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Beat The Press / CEPR Blog

The Blame Teachers Game: Has Anyone Heard of the South?

After nearly two decades pushing their "corporate reform agenda," the first place people like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the NYT's Frank Bruni should be looking to understand what's wrong with U.S. public schools is in the mirror. (Image:

Frank Bruni's column complaining about teachers and teachers unions undoubtedly has millions asking, "is our pundits learning?" The proximate cause is a soon to be published book by Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor.

It seems that the book repeats most of the old complaints of school "reformers." The big problem with our schools is that we have bad teachers and that unions won't let us get rid of them. Bruni tells readers:

"I was most struck, though, by what he observes about teachers and teaching.

"Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when he began the job, it was 'virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,' he writes. Firing a teacher 'took an average of almost two and a half years and cost the city over $300,000.'

"And the city, like the rest of the country, wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms. 'In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests,” he writes. In New York, he notes, “the citywide average for all teachers was about 970.'"

So the problem with NYC's schools is that unions make it "virtually impossible" to fire bad teachers? If this is the big problem with our schools then we should expect places like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas to be the models of good education since teachers unions are relatively rare and certainly much less powerful than in New York City. Perhaps Klein has a chapter touting the success of public education in union-free areas, but I doubt he has much data to support such claims.

Of course if we look internationally, the best education outcomes on standardized tests are typically found in countries like Finland, where unionization of teachers is close to universal. One of the factors that might explain their success in education relative to the United States is that teachers are paid more relative to other professions. The ratio between the average pay of a  doctor and a teacher in these countries is something closer to 2 to 1 rather than the 5 to 1 in the United States. And, they don't have a bloated financial sector where good performers can easily make 10-20 times the pay of an average teacher.

I haven't seen Klein's book, but it's a safe bet that it won't include proposals to have freer trade in physicians' services to bring the pay of our doctors more in line with pay in Finland and other wealthy countries. It's also likely the book doesn't include any proposals like a financial transactions tax which could both raise revenue and reduce the bloat in the financial sector. (It's probably rude to point out that many of the backers of school reform make their fortune on Wall Street.)

The reality is that it is far-fetched to imagine that our schools will overcome all the disadvantages that poor children face. Countries that succeed in educating the bulk of their children don't have large portions of them living in poverty. They don't go to school hungry and worry about having a home to come back to.

We can address these issues by structuring the economy so that those at the bottom have a decent standard of living. Plans to raise the minimum wage are a good start. Also getting and keeping the unemployment rate to something like the 4.0 percent levels we saw at the end of the 1990s would go far as well. We know how to do this, but the deficit cultists and the inflationistas are doing everything they can to keep unemployment high and prevent workers at the bottom from gaining any bargaining power.

The really remarkable story of folks like Joel Klein is that they are continual beneficiaries of affirmative action. The sort of school reform they propose is far from new; it has been the ruling ethic in many areas for more than two decades. Yet, it keeps being presented as a new idea that will change the course of education in the United States.

Thomas Friedman, Bruni's colleague at the NYT, gave us a great example of this affirmative action in a piece touting Rahm Emanual's plans to overhaul Chicago's schools after being elected mayor in 2011. As Friedman relates the story, Chicago's schools were a mess, unable to supply the city's manufacturers with the skilled workers they needed.

The problem with Friedman's story is that Chicago's schools had been run by "reformers" for the prior 15 years, including seven and a half years under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education. In short, the reformers have mostly been getting their way for quite some time. If they think there are serious problems in the way our schools are being run, the first place they should look is the mirror.

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