Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Market-oblivious “conservatism”

Do conservatives believe in the free market? Yes. Do they understand how markets work? Sometimes I wonder. Judging from the news coming out of Wisconsin and Michigan, they seem to think that the key to improving public education is to make teaching as unappealing a job as possible. I don’t doubt that they can cut costs by breaking teachers’ unions, and that they can take away teachers’ job security, and that they can micromanage the classroom from the top down to the point where teachers are simply script-readers. (Example here.) But one stubborn fact remains: they can’t make people become teachers. Because teaching is bought and sold on a market. If you cut compensation and job security and make working conditions miserable, talented people will simply choose to do something else, and we will end up with teachers who are worse at what they do.

I think that doesn’t bother these “reformers” because, deep down, they don’t think of teaching as skilled labor. Their natural authoritarian bent leads them to think in terms of top-down models, where all the hard thinking gets done by high-level administrators, who then give teachers their marching orders. How hard is it to read from a script? No reason to treat that as a profession. It doesn’t matter if talented people go elsewhere, because teaching doesn’t take talent. So we can cut compensation without lowering quality at all!

These aren’t Free Market Conservatives; they’re Free Lunch Conservatives. They just can’t admit one of the basic principles of the free market: you only get what you pay for.

Of course, the reformers are just treating teachers the way they treat kids. It’s all about dictating, never about negotiating. Giving people autonomy is just a sign of weakness. The little people shouldn’t expect to have input into how they are treated; their job is just to obey. That the little people might react to this approach -- teachers by leaving the profession, kids by rebelling against the entire enterprise of learning -- is simply wished away, or used as an excuse for an even firmer crackdown.


KD said...

I won't disagree that teaching doesn't seem like the most attractive profession to enter. I definitely thing starting salaries need to increase in the ICCSD. My kids have had some newer, very talented teachers that make substantially less than sometimes marginal, more veteran teachers(salaries are listed on the P-C website).

I'd have to disagree that teaching being unappealing is simply a function of politicians like Scott Walker though. Starting salaries for teachers in the ICCSD have been low for quite a while...certainly we don't live in a conservative area. We have used scripted curriculums in the ICCSD....curriculums that the teachers were partly involved in choosing.

As far as "teachers who are worse at what they do"...we already have these individuals in our school. I think most of the teachers in our schools are great, but my older child had a couple of people who simply did not belong in a classroom.

We already have micromanagement, when teachers are told they can't teach the standard algorithm method of addition or subtraction in the classroom.

Chris said...

KD -- All true, we have a lot of these problems in the schools already. And Scott Walker just represents the culmination of the kind of policies that "reformers" in both major parties have been pushing for years, including the policies that NCLB embodies. But no one seems to have celebrated the demise of teaching as a decent profession as much as the people who are cheering Scott Walker & Co. on. It's this hostility toward teachers, coming from people who claim to be free marketers, that seems so incoherent.

Of course, if you were to propose that we might get better teachers by paying them more and making their working conditions better -- that is, by recognizing the power of market principles -- you would almost certainly be labelled a Socialist!

It's true that our district's starting salaries are low and that we are not a conservative area. But as I understand it, our district does not control how much it can spend; that's up to the state. Even if our district's voters were willing to pay more in taxes to fund the schools, the state prevents that from happening. (See the superintendent's discussion of that issue here.) They have to protect us from ourselves! But that's the topic for another post someday . . .

FedUpMom said...

I think teachers should be paid well -- it's a difficult, demanding job. On the other hand, just paying well doesn't ensure quality. In my district, teachers are paid quite well, but it doesn't mean they're all wonderful.

Chris said...

Sure, but it improves the odds considerably. As between a school that pays its teachers well, and one that pays them poorly, all other things equal, who wouldn't choose the former?

I know the teacher tenure issue is complicated. My only point is that job security is a form of compensation, too. Cutting it will have the same effect on the market for teachers as cutting salaries. Break the unions and you can fire people at will, but good luck hiring people.

If someone wants to argue that the gains from cutting job security outweigh the costs, that's at least an argument worth airing. But to completely ignore the fact that cutting compensation will lower the quality of the applicant pool -- that's just not the sign of a free market thinker.