Home > Uncategorized > The Continuing War on Teachers

The Continuing War on Teachers

September 2, 2015

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:

I googled for "new orleans charter school performance"

I googled for “new orleans charter school performance”

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:

  1. The bonus is $10,000
  2. The cut-off is 80th percentile of SAT scores
  3. Teachers are eligible even if they took the test 30 years ago
  4. The teachers also need to be rated “highly effective” to earn their bonus
  5. 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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 2, 2015 at 9:06 am

    The larger problem is this —

    Everyone knows that the health and smarts of any country rests on the health and smarts of its people, but there is in this country a small but powerful sector that prefers to benefit from the general health and smarts of the masses without actually paying to support it. So they are relentless in pushing policies that socialize the costs and privatize the benefits to themselves.

    It is time to put a stop to that …

    While we still have the strength and wits left to do it …


  2. Steve
    September 2, 2015 at 9:27 am

    “…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…”

    More liberal dogma. According to liberals, all we need to do to solve all the problems in the world is to take money away from the rich and grow the size and power of the government. Government solves everything.

    Wow, this is such baloney.

    To go from recognizing a real problem (the achievement gap) to saying more government will solve the problem is quite a jump, with no logic involved at all. Seriously, are there no other alternatives than more taxes and bigger government? Did you even consider other alternatives?

    If you really want to help poor kids, help their parents. Help restore the concept of the family and keep parents together to rear their kids. I suggest you do a search on Thirty Million Words.


    • Klondike Jack
      September 2, 2015 at 12:15 pm

      Thanks for another fine example of a straw man argument that avoids any discussion of the actual nature and source of the problems at the root of income inequality. FYI, since you are obviously opposed to the redistribution of wealth, why do you not speak out against the massive upwards redistribution of wealth and the criminogenic policies and political corruption that enable it? No opinion on the regulatory and legislative capture by those who benefit financially from the playing field being sharply tilted in their favor as a result of it? Are you even aware of that at all?


      • Steve
        September 3, 2015 at 9:27 am

        First, I pointed out the flaw in defining the problem. You accused me of making a straw man argument. It is not. If the problem isn’t properly defined then the solution will not be effective.
        Second, I gave an illustration of my argument about the assumption that this only a government solution. I pointed out that if you look only at the government you will be missing other, equally valid if not more valid, solutions.
        Third, I backed up my argument with the concept of Thirty Million Words. We should not wait until kids are under the influence of government to try to help them (the kids) close the achievement gap. We need to help the parents when the kids are age 0 to 3.
        Fourth, your argument has assumptions of its own. You assume that I’m against redistribution of wealth. I’m not. I recognize that wealth is being too concentrated in a few hands. I also recognize that government is part of the problem: Too Big to Fail, ARRA, GM bail out, etc… So, instead of accusing me, why don’t you just ask me.
        Fifth, if you see corruption in government policies, then why are so reactionary when someone says that the government is not the solution?


        • sglover
          September 8, 2015 at 2:44 pm

          We need to help the parents when the kids are age 0 to 3.

          I applaud your argument for extended, universal, paid parental leave! Didn’t think you were so pink…..


  3. September 2, 2015 at 9:58 am

    There is another interesting issue here, which is that better teaching benefits everybody, and it is not obvious that the result of this will be to narrow the achievement gap. I do not have a source I’m afraid, but have read that there have been studies that suggest that everybody improves, but that the people at the top improve more, so while this is beneficial all round, it also widens the achievement gap.

    If that really is the case, then it presents an interesting dilemma. The only way I can see of getting round it is to concentrate educational resources on the less well off, as per your first suggestion. Another possibility is to try to reduce poverty and hope that educational improvements will follow, but that is probably difficult, since a good education makes it so much easier to make money.


  4. September 2, 2015 at 10:17 am

    The easy conclusion is that voters/parents don’t want to close the achievement gap. Why not? Because heavily investing in your children’s education is tax advantaged and the best (only?) way a professional couple can maximize the chances of their own children experiencing economic success. These parents are already in an arms race with their socio-economic peers, so why divert some of their resources to increasing the competition that their children face?

    From a collective perspective, however, the optimal outcome is overall higher human capital (presumably leading to better/faster collective economic outcomes) and greater social stability.

    To me, it doesn’t seem hard to see the strong personal incentives overwhelm the diffuse social incentives.


  5. Peter
    September 2, 2015 at 10:22 am

    childrens low scores are just the result, the cause is societal, outside school, it’s with their parent’s jobs, their free time, time with parents, conditions at home. If you solve the real problems, scores will go up.


  6. September 2, 2015 at 11:04 am

    We need to raise our sights to the bigger picture. The war on teachers and public education — that Christie so amply exemplifies — is only one front in a larger war that has more to do with power relations than purely economic relations.


  7. Will Young
    September 2, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Logically speaking, we might try to solve it – to close the achievement gap – by lowering inequality.

    Have you considered that genes cause both low income and low school performance? I agree that blaming teachers for the genes of their students is obnoxious and wrong. But the hypothesis that lack of money causes the gap does not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny (for example why do the public schools in NYC’s Chinatown have so much better scores than schools in the poor sections of the Bronx), and policies based on the money hypothesis have always failed at scale.


    • September 2, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Oh, please.


      • Will Young
        September 2, 2015 at 11:44 am

        I actually did a search of your site to see if you had talked about this before. I don’t want to be tedious. But from the evidence I have seen, the genetic hypothesis seems more compelling than the income or inequality hypothesis. So if you have considered the genetic hypothesis and rejected it I would like to know why. And if you haven’t considered it, perhaps you should.


        • Will Young
          September 2, 2015 at 12:10 pm

          I’m not quite sure how that link is relevant. I’m not claiming anything about skull sizes or big data. Neither I nor anyone I know believes the link between genes and test scores because of skull measurements. That people a hundred years ago were into that idea is not relevant to our discussion. If you’re going to consider a hypothesis, you should read the best evidence available. The classic book is the Bell Curve by Charles Murray, but you can find more up to date information on a blog like Jaymans, who has done a good job of summarizing and writing about the issue: https://jaymans.wordpress.com/about/ And yes I know, many people have argued against the Bell Curve, and I have read the counter-arguments, but most of them were arguing around the edges. Cosma Shalizi for instance wrote a lengthy critique of the idea of the heritability of IQ — but then ends the critique by admitting that he does think there is some genetic basis for differences in IQ.


        • Guest2
          September 2, 2015 at 7:26 pm

          In your follow up, you switch arguments that do not align.

          IQ? What does that have to do with anything? IQ is as much a cultural and social artifact as any other construct — and only ties to test-taking ability as demonstrated by — you guessed it — other tests. This is a closed loop that goes nowhere.

          Dig deeper, and you encounter nasty eugenists and a whole host of unsavory characters, racists and statisticians.


        • mlachans
          September 2, 2015 at 8:31 pm

          The (partial) heritability of IQ is not really up for debate anymore; genes associated with better performance on these kinds of exams and in educational attainment have already been identified. See:

          Benjamin, D., Koellinger, P, Lee, J., Pinker, S., …Chabris, C. et al. (under review) “Identifying
          genetic variants associated with cognitive performance using educational attainment as a proxy

          for the most recent discoveries.

          I think you’ll better served in your future discourse by being aware of state-of-the-field on these topics.

          @Will Young:

          If think about it, the existence of such genes strengthens the arguments against merit pay for teachers. Introducing merit pay would incentivize teachers to select only the most elite students and further stratify achievement gaps. Judge Posner made this point on his blog a few years back.


          IQ predicts just about you’d want in a happy, healthy, progressive society. Virtually the entire difference in income levels for black and white women women and a plurality of the difference in black and white men’s income appears to be mediated by IQ differences (see Espenshade et al.’s “…Not Yet Equal” for more information). It seems likely that some of the recent global declines in violence over the last 50 years can be explained by increases in IQ.


        • kevin
          September 3, 2015 at 10:44 am

          Exactly the same arguments were made by 19th century social Darwinists, who claimed that the poverty of (for example) the Irish and working-class English people was due to inherited inferior intelligence. With the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see that this was wrong. When given the benefit of a good education, proper nutrition, etc. it turns out that the so-called inferior populations are perfectly intelligent on average.

          I fail so see why the arguments made by modern social darwinists like yourself are in any way different.


        • Will Young
          September 3, 2015 at 3:31 pm


          “IQ? What does that have to do with anything? IQ is as much a cultural and social artifact as any other construct — and only ties to test-taking ability as demonstrated by — you guessed it — other tests. This is a closed loop that goes nowhere.”

          Well we are talking about the gap in academic achievement, which is primarily about taking tests, so IQ is quite relevant.

          But no, IQ is not a closed loop. The type of cognitive solving problem is very similar to that needed to be successful in a variety of jobs that are well paid in the modern world, ranging from being an engineer to a McKinsey consultant. There is lots of data to back this up, as displayed in the book the bell curve, and in the blog I mentioned. And the data is just for validation, common sense and my own personal observations say the same thing. Some people are smarter than other people. The people who do really well in math class and on IQ-like tests such as the SAT are the type of people who do well as engineer. We don’t know how to take a typical dull student and make them smart enough to be a Google engineer. If you know such a method, let us go into business together, because we could make a lot of money.

          “Dig deeper, and you encounter nasty eugenists and a whole host of unsavory characters, racists and statisticians.

          Unsavory characters are associated with many controversial opinions and political issues. Many prominent people on the left are within one or two degrees of separation from people who have said or done awful things. This should be obvious, but do I need to list examples?


          “I think you’ll better served in your future discourse by being aware of state-of-the-field on these topics.”

          I don’t really trust the latest gene studies yet. Any science that is brand new tends to have much wrong as is right, it takes time for the really solid findings to emerge. The main case for the genetic hypothesis is that both personal observation and virtually ever major dataset appears exactly as you would expect if the genetic hypothesis is true.

          “If think about it, the existence of such genes strengthens the arguments against merit pay for teachers.

          Agreed. Merit pay purely based on performance is idiotic. “No child left behind” was idiotic. Theoretically, merit pay based on value-add might work, but the statistical variance creates a lot of problems. In general, paying based on metrics rarely works in any field. Metrics are too easy to game, or to over optimize. School should not just be about the test scores anyways. Character matters, enjoyment matters, exploration matters, arts matter, adventure matters, having teachers doing creative, off-beat lesson plans were some of my fondest memories from grade school. But those types of things were ruined by the standardized test fetish.


          I fail so see why the arguments made by modern social darwinists like yourself are in any way different.

          Black people in 2015 are not obviously materially deprived in a way working-class people in Britain were in the 1800s. There was a significant height differential between working-class people and the aristocracy, due to malnutrition. No significant difference exists between white and black americans, and black americans are taller than higher scoring Asians. At the same schools where blacks are underperforming academically, they are doing very well on the athletic field, which a malnutrition hypothesis would not predict.

          School spending has largely been equalized due to numerous court cases. Many inner city black school districts now spend upwards of $15k per student, which is a lot more than what rural white school districts spend, yet the gap persists.

          Furthermore a significant test score gap exists even when comparing blacks of whites of similar income, when comparing blacks and whites whose parents had similar education levels, when comparing black football players and white players taking the Wonderlic test, etc. You can read these sites for more information: https://jaymans.wordpress.com/jaymans-race-inheritance-and-iq-f-a-q-f-r-b/ and https://liberalbiorealism.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/the-likelihood-of-genetic-group-differences-in-iq-the-black-white-gap-in-iq/

          There is also not a single black country that has achieved the modern economic success of an Ireland or a South Korea. This is consistent with a genetic hypothesis, but very hard to explain with an environmental hypothesis.

          We have a lot of new information since the 19th century. The new information pretty much invalidates the hypothesis that the perceived intelligence gap between the Irish and the British was primarily genetic (though there may be a small genetic gap, it is hard to tell exactly). But the new information is consistent with the genetic hypothesis in explaining the black-white cognitive achievement gap, and contradicts the idea that material deprivation or lack of school spending causes the black-white gap. So unless new evidence appears, the preponderance of the evidence is on the side of the gap being substantially genetic.


        • Guest2
          September 3, 2015 at 10:20 pm

          Thank you, Kevin.

          There are, in fact, numerous poor people with superior test-taking abilities, and this ability makes no difference for them. What does make a difference is SES, not test-taking ability.

          One of the problems is that we sort people into “better” or “worse” categories based on bureaucratized test-taking results. The underlying dynamic is that of social stratification — sorting — differentiation based on stereotypes and social constructs (i.e., myths) that are used to justify the status quo.


        • sglover
          September 8, 2015 at 2:56 pm

          There is also not a single black country that has achieved the modern economic success of an Ireland or a South Korea. This is consistent with a genetic hypothesis, but very hard to explain with an environmental hypothesis

          Oh, so South Korea and its economy is compelling evidence for your IQ-as-race-superiority-proxy theory, eh? Doesn’t it seem a tad odd to you how economic performance diverges so sharply around the Latitude 38? I really want to see how you’ll brush that aside without citing certain “environmental” factors.


        • Will Young
          September 8, 2015 at 8:14 pm

          @ sglover

          Obviously, environmental/cultural/institutional/political factors can make any individual or country arbitrarily stupid or poor. A sharp whack to the head with a lead pipe can make any person arbitrarily stupid. A rapacious government can make any country arbitrarily poor. Obviously, the differences between South Korea and North Korea are due to their government.

          My point is, if environmental or political factors caused the gap between black and whites or blacks and northeast Asians, we would expect to see a lot more variance in outcomes between particular black countries. We might expect some black countries that are as poor as North Korea, due to particularly messed up situations, while a few black countries would get their act together and be as rich as South Korea. Yet from Ethiopia to Haiti, from Liberia to Zimbabwe, no such example exists. There is no black South Korea. Nor is there even a black Singapore or Taiwan, there is not a single black city dominated city that has achieved first world status due to black owned and operated business endeavors. Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation is a common genetic factor that is holding back all these countries. It is a much more complicated explanation to posit that some environmental factor or factors are managing to so uniformly hold back every single black country, no matter its history or geography.


  8. Klondike Jack
    September 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    New Orleans can hardly be called a success story. They are last in a state that is 47th in the nation, and comparing before and after Katrina is an apples to soda can farce since the students being compared and the tools used are different. http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/2015/08/policy_brief_louisiana/#_edn16
    When it comes to the test score spike in DC under Rhee, that remains as the largest cheating scandal to date, one that has not been properly investigated by any stretch of the imagination, but has been thoroughly whitewashed for purely political reasons. John Merrow did an excellent investigation of it, and it’s a harsh endictment of Rhee’s policies. http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6232 After the piece first came out, the “smoking gun” memo was made public. What we are seeing is not just a war on teachers but a war on public education itself .


  9. noneya
    September 2, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    In the DC plot the performance has increased for all of the students (though disproportionately more for the non-poor ones). Is that effect seen just in DC and are there any hypotheses on why the scores have increased?


  10. September 2, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    perhaps someone can bring me up to date, but as much as 40 years ago the inherent stupidity and unfairness of linking school funding to local property taxes was talked about (and all its ripple effects), yet with but a few exceptions, I’m not aware of major changes in that system. Why not?
    (of course, I s’pose tax reforms get talked about in a LOT of areas, but rarely accomplished)


    • September 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      In places that I lived or knew about 40 years ago areas that had low residential property values also had high industrial property values and the residents had surprisingly good schools for all that because they always passed their millages. But then the industries in question began threatening to leave if they didn’t get property tax abatements. Of course a lot of them left anyway once they sucked the local resources dry but that was just the beginning of a general trend to excuse them what had from paying a share of support for what they took.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Priscilla Bremser
    September 2, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Two recent episodes of This American Life, “The Problem We All Live With” make the point that we already know how to close the achievement gap; the solution is integration. We’re just unwilling to stick with it. Worth hearing:


  12. September 2, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    I am skeptical that money will solve the problem.

    Zuckerberg gave Newark public schools $100M a few years ago. Did that have any measurable impact? It seems like a nice experiment.


    • September 2, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      Absolutely – not any money thrown away anyhow. Most of Zuckerberg’s money went to consultants.


  13. September 2, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    The way to boost achievement of poor kids is to give them hope that achieving in school will benefit them. Why try, if the rich kids have it made in the shade without trying, and the poor kids can kill themselves trying and even do well in school, and it makes absolutely no difference once they graduate and try to get jobs? Why try? Give them some freaking tangible reasons to try, like free college if they qualify, or guaranteed jobs on graduation, something to make trying a better way to pass the time than working in a burger joint or selling dope on the corner. And make sure their families have food and clothing and homes to get them by while the students study. Pretending to help while studiously avoiding the real problems does no good, deserves an ass-kicking.


  14. September 3, 2015 at 6:30 am

    On a related note —


    I guess we’ve progressed from measuring bumps to measuring the gaps between bumps. Makes for a good distraction while Rome burns and the Ship O’ State sinks.


  15. jeremiah757
    September 6, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Sorry, funding is simply not the issue. We outspend every other nation on Earth, and we achieve mediocre results. I provided some figures in my blog post, Throw Money, and Amanda Ripley wrote that wonderful book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Ripley finds a number of nonfinancial, cultural factors, like (just for an example) our emphasis on sports. Too many of our domestic policy debates are inwardly focused, and fail to look at other countries.


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