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 forseen 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.

False Claims of Cherry Picking are the Pits

August 20, 2008

Leo Casey over at Edwize is urging me to join the “United Cherry Pickers” union because he thinks I’ve cherry picked the evidence on vouchers in a previous post.  This sounds like a great deal if my dues, like those from AFT and NEA members, can contribute to paying for skyboxes for Leo and his buddies at the Democratic National Convention to make-up for the convention’s shortfall of $10 million.  Where do I sign up?

Making a charge of cherry picking is easy.  Substantiating it requires, well, uhm, evidence.  Evidence isn’t exactly Leo Casey’s strong-suit.

I said that there have been 10 analyses of random assignment voucher experiments.  I said that 9 of those 10 analyses show significant, positive effects (at least for some subgroups).  If I am cherry picking, which random assignment analyses am I leaving out? 

Leo Casey then asserts: “Serious research conducted by respected scholars without an ideological axe to grind has consistently found every major voucher experiment in the United States wanting. John Witte’s and Cecilia Rouse’s definitive analyses of the Milwaukee voucher program and the Indiana University studies of the Cleveland voucher program have shown no meaningful educational performance advantage for students in those two high profile, large scale voucher programs.”

Neither Witte nor the IU studies analyzed random-assignment experiments, making it harder to have confidence in their results, which is why I focus on the 10 analyses using the gold-standard approach. 

Rouse’s study did examine a random-assignment experiment, but Casey mischaracterizes her findings.  She writes: “I find that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had faster math score gains than, but similar reading score gains to, the comparison groups. The results appear robust to data imputations and sample attrition, although these deficiencies of the data should be kept in mind when interpreting the results.”   Remember, Casey falsely claims that she finds “no meaningful educational performance advantage for students.”

Casey also mischaracterizes my citation of Belfield and Levin’s findings: “[He even cites research that is not on the subject of vouchers: Hank Levin will be most surprised to learn that his research ‘supports’ vouchers.]” 

Since I actually bothered to quote Belfied and Levin’s findings about the effects of expanding choice and competition, I don’t think Hank Levin will be the least bit surprised to read what he wrote.  I’ll repeat the quotation here so that no one is shocked: “A sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes… The above evidence shows reasonably consistent evidence of a link between competition (choice) and education quality. Increased competition and higher educational quality are positively correlated.”

If Leo Casey is going to make the charge of cherry picking and improperly citing evidence, he has to deliver proof of those charges.  To the contrary, the facts indicate that Casey is the one cherry picking and improperly citing research.

Is there a union for playing fast and loose with the truth?  Maybe Leo Casey should join it.  Oh, I forgot.  He’s already a member of the AFT.

(Links added)

A Modest Proposal for B.B.

August 18, 2008

The advocates of B.B. (Broader, Bolder; or is it Bigger Budgets? or is it Bloated Behemoth?) have yet to muster the evidence to support widespread implementation of their vision to expand the mission of schools to include health care, legal assistance, and other social services. They do present background papers showing that children who suffer from social problems fare worse academically, but they have not shown that public schools are capable of addressing those social problems and increasing student learning.

And if you dare to question whether there is evidence about the effectiveness of public schools providing social services in order to raise achievement, you are accused of being opposed to “better social and economic environments for children.” Right. And if you question the effectiveness of central economic planning are you also then opposed to a better economy? And if you question the effectiveness of an untested drug therapy are you then opposed to quality health-care?

To help the B.B. crowd generate the evidence one would need before pursuing a reform agenda on a large-scale, I have a modest proposal. How about if we have a dozen large-scale, well-funded pilot programs of the “community school” concept advocated by B.B.? And, at the same time let’s have a dozen large-scale, well-funded pilot voucher programs. We’ll carefully evaluate the effects of both to learn about whether one, the other, or both are things that we should try on an even larger scale.

I’m all for trying out new ideas and carefully evaluating the results. I can’t imagine why the backers of B.B. wouldn’t want to do the same. So as soon as Larry Mishel at the union-funded Economic Policy Institute, Randi Weingarten of the AFT, and Leo Casey of the AFT’s blog, Edwize, endorse my modest proposal, we’ll all get behind the idea of trying new approaches and studying their effects — “community schools” and vouchers.

Wait, my psychic powers are picking something up. I expect that some might say we’ve already tried vouchers and they haven’t worked. In fact, Randi Weingarten just wrote something very much like that when she declared in the NY Daily News that vouchers “have not been shown by any credible research to improve student achievement.” Let’s leave aside that there have been 10 random assignment evaluations (the gold-standard in research) of voucher programs and 9 show significant positive effects, at least for certain sub-groups of students. And let’s leave aside that 3 of those analyses are independent replications of earlier studies that confirm the basic positive findings of the original analyses (and 1 replication does not). And let’s leave aside that 6 of those 10 studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals (including the QJE, the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and the Journal of Policy Studies), three in a Brookings book, and one in a federal government report (even if Chris Lubienski somehow denies that any of this constitutes real peer-review). And let’s leave aside that there have been more than 200 analyses of the effects of expanding choice and competition, which Clive Belfield and Henry Levin reviewed and concluded: “A sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes… The above evidence shows reasonably consistent evidence of a link between competition (choice) and education quality. Increased competition and higher educational quality are positively correlated.”

Let’s leave all of that aside and ask Randi Weingarten how many random-assignment studies of the community school concept she has. Uhm, none. How many evaluations of community schools, period? Uhm, still none. But that doesn’t stop her from drawing the definitive conclusion: “Through partnerships with universities, nonprofit groups and other organizations, community schools provide the learning conditions and resources that support effective instruction and bring crucial services to an entire community.” How does she know?

But I’m eager to help her and all of us learn about community schools if she is willing to do the same to learn about vouchers. Better designed and better funded voucher programs could give us a much better look at vouchers’ full effects. Existing programs have vouchers that are worth significantly less than per pupil spending in public schools, have caps on enrollments, and at least partially immunize public schools from the financial effects of competition. If we see positive results from such limited voucher programs, what might happen if we could try broader, bolder ones and carefully studied the results?

And if community schools really deliver all that is being promised, great, let’s do that too. But if our goal is to do what works, why not give both ideas a real try?

(Link added)

Broader, Bolder = Bloated Behemoth

August 13, 2008


Over at D-Ed Reckoning Ken DeRosa reviews the “evidence” that the AFT’s Leo Casey presents on the effectiveness of the Broader, Bolder approach being pushed by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute (with the support of some impressive people who you would think would know better). 

The issue is not whether kids would benefit from better health care or social services, or even whether receiving those benefits might contribute to higher achievement.  The issue is whether public schools are capable of expanding their mission to effectively provide these additional services, and whether those schools can translate the provision of additional services into higher achievement.

The Broader, Bolder folks provide a list of “background papers” to support their cause.  But those papers are very far in the background in that only a handful of the more than 100 studies cited actually assess the effects of providing students with additional services.  And even fewer look at the effects of public schools providing those services.  Before we endorse a bold new plan for education wouldn’t we want at least a few  evaluations of pilot programs in which public schools actually provided the full set of services being advocated?  I can’t find one such evaluation in the list of 100+ studies provided.

But don’t worry, Leo Casey has stepped into the breach with the solid research we need.  Here’s DeRosa’s commentary bracketing Casey’s, uhm, evidence:

“Leo must have had a few of his underlings pouring over the ERIC databases non-stop finding the requested evidence. Here is Leo’s evidence. I am leaving in all the internal citations and footnotes.

Classroom teachers recognize immediately the educational value of providing a comprehensive array of services to students living in poverty. They have seen the effects of undiagnosed and untreated eye problems on a student’s ability to learn how to read, and of untreated ear infections on a student’s ability to hear what is being said in the classroom. They know that the lack of proper medical care heightens the severity of childhood illnesses and makes them last longer, leading to more absences from school for students who need every day of school they can get. They have seen asthma reach epidemic proportions among students living in poverty, and they know that the lack of preventive and prophylactic medical care leads to more frequent attacks of a more severe nature, and more absences from school. They understand that screening for lead poisoning happens least among children in poverty, even though their living conditions make them the most likely victims, with all of the negative effects on cognitive functions. They know that the stresses of life in poverty make mental health and social work services for students and their families all that more important, and yet they are least likely to receive them. They see how the transience that marks poverty disrupts the education of students again and again, as the families of students are constantly on the move. In short, teachers know that the students living in poverty lack the health and social services routinely available to middle class and upper class students, despite the fact that they need them even more. And they know that the absence of these services has a detrimental impact on the education, as well as the general well-being, of students living in poverty.

I emphasized Leo’s evidentiary citations since they do not conform to the generally accepted norm.”

(edited for typos)