Mandating Betamax

March 29, 2011

I just returned from the Association for Education Finance and Policy annual conference in Seattle, which was a really fantastic meeting.  At the conference I saw Dartmouth economic historian, William Fischel, present a paper on Amish education, extending the work from his great book, Making the Grade, which I have reviewed in Education Next.

Fischel’s basic argument is that our educational institutions have largely evolved in response to consumer demands.  That is, the consolidation of one-room schoolhouses into larger districts, the development of schools with separate grades, the September to June calendar, and the relatively common curriculum across the country all came into being because families wanted those measures.  And in a highly mobile society, even more than a century ago, people often preferred to move to areas with schools that had these desired features.  In the competitive market between communities, school districts had to cater to this consumer demand.  All of this resulted in a remarkable amount of standardization and uniformity across the country on basic features of K-12 education.

Hearing Fischel’s argument made me think about how ill-conceived the nationalization effort led by Gates, Fordham, the AFT, and the US Department of Education really is.  Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized.  No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation.  Parents didn’t want to move from one district to another only to discover that their children would be repeating what they had already been taught or were  inadequately prepared for what was going to be taught.  To attract mobile families, districts informally and naturally began to coordinate what they taught in each grade.  Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That’s how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry.  VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it.  If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country, even though market competition would have shown that approach to be inferior.  Sony was the industry leader and if a government-backed committee were in charge they almost certainly would have had the most influence.  The Fordham folks might want to keep this in mind.  A government-backed committee is almost certain to prefer what the AFT wants over what Fordham may envision since the teacher unions are like Sony except only 100 times more powerful.

Even worse, once government-enforced standardization occurs it becomes extremely difficult to change.  If we had a government-backed panel decide on Betamax, we may have been stuck with that format for decades.  We almost certainly would have stifled the innovation that led to DVDs and now Blue-Ray.  Once Sony had entrenched their format, what incentive would they have had to change it?

Similarly, once the Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE coalition settles on the details of nationalizing standards, curriculum, and testing, it will become extremely difficult to change anything about education.  Terry Moe and Paul Peterson’s dreams of technology-based instruction may never leave the dream stage because it may fail to comply with certain provisions of the national regime.  If I were the AFT, I’d almost certainly insert those details into the regime to prevent the reductions that technology may bring to the need for teaching labor.  No one should be naive enough to think the Edublob won’t figure out how to use nationalization to block that and other threatening innovations.

I’m also sure that Bill Gates would have preferred being able to get a government-backed committee to enshrine Microsoft-DOS or Windows forever.  But thanks to market competition we have Google innovating with cloud computing.  And I’d bet that Google would love to get government backing for their approach if they could.  Dominant companies almost always favor government regulation.

So I understand why the AFT, USDOE, and Gates favor the current effort to nationalize education.  The mystery to me is why Fordham is protecting the right-flank of this movement or why some conservative governors have gone along.  Don’t they realize that it will enshrine arrangements that favor the teacher unions and are bad for kids?

Steven Brill on the Rubber Rooms

August 31, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Steven Brill brings the pain in a fantastic new article on NYC rubber rooms. Money quote:

“Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That is her job.”



Questions for Leo-The Final Chapter

April 23, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In my final question for Leo, I ask: Leo, do your puppets have Taco Flavored Kisses?

Questions for Leo: Do you smell what the Blob is cooking?

April 21, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s installment of our ongoing series Questions for Leo, we feature this 1997 photo of Leo Casey subtly indicating to the members of the New York City Council education committee that it’s time for them to pick up their cue cards and start asking the prearranged questions.

Since his appearance before the committee was more phony than a pro wrestling match, today’s question for Leo is: Do you smell what the Blob is cooking?

Below, the latest embarrassing expose on the UFT – yet another hilariously misspelled cue card.


Edited to correct a misspelling – I put an “e” in “subtly.” Yes, I have submitted my job application to the UFT and expect to hear back shortly.

Questions for Leo: Is It Easy Giving Green?

April 17, 2009

Henson and Kermit.jpg

(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

Today’s installment of the ongoing series Questions for Leo features this 1974 photo of Leo Casey on vacation in the Everglades with the then-chairman of the New York City Council education committee.

The Daily News coverage of union financial contributions to the puppets on the education committee reminds us how much green the unions have to give. So our question for Leo today is, “Is it easy giving green?”

I mailed him the question (on a cue card, of course) and he replied:

It’s not that easy giving green
Having to wish each day my conscience would leave
When I think it could be nicer
Being a thief, or a con artist, or a pro wrestler
Or something much more honest like that

It’s not easy giving green
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary lobbyists
And people tend to pass you over
‘Cause you’re not standing out like GSEs that destroy the economy
Or stars in Hollywood

But green is the color of nastiness
And green makes politicians cool and friendly-like
And green can make you big, like a tyrant
Or important, like a monopolist
Or walk tall like you had dignity

When green rolls in from union fees
It could make you wonder why you hate children
But why wonder? Why wonder?
I have green, and it’ll do fine
It’s beautiful!
And I think it’s what you want from me

Photo courtesy The Jim Henson Company via the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Famous Steakholders, Volume 2

April 17, 2009

Could this be what Leo was talking about?


(HT: Brian)

(Image source:

Questions for Leo: Can you do that while drinking a glass of water?

April 16, 2009

Our ongoing series “Questions for Leo” features this undated photo of Leo Casey with a New York City Council member.  Our question for today is: Can you do that while drinking a glass of water? 

We chose that question over: How high up does the hand go?

AFT and UAW – More Alike Than You’d Think

December 30, 2008

aft uaw1

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Lots of people are picking up on the temper tantrum about alleged “demonizing of teachers” begun by a Randi Weingarten speech and continued in Bob Herbert’s column on the speech.

Even that notorious right-winger Eduwonk points out that Weingarten and Herbert are hitting a straw man. I think the real problem is not that school reformers demonize teachers but that defenders of the government school monopoly angelize them. When we reformers insist that teachers should be treated as, you know, human beings, who respond to incentives and all that, rather than as some sort of perfect angelic beings who would never ever allow things like absolute job protection to affect their performance, it drives people like Weingarten and Herbert nuts.


A typical teacher, as seen by Randi Weingarten

But what I’d like to pick up on is the question of whether the troubles of the government school system are comparable to the troubles of the auto industry.

Of the alleged demonizing of teachers, Herbert had written:

It reminded me of the way autoworkers have been vilified and blamed by so many for the problems plaguing the Big Three automakers.

Eduwonk points out Herbert’s hypocrisy (though he delicately avoids using that word) on this point, because elsewhere in the column, Herbert praises Weingarten for expressing a willingness to make concessions on issues like tenure and pay scales. Union recalcitrance on these types of reform, Eduwonk points out, is precisely why the auto industry is in so much trouble, and Weingarten has been driven to make noises in favor of reform because a similar dynamic has been at work in the government school system.

On the other hand, Joanne Jacobs thinks the comparison between the AFT and the UAW is inapt:

 I don’t think skilled teachers and unskilled auto workers have much in common.  Auto unions pushed up costs, especially for retirees, making U.S. cars uncompetitive.  In education, the problem isn’t excessive pay, it’s the fact that salaries aren’t linked to teacher effectiveness, the difficulty of their jobs or the market demand for their skills.

But teachers’ unions have pushed up costs – dramatically. In the past 40 years, the cost of the government school system per student has much more than doubled (even after inflation) while outcomes are flat across the board. And this has mainly been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of teachers hired per student – a policy that benefits only the unions.

It’s true that high salaries aren’t the main issue in schools, although teacher salaries are in fact surprisingly high. The disconnect between teacher pay and teacher performance is much more important. But the UAW has the same problem! Their pay scales don’t reward performance, either.

The source of Jacobs’ confusion is her mistaken view that auto workers are “unskilled.” Farm workers are unskilled, but not auto workers. The distinction she’s reaching for is the one between white-collar or “professional” work and blue-collar work. But some blue-collar work is skilled and some is unskilled, and auto workers are in the former category. This matters because with skilled blue-collar workers, as with white-collar workers, there’s a dramatic increase in the importance of incentives as compared with unskilled labor.

In fact, a lot of smart people have been arguing (scroll down to the Dec. 26 post) that exorbitant salaries and benefits aren’t nearly as much of a problem in the auto industry as union work rules – including poor performance due to absolute job protection, pay scales that don’t reward performance, and rigid job descriptions that make process modernization impossible.

Sound familiar?


Why JPGB Beats Edwize

December 11, 2008


  Edwize is a blog by Leo Casey that is sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.  The UFT has tens of millions of dollars at its disposal and thousands upon thousands of members.  Jay P. Greene’s Blog (JPGB) by contrast has a $25 registration fee for the domain name and a couple of laptops. 

Despite this huge disparity in resources, JPGB has a significantly larger audience than does Edwize.  According to Technorati JPGB has an authority rating of 95 while Edwize has a rating of 74.  An authority rating measures how many other blogs link to a given blog during the last 180 days, which is meant to capture how much influence a blog has in the blogoshpere.  In addition, each post on JPGB generates about 4 or 5 comments, on average, while posts on Edwize generate about 1 or 2 comments, on average.  Fewer comments suggest fewer readers and/or material on which people do not care to comment. 

None of these measures is perfect, but it is clear that JPGB beats Edwize.  Why?

The primary challenge for Edwize is that it has to tout teacher union views on education issues.  And those views are mostly junky.  So, Edwize suffers because it takes significantly more resources to interest people in crappy ideas than in sensible ones. 

In case you doubt that the unions have to push junky ideas, ask yourself whether it is sensible to have a system of education in which students are mostly assigned to schools based on where they live; where teachers are almost never fired, no matter how incompetent they are; where teachers are paid almost entirely based on how many years they’ve been around rather than on how well they do their job; where teachers are required to be certified even though there is little to no evidence that certification is associated with quality; and where all teachers are paid the same regardless of subject, even though we know that the skills required for expertise on certain subjects have much greater value in the market than other subjects.

The mental gymnastics required to sustain the union world view has a much greater “degree of difficulty” than the views that are regularly expressed on JPGB.  And the resources required to generate support for these union views are enormous.  You need millions of people financially benefiting from these policies to volunteer as campaign workers.  You need millions of dollars in union dues for campaign contributions.  You need a large team of paid staff in every state and in Washington, DC.  It takes an army and a fortune for the unions to hold their ground.

This not only helps explain why JPGB beats Edwize, but also why reformers are able to beat the unions in the policy arena.  It’s true that the unions win most of the time.  But given their enormous advantage in resources, it is amazing that the unions ever lose.  The reason that the unions lose as often as they do is that their policy positions are much more difficult to defend intellectually.

So, we should feel sorry for Leo Casey and his union comrades.  They may have a lot more money and a lot more people, but they constantly have to defend obviously dumb ideas.

(edited for clarity and to add photo)

AFT suggests LBO for Public Schools

December 11, 2008


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Leo over at EdWize (the AFT blog) has posed the question: “When you have spent that last decade telling everyone who would listen that public schools should be for sale, on what grounds do you complain about someone who would sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder?”

Leo has a different recollection of my past decade than I do, as I don’t remember ever telling anyone that public schools ought to be for sale, much less doing it constantly. Never mind that however, I think that Leo is on to something here. The prime targets for leveraged buyouts are companies whose stock valuation falls below the value of their assets. This of course only occurs through gross mismanagement, where companies become worth less than the stuff they have lying around. The management of such companies should be seen at best as incompetent, and at worst as rent-seeking leeches drawing paychecks while destroying value.

Many American school districts likely fall squarely into just such a state of mismanagement- taking $10,000 per year per student, but failing to teach 36% of 4th graders how to read, and failing to get half of African American and Hispanic student to graduate from high school. These are simply averages, and obviously many districts contribute far more than others.

Leo, you are a genius. We can put together a LLC to do the LBOs once the credit crunch ends. Who could be better at defeating the poison pill strategies of the leeches than a former AFT guy?

Leo, you do not yet realize your importance: with our combined power, we can destroy the leeches- they have foreseen this. Join me, and we can put an end to this destructive conflict, and bring learning, order and profit to the nation’s schools.

It is your destiny.

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