit of humanity, or because it's the right thing to do.

Susan of Texas said...

Evidently she tried to write fiction but it didn't sell--until David Bradley came along. Now she gets to write all the fiction she wants.

Yeah, McArdle never would have cut it as a teacher. She would have gotten a rude shock when she realized that you work every single minute of your day--outside duty before and after school, hallroom duty between classes, lunchroom duty during your 20-minute lunch break. Hours of grading papers after school, club activities, etc etc. It's insulting beyond words for her to say that teachers are lazy.

fish said...

Riverdale, too, knows that it needs to keep parents happy and test scores high. The New York City public school system, on the other hand, mostly has to get butts in seats, because that's how they get their money.

Hmmm. How might Riverdale keep its test scores high? By having excellent teachers? Or perhaps by not admitting low-scoring students? But, but UNIONS!

About 5% of the teachers in the system seem to be hanging out on the payroll, doing nothing, either because they were made redundant at their old school and no other principal wants them, or because they are spending several years awaiting a hearing on charges of incompetence and misconduct.

This never happens in corporations where everything is 100% efficient at all times, which is evident every time you book an airline ticket or try to correct a bank error.

I don't think anyone who has actually gone through the school system thinks that length of service is a good measure of teaching effectiveness, but that's how they're paid--seniority, and accumulation of usually thoroughly worthless educational credentials.

Which is why Megan will gladly pass up her pay raise and/or benefit increases over the coming years.

Susan of Texas said...

I believe one of McArdle's commenters pointed out that if private corporations really were so efficient, there wouldn't be so many people on the internet during working hours.

Batocchio said...

That smug passage about her student days is appalling, although I doubt her portrayal of her skills. She and Jonah really are two of a kind. It's not surprising that someone who was a really crappy student - and still is (*cough* research *cough*) - hates teachers... and really anyone competent and decent.