Dialogue on Chicago, imported from Facebook

I think opposition to the “interests of educators *as a class*” in this instance stems from an objection to the way the class is defined and defended. It’s perfectly consistent to be pro-medicine while being radically opposed to union protection of the wages of doctors as a group. In practice people do often say, “Well, $75,000 is too much for a teacher,” and this way of formulating it is unhelpful and even anti-educator. But the fact that people are saying stuff like that just a symptom of the education union disease, which causes wages to be bargained over in a messy political process rather than set by mechanisms where *what insensitive outsiders think does not matter*.

Now, I am also not an idiot. I realize that in some industries having wages set justly yet efficiently, by decentralized competitive processes, is more difficult than in others. But I believe one thing strongly — the way that wage bargaining works for public school teachers now is clearly very far from the best achievable outcome, and causes a lot of harm to students as well as to the good teachers. Accusations of hypocrisy and other forms of moral suasion are not going to get people to stop complaining because there’s a lot of real harm in what they’re complaining about, so we may as well start redesigning the mechanisms rather than trotting out the old union lines in this bizarre white-collar context.

If I read your first paragraph correctly, you believe that many people are opposed to the interests of teachers because teachers have unions.  This position (which incidentally strikes me as a crazy position to hold) is, I think, exactly and correctly described by the excerpt.  Indeed, it is quite clearly anti-educator, anti-labor, and certainly not pro-education (as such a position has no identifiable relation to the quality of education provided by schools).

I think that professional ed-reformer types often go out of their way to assert that they are not actually anti-teacher or anti-union; in fact I think that (my interpretation of) your read on the situation is more accurate than their self-presentation — that is, people who spend their time plotting ways to blow up teachers’ unions (and schools, and school systems) are probably not actually very interested in providing an education of highest-possible quality to American students.

I’m having trouble with your second paragraph because it appears we have very, very different preconceptions.  I’m not at all sure what harms you think accrue to students from collective bargaining by teachers.  A few days of school missed?  That can’t be what you mean (and while it’s not ideal, major strikes by teachers are so rare that it could hardly merit mention).  But then what?  Teachers’ positions in these negotiations tend to align closely with what I would call pro-education positions: see for example their one-page summary of their demands here.  (And yes, I understand that there are a few things on that list that don’t really have to do with the contract negotiations; nevertheless, teachers’ unions are one of the few powerful organizations that take these positions.)  Meanwhile, the vituperative attacks of ed reformers tend to take strange forms like insisting on using poorly-conceived measurement criteria, demanding the firing of schools full of teachers, pointless administrative reorganizations, disruptive innovations, turning public schools over to for-profit companies, etc., none of which appear to have any convincing link to students learning anything.

The other parts of your second paragraph also seem strange to me — can you name any examples at all of jobs where wages are set “justly yet efficiently, by decentralized competitive processes”?  There is a massive power imbalance between an employer and a potential employee, and consequently employees should, in general, be able to collectively bargain for their wages and benefits; this has nothing to do with the nature of the work that they’re doing.

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9 Responses to Dialogue on Chicago, imported from Facebook

  1. Ben says:

    Thanks for your careful and detailed response.

    The main harm that accrues to students arises from unions’ aversion to having individual teachers hired and fired based on performance. As someone who was taught by teachers who kept their jobs despite clear incompetence *only because* of how much of a headache it would be to fire them (this was the proximate cause in at least once case), this harm is not abstract for me. See also: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill

    Any serious discussion of unions must admit that while they have their collective-bargaining empowering-workers role, they also in reality always have their protecting-the-incompetent role, and the latter is pretty harmful in some industries.

    To give some examples of markets where decentralized wage-setting works pretty justly and efficiently: the market for software engineers in the U.S.; the market for chemists working in pharmaceutical companies; the market for administrators (e.g. office managers) in any major city. I think both employees and employers would generally object to unions in these settings, and I don’t think the U.S. is worse off not having them. What is your objection to wages in these markets? (It is worth contrasting the situation with France, where union-like protection in almost all professional jobs renders the labor market nearly paralyzed and makes it very hard for young people to break into it.)

  2. JBL says:

    Hi Ben, thanks for commenting! From my response, you’ll see why I can’t imagine ever trying to use Twitter ;).

    I think the idea that teachers unions are the main reason that there are bad teachers is basically a fantasy. Right now, the market for teachers in the US is not one in which there are large numbers of exceptionally qualified individuals with both pedagogical and subject matter specific credentials dying to become teachers and only unable to do so because there are no jobs available. Rather, what one should expect today when one fires a teacher is to be able to hire a teacher who is more or less the same. Indeed, teaching is a profession that requires a relatively high level of education; has relatively low salary (though typically pretty good benefits, at least in places where teachers are unionized); offers exciting opportunities in being villianized by members of both political parties and being called “overpaid” by political pundits who make handsome salaries while contributing nothing to society; and for which most of the positive aspects of the job are being actively and explicitly undermined by people in the name of education reform. Many people who would make talented teachers would never consider the position for these reasons, and frankly it’s hard to blame them. The idea that making working conditions worse will improve the quality of the typical employee is an interesting one, but it seems to me that anyone with training in economics should feel a need to justify why the labor supply curve in education runs in the opposite direction of labor supply curves in every other field.1 ;)

    Moreover, the idea that politicians and administrators have great insight into who are good and who are bad teachers is questionable at best. The most obvious indicator of this is how they want to make the measurement: using elaborate models that are not robust to minor modeling choices, not robust over time, not robust across different classes taught by the same teacher, and not tied in any empirical way to what people mean when they talk about great (or terrible) teachers they’ve had in the past. Of course teachers oppose this — they are right to do so. If I thought mayors, superintendents and high school principals were benevolent, objective analysts imbued with unusually high levels of analytical ability and trustworthiness, I might be okay giving them free rein in the hiring and firing of teachers. But all of these things are transparently false: like any other group of people, they are often venal, petty, incompetent, or misguided. It’s not at all clear why I should believe that giving them more power in the firing of teachers would result in the hiring of better teachers, rather than (e.g.) the hiring of less argumentative teachers, or teachers with more deference to their bosses, or simply teachers willing to work for less pay. Indeed, we have in this country lots of school districts in which the teachers are not unionized, largely in the south — is there any evidence to suggest that these schools lack for bad teachers, or have an unusually large number of talented ones?

    Re: your last paragraph, thank you for the examples. Employers in this country object to unions in basically all cases; employees, when given the chance to vote, do sometimes reject unionization, even in situations where they would clearly benefit. (A local example: grad students at UMN rejected a union last year by a fairly large margin, even though their pay is at the lower end of students at comparable universities.) I don’t claim that (e.g.) wages for pharmaceutical chemists are too low (how would I know?); it’s possible (though probably unlikely) that pharmaceutical chemists are in such high demand that a typical applicant has significant bargaining power in establishing her own conditions and pay. But if so, this would be a relatively unusual state. In most employment situations, there is a massive power imbalance between employers and employees, and so in particular working conditions and pay are dictated entirely by employers, without regard to nicities like justice or fairness. The natural way to combat this is to give workers voice in their own working conditions, and the natural way to do that is via collective bargaining. Of course the best possible balance is debatable (perhaps France is too far in the other direction (again I have no idea)) but it’s pretty clear to me that Americans in general would benefit if more power were shifted from capital to labor. I’m not a scholar of these issues, but it seems to me that it’s probably not accidental that the growth of the American middle class happened during out period of greatest unionization, nor that the decline of unions has gone hand-in-hand with a subsequent stagnation in median wages and decoupling of productivity from wages.

    1. Did I get that terminology right? It’s a long time since I studied any economics ;).

  3. JBL says:

    About the NYer article: in a system with 200,000 teachers if you write an article about the worst 100 it sounds really terrible; but these teachers aren’t in the classroom, which presumably you support. Parts of the negotiated system are dysfunctional; this suggests that it should be subject to further negotiation (and the article notes that it has been, though perhaps with unintended consequences), not that suddenly Bloomberg should be able to personally fire anyone he wants to. Tenure and teachers’ unions exist for good reason, and the overall quality of education in this country is probably better because of them. I don’t claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but rather that ed reformers are fond of destructive tactics and don’t seem to care very much about actually improving the quality of education.

    Incidentally: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/nyregion/16rubber.html

  4. Ben says:

    Thank you for another thoughtful reply.

    I agree that empowering random administrators to fire teachers at will won’t improve things. I don’t know if you and I agree about the reason for that: namely that the administrators aren’t themselves subject to market discipline, in which poor choices regarding whom to employ result in business failure. In a web startup, the connection is pretty clear: you hire good programmers because if you don’t, your product will suck and nobody will use it. The meaning of “good” is determined operationally: by what your customers value.

    It’s not obvious that the customers in the education market (parents and students) can reliably evaluate the real quality of what they’re getting, and therefore able to suitably discipline schools. The charter-schoolists dream that customers *can* make these evaluations, of course. I don’t know what the answer is. If we *can’t* get to a system where customers vote with their feet and those votes are intelligent, then I think I’m with you — the second-best is a system where public administrators run the show, but their leeway is constrained by measures that protect the workers.

    But I’m unhappy if this has to be the answer: my favorite solution is one in which we have the wind of market forces at our backs, rather than having to blow really hard (i.e. introduce clunky administrative and union structures) to substitute for that wind. The felicitous physics of markets (suitably supplemented by intelligent government intervention) does good things for society when it works well — witness innovation in digital technology and pharmaceuticals… and we should try to leverage it when we can.

    I guess what I’d like my fellow liberals to engage with in these things is that giving up market forces, though perhaps sometimes necessary, involves serious frictions and real costs, e.g. when “administrators still must spend months or even years documenting poor performance before the department can begin hearings, which will still last up to two months.” That may be an unavoidable cost, but I think we can all agree that nothing productive is happening in those years and months, and that the administrative work is “overhead”, not helping the students. It may be part of a system that helps the students in the best possible way; but we should not just *assume* that this is the case.

  5. Ben says:

    It also doesn’t seem to be totally out of the realm of possibility that great teaching can be as rewarding and pleasant for the performers as, say, professional sports or other “cool” jobs — http://ntdtv.org/en/news/life/2009-07-15/476586938003.html

  6. Ben says:

    Lastly, thought you might be amused by this (I don’t totally diagree, thanks to my socialist officemate in grad school!) There’s a Simple Solution to the Public Schools Crisis (outlaw private schools).

  7. JBL says:

    Starting from the bottom: definitely nationalizing private schools is on the list of things that I will do when elected dictator. Actually though in the US that’s probably not radical enough: at least as common as sending ones’ kids to private schools is moving into a place with a good school district. Towns like e.g. Scarsdale NY do their best to make sure that the minimum price level for housing in town is very high, charge property taxes that are in line with private school tuition charges, and so turn their local public schools into the equivalent of your typical prep school. This version of the problem is perhaps even harder to solve (as long as we rule out the forcible relocation of suburbanites). [Actually, on further thought, building affordable housing and decent transit options widely, not just in dense urban centers, would be a big step forward.]

    What I know (not very much) about the situation in Korea and some other countries, e.g. Singapore, is fascinating, but I think probably in the big picture my plan to disappropriate wealthy suburbanites of their homes is more realistic than getting Americans to broadly adopt the Korean approach to education. ;-)

    Finally, in re the first of your three, I’m having a bit of trouble responding because I don’t disagree and yet some parts rub me the wrong way. Perhaps this is just because of how the phrase “market solutions” is typically deployed in the political dialogue in this country. I think that your 2nd paragraph correctly captures (many aspects of) my position, and I think your last paragraph is an excellent point (modulo the implication that liberals don’t engage with this question in general). I guess that the only other thing I want to add but can’t find a hook for is that (outing myself as a conservative as well as a labor-sympathetic liberal and radical communist despot in waiting) the education system is really big, complicated, and important, and so people who want to fiddle with it should do so carefully and incrementally.

  8. JBL says:

    Also would like to note that I’m always relieved when our views end up converging — otherwise I start to get worried that something is off-kilter in the universe.

  9. Ben says:

    Me too relieved! Thank you for a nice conversation. I hope it’s followed by a real-life one soon.

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