Throwing money at stuff

Andrew Hartman’s TFA hit piece in the new Jacobin has some good criticism, but I don’t like aspects of how it casts the larger debate surrounding educational reform. This is coming from someone who basically thinks teaching is the most heroic profession other than organizing, so I should have total sympathy for his argument.

I don’t think of TFA as a perfect or even adequate solution to the problem of educational equality. Instead, I think of it as a step toward a new paradigm in which debates over reform aren’t about whether market logic or protectionism are better mechanisms for managing limited resources, but where we address the problem of those limited resources. Hartman is too tangled in that annoying first debate, and, committed so devotedly to defending one side, he shuns some promising possibilities.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Whereas TFA corps members leverage the elite TFA brand to launch careers in law or finance—or, if they remain in education, to bypass the typical career path on their way to principalships and other positions of leadership—most regular teachers must plod along, negotiating their way through traditional career ladders. These distinctions are lost on nobody. They are what make regular teachers and their unions such low-hanging political fruit for the likes of Christie, Walker, and Kasich.

I’m not convinced Republican governors feel authorized to target teachers because TFA makes teachers look bad. Christie, Walker, and Kasich would be attacking public unions and slashing education budgets regardless, because that’s their core political agenda. As for whether TFA bolsters it, I think you could just as easily argue that TFA exposes the challenges and critical importance of teachers. Crucially, it exposes this to people who, Harmtan explains, wind up influential and connected in other fields. Will those people really think teachers should be paid less or lack healthcare benefits?

Teachers are underpaid. If people can use their teaching experience to land high paying jobs in finance or law, that’s the market telling us teachers deserve more pay. I don’t think we should hold that against the teachers who choose to get paid off, or demonize TFA for illuminating the connection with clever branding. We should see it as a reason to pay teachers more.

Kopp is particularly enamored by high-performing charter schools, which succeed because they do whatever it takes to hire and retain good teachers, a zero-sum game that most schools cannot win without more resources—those dreaded “inputs.”

I haven’t read Kopp’s book (and pretty sure I never= want to lol), so I don’t know how dogmatic she is about the charter model specifically over the need for “more resources” generally. But I think if unions won the kind of pay and autonomy that charter schools propose (and agitating in solidarity for higher pay and autonomy is precisely the purpose of unions), schools would improve immediately. Unlike many other social problems, educational inequality is something we can greatly improve simply by throwing more money at it. At least for now, the biggest problems in education come down to severe lack of funding. Charter schools address that lack with innovative measures for maximizing profitability or whatever shit, which bring in other issues. We need public schools that are funded as well as charter schools but without those other issues. Charter schools are simply evidence of the need for more funding and teacher/school autonomy. I think it would be easy for unions to say that there’s no good reason all public school teachers (and principals), not just charters, shouldn’t operate with more independence from centralized authority and standards.

Reformers believe that if teachers are subjected to “market forces,” such as merit pay and job insecurity, they will work harder to improve the education they provide for their students.

Merit pay and job insecurity are potentially corrupting mechanisms, but it’s naive to think honest reformers should ignore “market forces” in general. When it comes to anything involving the job market, understanding market “forces” is crucial to organizing good policy. For instance, I don’t think teachers need the sorts of specialized incentives charter schools are pioneering. Teachers don’t need merit pay, they just need more pay. Higher wages means better teachers: if teachers got paid way more, more people would want to be (or could be) teachers, the hiring pool would become more competitive, and schools would be able to hire more selectively. This is also the application of “market” logic, but it’s a market in which we have a scarcity of critically underserved jobs, rather than of good teachers or the resources to pay them. We need to shift to that market.

Likewise, we need hiring and retention policy that accurately reflects the expected trajectory of productivity for a teacher and then is set up to allow individuals to make a lifetime of living off a teaching career, regardless of when or how they’re most productive. An 8-year veteran teacher might be more productive than a freshman teacher, but Hartman describes districts firing veteran teachers to make room for TFA-like recruits because they can be paid much less. Meanwhile, a 4-year veteran might be more productive than a 25-year veteran (especially a teacher who survived that tenure in a challenging, underfunded school), but the 25-year veteran deserves to be rewarded for his years. He deserves to be able to fund an entire life based on his output during his earlier, most productive years. It’s important to think through these dynamics, because once again neither unbridled market logic nor singular concern for retaining veterans get at the real issue.

Unions naturally don’t want people to be laid off and left destitute just because there’s fresh meat willing to work for cheaper. But I wonder if it’s the case that to some degree teachers do get legitimately burnt out after two decades or whatever, and whether it’s worth thinking more precisely about the point at which older teachers really should be replaced by young blood. In other words, what I’m pointing to is earlier retirement options and better pensions, both of which should be core union commitments but maybe aren’t anymore. There’s a reason ER surgeons, military personnel, and professional athletes retire early, and perhaps it’s worth thinking of teachers on similar terms. All those professions are designed to permit an even quality of life after the most productive years. A veteran teacher that earned better pay for years of service obviously isn’t dead-weight to be jettisoned, even if the quality of his output has plateaued. This happens in all fields: people deserve to get compensated for loyalty. These incentives are necessary for attracting talent and retaining it, which should be a separate concern from the task of getting the best work out of the teachers you do have.

As for the whole section on teachers rigging standardized testing: yes fraud is bad and tailoring curriculum around a shitty test is harmful. And I agree standardized testing alone may be a poor and even harmful basis for sorting student, but is there really a better method for evaluating instruction than standardized testing? But the problem isn’t with standardized testing, it’s with shitty standardized testing. Better tests are not hard to imagine. For instance, testing that evaluates student writing and reasoning like the AP exams and the LSAT would probably address all the issues. In the math and science AP exams, students show the work used to reach a result, and that work is evaluated. The problem is that these kinds of testing are expensive, but that’s again only because we vastly underfund education. Likewise, these tests need to be graded off-site, but that would also be expensive. Once again, the problems of harmful testing are caused at the root by underfunding. They’re not caused fundamentally by either incentives or complacency, as the debate between union protectionism and market logic casts it.

Likewise, the point about exploitative corporations giving to TFA is misguided. Just because TFA doesn’t address broader inequality doesn’t mean that the way it addresses acute effects of that inequality are wrong. Yes fuck those corporations. Yes we need to upturn economic inequality and destroy the rich. But there are also systemic problems in how schools are run, motivated, and funded. Those schools Bill Gates and others pioneered are embarrassments of riches. If all schools had that much money to spend on facilities, programming, and teacher compensation, they would also be great. By taking money from the rich, TFA and charter schools show how education could be reformed if it was well funded (after all, TFA spends most of its fundraising treasure on recruitment). Now we just need the government to do that, using some of the innovations “reformers” have discovered. And we also need the government to address all other aspects of systemic inequality through broader socialization.

This brings me to a larger point, which I’ve made elsewhere in the past: that union organizing must be part of broader and vehemently socialist politics to really make sense as a force for good. It hasn’t been in the last few decades, and I think that’s why unions have become so incoherent and unpopular. Maybe there’s something to say here about discourses of rights and protecting property versus more emancipatory impulses. I’ll think about this when I go to law school.

With regards to teaching, one specific example is what I was describing about lower retirement ages and better pension. That is a clear example of reform that requires unions to be tied to a broader socialist platform. In a properly socialist economy, each profession would be organized and incentivized according to specific needs. If good teachers need 2-3 to develop and then taper after two decades of peak productivity, we need to set up a system so worthy teachers can make a healthy lifetime living off that model regardless of how it compares to the demands and specific trajectories of productivity in other jobs. This is what I don’t like the idea of insisting we need to dump everyone into a “job” in order to improve society. Dumping everyone in the world into shitty jobs is a basic neoliberal prescription for paving humanity over.

Indeed, fuck jobs: you’re not really a leftist if you think wage labor isn’t essentially degrading, and that the sense of fulfillment or pride people get out of certain jobs (like I do out of mine fancy and inspiring job freeing inmates from the clutches of state oppression) are anything more than enjoyable side-effects. I’m not saying we should immediately abolish work. I just think the idea that wage labor is alienating and unnatural is an important place to begin thinking about ways to make important work more bearable. For instance, teachers would probably not burn out after 20 or whatever years if they worked in more supportive environments throughout their career. Relatedly, aging teachers could be eased into other roles, such as support, mentoring, and training networks for younger teachers, observing and training teachers, and also help expand and staff after-school and Saturday school program. I think TFA and other innovative re-toolings of how and why people become teachers could be a catalyst for this kind of change, but only if unions get on board, hard. It’s harder than it sounds though: what I’m describing requires a broad, targeted restructuring of the teaching profession that doesn’t make sense when you think of teaching work as basically similar to other work.

More generally, the point is maybe that we should stop thinking about jobs as an essential and uniform unit of human occupation. Honestly, everyone doesn’t need a job. What everyone needs is money, to be able afford what they need. Also, maybe people need something to keep them busy and fulfilled. But those are two separate things, and it makes no sense to suggest we should cede all organization of professional responsibilities to a completely free market, where people can choose between teaching, a profession where they can only expect to be truly productive for a decade or so, or a different, less important profession in which they can “contribute” consistently for four decades and therefore not worry about losing their job as they burn out. This is precisely what unions should be advocating for, compensation and retention models that specifically suit the particularities of each profession. But they can’t, because they’re up against other unions and worker interests in a system that insists on their competition not collaboration, a “marketplace” where teaching is primarily thought of as just another shitty job to be improved as market forces allow, rather than a critical cog in the radical experiment of public education. Once again, union organizing can’t bring true harmony unless it’s part of broader socialist agitation.
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