The Continuing War on Teachers
We all know about the achievement gap, whereby poor kids don’t do as well on standardized tests as rich kids. It’s big and it’s growing. Logically speaking, we might try to solve it – to close the achievement gap – by lowering inequality. But that’s a hard thing to do, politically. It would require things like higher taxes and better minimum wages and stronger safety nets.
So instead, politicians everywhere have decided to simply assign blame to the school teachers who the last people to be seen with poor kids before they take the standardized tests.
If you watched the Republican debate, you might have seen Chris Christie emphatically suggest that the teachers’ union should be punched in the face. He’s willing to repeat that:
Speaking of getting rid of teacher unions, that’s exactly what they did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 10 years ago. And the results are mixed:
In Washington D.C., they hired School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to fix their ailing schools, so she came in and fired a bunch of teachers with bad scores, and then gave bonuses to a bunch of teachers and schools with good ones, and then ignored the ensuing cheating scandal. After she left scores largely went back to normal. The achievement gap is wider than it was before Rhee:
None of this particularly surprises me because, again, it’s likely not a teacher-specific problem, but rather an economic problem, and residents of New Orleans are still poor.
It’s a correlation versus causation problem, actually. We know poor kids do badly on tests compared to rich kids, and we look for something we can control that would change that story. Originally we focused on more tests, thinking that shining a light on the problem would automatically solve it. That didn’t work, so we turned our focus to teachers, again mostly as an easily available knob to turn. It’s taking a few years for the data to come out that this new method also isn’t addressing the problem.
There’s a new idea afloat on how to close the achievement gap, by way of Florida (h/t Jordan Ellenberg). Namely, to give bonuses to teachers that themselves got good SAT scores. A few details:
- The bonus is $10,000
- The cut-off is 80th percentile of SAT scores
- Teachers are eligible even if they took the test 30 years ago
- The teachers also need to be rated “highly effective” to earn their bonus
- Except if they are first year teachers, in which case they don’t have a rating yet, so just their high SAT scores will do
It’s probably unnecessary to mention exactly how ridiculous this is, but I do want to point that teachers have no motivation whatsoever under this new scheme. They either qualify or they don’t. Not sure what it’s supposed to achieve in terms of carrots or sticks. It’s the equivalent of giving tall men extra money to buy suits.
I’m waiting for the meta-analysis that shows the achievement gap doesn’t respond to firing bad teachers, or charter schools, or even more testing, or any other easy target.
So what should we be doing? I have two suggestions, and neither of them is politically easy.
First, if we really wanted to see progress, we should stop persecuting teachers and immediately normalize the funding of school systems so poor kids have equal or more resources than rich kids. That would have some effects – at least poor districts could afford the latest books, for example.
Second, even that kind of progress would take us only so far. As long as a deep inequality of opportunities exists, and mobility is low, we can expect a lack of investment in poor people. We need to address these issues on the societal level.