Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fear is Cheap

Ed. Note: I want to preface this with a disclaimer that I pretty much disdain all these paternalistic neoliberal education policies that aim to make elites feel like they're helping the poor without any real sacrifice on their part. If elites really want to address the root causes of under performance in urban schools perhaps they should consider that their own decision to take their children to the suburbs or privates schools while leaving the poor to fend for themselves*--and a failure to address the issue of poverty in general--might have something to do with it. Point being, I have a clear bias on this issue so it's worth evaluating my post in light of that.

NJ Gov. Chris Christie last night unveiled his plan for reforming urban schools in the state. Not surprisingly for a proposal from a rich Republican governor, it relies on the central tenets of the plans "reformers" have pushed elsewhere--increased "accountability" and school choice. I want to focus on the first part of that today because I think it is: 1.) unlikely to work; and 2.) another example of a troubling trend in labor markets.

Christie's plan, like most others, aims to increase accountability by dismantling the institution reformers blame for the plight of K-12 education in America: tenure. First, it will make tenure more difficult to earn by measuring the effectiveness of teachers.** Second, it will weaken the protection tenure provides by making it easier to fire the "least effective" teachers. (It will also increase the pay for teachers in less desirable areas and difficult subjects, but, as far as I can tell, does not explicitly offer bonuses to more effective teachers--for the sake of argument, though, I'll grant they will provide bonuses).

But one other major change for teachers goes unmentioned in this part of Christie's speech: pension reform. Like other states, taxpayers and politicians fret over the long-term liabilities they are exposed to as a result of labor contracts signed with various public workers groups. This has led to tense negotiations with labor unions. Indeed, Christie touts the savings gained by raising retirement ages and forcing public workers to pay more. Although this pretty clearly has an impact on education policy, as I show below, Christie deceivingly avoided mentioning it during that part of his speech.

Putting this together raises what for me seems like a pretty big problem with this plan and many others: How on earth is this going to attract better teachers***? Even if we assume good teachers receive salary incentives of some type, teaching looks like a much less attractive option. You have a small chance of making more money, but that also comes with much less stability and less valuable pension and health benefits. Perhaps most people will be optimistic about their chances--"I'm a good enough teacher I'll never get fired"--but unless the expected value of the bonus--chance you'll get it times its amount--or increase in salary outpace the decrease in the value of the pension (which they probably won't, or else the taxpayers wouldn't actually be saving money), total compensation will be lower. Buying into the standard economic theory these proposals are based on, this will actually drive people away from teaching. Oops.

So what's really driving this reform is not the carrot, but rather the stick. Not that it will draw better teachers, but that it will make the ones we have work better.**** And not that it will make them work better to gain, but rather that it will make the work better to avoid a loss--either their job or tenure.

Although couched in terms like "accountability," it's pretty clear why Christie--and austerity addicts everywhere--love these proposals: they're cheap! Providing incentives to people to work better costs money; striking fear into them with a potential job loss doesn't. If reformers really believed in their plans--and were actually willing to pay for them--it seems like a proposal that merely adds incentives without decreasing the stability of a teaching job would be much more effective: it will draw more people into teaching and pushes them to work better once they're there. But that would cost money, because you'd be carrying around deadweight. The subtle move many people make is assuming that in order to hire a new teacher you must fire one. But, if you're willing to spend the money, that's not the case.*****

Ultimately, this, unfortunately, appears to be another example of anti-government advocates succeeding in turning the middle-class against itself. Instead of private- and public-sector workers banding together to fight against continued destruction of the middle-class, the "1%" has convinced private sector workers to get pissed at public sector workers that aren't suffering like them, too (misery loves company, I guess). Presumably, the government could help stimulate demand for qualified workers by raising public sector wages--forcing private companies to raise their wages, too. Instead, taxpayers want to public sector workers to be as miserable at their jobs as they are.

Yes, I know, efficiency!, but is there any point to efficiency for efficiency's sake? The fear of losing one's job looms much larger today than it did decades ago--this has no doubt had a terrible impact of workplace morale. Although this may save money in the short-term, it certainly seems bad for productivity in the long-term (if not the short-term, too). And, more generally, seems like it makes people much less happy. Again, markets serve a useful function but only if they better society. I'm not sure they'd be doing so here.

* That is, they have cause and effect backwards.
** Good luck with coming up with a good system for doing that.
*** Again, this assume you buy into the idea that we need "better" teachers, which I take to be one the driving forces behind the reform movement.
**** Granted, part of the point of this plan is that it allows you to replace underperforming teachers, but I'm not sure that can serve as a sole justification. You'd still be drawing from the same sample pool. It makes mistakes cheaper, but doesn't necessarily make you less likely to make them.
***** The fact that plenty of schools with tenure aren't full of teachers completely shirking on the job suggests the lack of a real stick doesn't deter most teachers from actually caring about their job.

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