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Catching Up

Friday, April 29, 2011
I've been a wee bit swamped lately and have had to put my series of posts on education policy on the back-burner, but I should be able to return to it soon. In the meantime, here are abbreviated comments on things I considered blogging about.

1. Jill at Feministe loves small plates. All I have to say is - me too! My interest in food materialized at the same time as my interest in small portions. I love nothing better than a nice tasting menu. I think it's a simple matter of diminishing marginal utility: it's a very rare dish that doesn't lose something after the first three bites or so.

2. A disturbingly large percentage of southerners are sympathetic to the confederacy, to the point that they wish it had won the Civil War. Really. One of the most evil political regimes before the 20th century, one that fought a war because they were afraid that someone would take away their slaves. Having grown up in the South I can't say I'm too surprised, although I think part of this poll result is due to the romanticizing of the "Lost Cause," and the fact that our teaching of history has been so distorted that a substantial percentage of Americans think it was about economics rather than slavery. Yes, economics played a role - but the "economics" was about the economics of slavery-based cotton production. It was also about preserving the "southern way of life" - which was based on slavery. And in defense of "states rights" - to allow people to own slaves. Get the picture?

3. A funny faux interview with Alexander Hamilton, using actual quotes of his. I encountered it while reading this piece by William Hoagland. I think Hoagland's interpretation of U.S. financial history after the Revolution is interesting, but I'm not entirely persuaded by his account of Hamilton's motives:

To Hamilton, sound national finance meant concentrating national wealth in a small number of government-connected hands, thus enabling the financing of ambitious national projects. And good U.S. credit meant ensuring that holders of federal bonds — those government-connected high-finance men, the public creditors he hoped would invest in building the nation — could count on staying rich and getting richer by collecting their government interest payments.
I won't belabor the point other than to say that Hamilton never had many illusions about the nation's economic elite, and given the acute lack of specie in the U.S. there was a desperate need for something to use as currency, which a funded federal debt provided. Still, interesting stuff.

4. Booman thinks that liberals need to accept that Democrats have to accommodate moderate Republicans into their coalition, even if it means sacrificing a lot of our goals, in order to hold off the right-wing tide. I would respond that in doing so Obama, Clinton, Carter, etc. have emboldened the right, not held them off. Carter tried to accommodate the Nixon critique of the New Deal, which produced Reagan. Clinton appeased the Reaganites, which produced Gingrich and George Bush. Obama compromised with himself and accepted the Bush legacy, and got Rand Paul. Am I the only one that sees a trend?

5. A nice profile of Paul Krugman in New York magazine. Of course there are the little false equivalences that you always have when discussing politics. There's an odd aside in the piece that Krugman was wrong on bank nationalization - even though failing to do so empowered conservatives in the 2010 elections. Wallace-Wells also suggests that Krugman, by failing to engage intellectually with conservatives, is losing touch with reality. To which I would reply: to engage with contemporary conservatism is the world's fastest way to delusion. Most of them are inhabiting a reality-free Randian universe that exists only in their own adolescent, sociopathic imaginations.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:58 PM

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Teacher Tenure

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tenure is a surprisingly difficult subject to write about. As with much of education policy, it is the subject of intense debate, sweeping generalizations, and surprisingly little direct evidence. The complication lies in the fact that teacher tenure in and of itself does very little. As with much of personnel policy, it is the indirect effects of teacher tenure that have attracted attention, but because it is a conditioning factor (rather than direct factor) it is difficult to identify how tenure might advance or retard educational progress. In that respect teacher tenure is emblematic of what’s gone wrong with the educational debate in this country. We are making dramatic changes with very little idea of what the consequences will be – which is very close to the definition of recklessness.

Let me first try to sum up the neoliberal argument about tenure. As I’ve written previously, there is a stream of literature that highlights the importance of teacher quality in driving educational outcomes. There is also a perceived consensus that the effects of teacher experience tend to decay after only a few years. According to some researchers, there are big improvements in teacher quality in the first few years, but these gains flatten out within the first five years or so. However, because of the salary schedule, rewards to teachers are based on seniority, not effects on students, so that strapped school districts are paying large sums to pay for teachers who are not contributing any more than their more junior colleagues. Furthermore, tenure protections result in the firing of younger, equally high-quality teachers during budget crunches; incorporate due process protections that make it unnecessarily difficult to remove incompetent teachers (see the discussion of “bad teachers” in the last post). In addition, tenure is granted as a matter of routine and so early in a person’s career that all incentives for improvement are removed.

As I hinted at the beginning, there isn’t a substantial research base to back up the claim that tenure policies hurt student achievement. I spent a week searching through the literature and found very few studies that focused specifically on the effects of tenure. Aaronson et al (2007) suggested that tenure policies had no effect on student achievement. Studies by Hansen (2009) in North Carolina and Jacob (2010) in Chicago found that teachers with tenure were more likely to be absent from school. Jacob also found very limited evidence that making dismissals easier improved student achievement.

To be fair, Hanushek (2008) and other could argue that dismissal policies per se aren’t the problem, but rather that there isn’t enough evidence that teacher experience in later years is worth the cost. There a substantial body of work suggesting that teacher experience is important, but that it peaks relatively early (Rivkin et al (2005), Boyd et al (2008a), Croninger et al 2006, Kane et al 2006, Rockoff 2004). This is not an uncontested perspective though. Clotfelter et al (2006, 2007) found evidence for incremental productivity gains in elementary school, and a working paper by Papay & Kraft (unpublished) raises questions about the most commonly used models. Other caveats include the potential positive spillover effects to having experienced teachers at a school (Jackson & Breugmann 2009), and that we might need to focus on teacher experience at a particular grade level rather than generically (Huang & Moon 2009).

For the sake of argument, however, I’ll concede that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that teacher experience isn’t a major contributor for all but rookies. My question would be – what does this have to do with tenure? One of the strongest arguments for tenure is that without it school superintendents would have a tremendous incentive to fire expensive, experienced teachers. The implicit position of neoliberals is that they should, or at least flatten out salaries based on proven performance. I’ll get to the problem of pay-for-performance (or merit pay) another time, but I want to point out that the gist seems to be that we should de-professionalize teaching; that we should treat it as a short-term job rather than as a career. The neoliberal push for things like Teach for America, Troops for Teachers, and alternative certification certainly seems to point in this direction.

Now I ask you, can you name another field other than athletics that benefits from having a junior, disposal, ill-trained workforce? And even if this isn’t the intent, what effects do these proposals have on people considering a career in teaching?

"You, A+ student, how about a 20K a year job with no benefits in which you will be evaluated on the result of standardized tests. Interested? No? Huh, I can’t imagine why.”

This brings us to questions like teacher recruitment and attrition, which are worthy of posts of their own, but in the meantime I want to leave you with one more consideration. Right now neoliberals complain that teacher tenure is not warranted because there is no statistical evidence that it improves student achievement, and is therefore an unnecessary expense. But isn’t it possible that tenure is a substitute for pay and benefits? Without the prospect of tenure, won’t districts have to offer higher pay if they wish to attract teachers? Pay perhaps commensurate with what teachers make in other countries, or workers with similar levels of education here in the states? I haven’t found any research to support this contention, so I will leave it as a hypothesis. I just wish that neoliberals would do the same when it came with attacking tenure – another in a long list of policies where “reformers” are going off half-cocked.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:48 AM

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A Promise to Myself

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
If this is true I'm not voting for him. If Obama comes out in support of Simpson-Bowles he'll be supporting the following: artificially capping federal spending as a share of GDP, cuting corporate taxation, reducing the progressivity of the tax code, eliminating in-school interest subsidies for student loans, and increases the social security retirement age and cuts social security benefits. This is an austerity budget, one that would make Harry Truman lose his lunch. I was already leaning against supporting Obama because of his consolidation of Bush foreign and interrogation policies, but this would seal it.

And that goes for anyone else who votes to for that matter in Congress or candidates who express support for it. I don't care if they're running against Sarah Palin or Hitler - that spot on the ballot will be blank. Cause you see, there's already one right-wing party and I don't intend to be the advocate of a "slightly less right-wing party."
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:56 AM

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A quick note

Wednesday, April 06, 2011
I've been using much of my spare time preparing a post on teacher tenure, but it's a bit of a tricky area, so it's taken longer than I expected. In the meantime, I feel required to mention that Paul Ryan's budget proposal is evil. If the Democrats were smart they'd be crucifying the Republicans for even breathing the word "Medicare." If they were smart.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:28 PM

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