True vs. the Opposite of True at Ed Next

July 10, 2013

xkcd the opposite of true

HT xkcd

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Next hosts a throwdown between Jay and Kate Walsh on the NCTQ teacher training standards. Backfill here.

What strikes me most about the exchange is that Walsh begins her response by essentially giving away the store to Jay:

The idea of encouraging experimentation in the education sector makes sense: if you don’t know what works, let a thousand flowers bloom. And the field of teacher education would appear to be particularly fertile ground. After all, there’s been a common presumption that no one knows what works.

Then, bizarrely, she argues that because Jay is right that we need to have more experimentation and “let a thousand flowers bloom,” we should impose regulations that restrict experimentation and limit how many kinds of flowers are allowed to bloom:

Teacher prep is the Wild West of higher education…This level of disarray raises an important question:  How much experimentation should we tolerate, given what’s at stake?…No doubt there is a difference between the kind of experimentation that Jay is calling for and teacher prep’s current modus operandi of throwing anything against a wall and seeing if it sticks—or worse, not even caring if it sticks, just doing it because a professor has decided he’s right, no matter the evidence to the contrary. But since the field itself is not rigorously gathering data on what works — and the risk for the students of new teachers is so great — it makes sense to establish reasonable guidelines as to what should go into teacher training to ensure, at the very least, that new teachers “do no harm.”

No, that’s the opposite of true. If we don’t know what works because we aren’t collecting data, and our top priority is to do no harm, the very last thing we should do is impose new regulations! The whole point of regulations is to prevent people from doing things that we know do harm. We impose lead regulations on paint manufacturers because we know putting lead in paint does harm. We impose medical trial regulations on medicine companies because we know selling untested medicines does harm. We impose broken glass regulations on fast food restaurants because we know putting broken glass in hamburgers does harm. (At least until you grind it up so fine that it’s no longer sharp, like they do in McDonald’s milkshakes.)

Imposing regulations when you don’t know what works is the quickest path to doing lots and lots of harm – and, by the way, it also prevents you from collecting data to find out what works (which is what we ought to be doing) because you can’t collect data on methods you aren’t allowed to try.


Teacher Contracts: Blame States, Too

July 30, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The National Council on Teacher Quality has published a new report on the sausage-factory process behind teacher contracts. (HT EIA, or as I like to call him, ALELR.)

Readers of Jay P. Greene’s Blog will probably not need to be told that reformers have long identified teacher contracts as one of the most important root causes, if not the single most important root cause, of the system’s ills. It is because of these contracts, for example, that pay scales, quality control and disciplinary procedures in education resemble those of a factory (even a factory circa 1965) more than those of a profession.

Defenders of the system sometimes argue that teachers should recieve the deference that is due to professionals. Personally, I’d love to see that – but not until they’re compensated and held accountable like professionals.

When that day comes, teachers will be able to say, “Now we have freedom and responsibility. It’s a very groovy time!”

Until then, you can’t expect to have one without the other for very long. The universe doesn’t work that way.

Reformers have long argued that the fundamental problem is disproportionate union influence on school boards. Union members have a much stronger motive to vote in school board elections than anyone else, especially when the elections are held separately and require a special trip to the polls. Thus, at contract renewal time the union ends up “negotiating with itself.”

However, the NCTQ report’s main argument seems to be that we should be griping less about the actual bargaining process between districts and unions, and more about the laws passed by state legislatures mandating certain provisions in those contracts. The unions find it easier to extract what they want in the statehouse, NCTQ argues: “As unions have matured, their leaders have realized that it is more efficient to lobby state legislatures on particular provisions than to negotiate district by district every few years as contracts expire.”

The report collects a lot of useful information on the subject, and any contribution to knowledge on this badly understudied subject is valuable. And clearly NCTQ is right when it observes that bad state mandates ought to be deplored alongside bad district/union negotiations, and they currently aren’t.

But if I may play devil’s advocate (“When don’t you?” the unions may ask), I think NCTQ overstates its case on the importance of state mandates vis-a-vis district negotiations.

The report’s opening concedes that “the teacher contract still figures prominently on such issues as teacher pay,” but asserts that “on the most critical issues of the teaching profession, the state is the real powerhouse,” citing how teachers are evaluated, when they get tenure, their benefits, and the notorious issue of firing procedures. But are benefits really that important as an obstacle to reform, so long as compensation is structured on a factory-worker scale? And does the procedure for evaluating teachers matter as an obstacle to reform so long as evaluations play no role in compensation – again because compensation is structured on a factory-worker scale? When teachers get tenure and how hard it is to fire the bad ones are obviously important as obstacles to reform. But are they really so much more important than the factory-worker scale? Whether teachers get tenure early or late is less important than the fact that they get it. Disciplinary procedures only affect a small number of teachers. Even if we include the absence of a more widespread deterrent effect, we’re still not talking about something that affects all or even most of the profession.

I also think NCTQ is barking up the wrong tree when it argues that lobbying the state for goodies is more “efficient” than fighting for goodies district by district. As Hamilton, Madison and Jay (the “Three Founderos”) observed in the Federalist Papers, selfish interests will always find it easier to extract goodies from the public fisc in a whole bunch of little local places than in one big place. While centralization does provide one-stop shopping, it also creates more intense scrutiny and greater opporutnities for opposition.

In fact, in the case of the teachers’ unions, I’m not even sure why it would take more resources to extract goodies on a district-by-district basis. They have to “negotiate district by district” anyway. They get coerced dues payments from millions of teachers precisely to pay the costs of negotiating in every district. And conditions on the ground in those districts are more favorable than those in the statehouse.

Moreover, the old saying goes “the crime is what’s legal.” In this case, the big obstacle to reform is what the teachers don’t have to bother negotiating for: the factory-worker structure of compensation. It’s not like they have to go back and win that all over again every time the contract comes up for renewal.

Finally, it’s not clear that state-mandated and district-negotiated provisions can be separated all that clearly. For example, check out this chart from the NCTQ report, illustrating how the process for firing teachers is mandated by state law in California:

Pretty nice graphic! But check out the contents of the first box:

School district must document specific examples of ineffective performance, based on standards set by the district and the local teachers union.

And the third box:

If the school board votes to approve dismissal . . .

And the fifth box:

School board must reconvene to decide whether to proceed . . .

And the seventh box:

. . . and persons appointed by the school board . . .

And the ninth box:

If . . . the school district appeals the decision . . .

See what I mean? The larger reality of the union/school board relationship will influence the board’s behavior in discipline cases. And the standards for documenting misconduct are subject to union/board negotiations.

I don’t mean to diminish NCTQ’s important contribution here. We should absolutely be paying more attention to state teacher contract mandates. But I think NCTQ goes too far to argue that they’re more important than the dysfunctional school board system.