Teachers' Curious Embrace Of Their Own Irrelevance

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 11 2013 4:02 PM

Teachers' Curious Embrace Of Their Own Irrelevance

The new issue of the American Federation of Teachers' magazine American Educator has a very interesting article from Richard Kahlenberg profiling the most innovative and effective socioeconomic integration schemes at work in public education today, and the considerable success these programs have at raising student achievement. But it ends on what struck me as an odd note:

I've been highly critical of Rhee's attack on teachers' unions in venues like Slate and the Washington Post. I don't expect her to give up her fixation on unions, but I do help to convince others of a fundamental but too-often-ognored truth: the major problem with American schools is not teachers or their unions, but poverty and economic segregation. That's what the research suggests. It's what 80 school districts have come to realize. And until federal officials catch up, it's what I will continue to push them to acknowledge.
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The striking thing here is not so much the conclusion that classroom education isn't very important compared to socioeconomic issues, but the venue in which it appears. The basic logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is fairly clear. Michelle Rhee is an enemy of the AFT, and Kahlenberg's analysis suggests that Rhee's agenda is mistaken. So AFT wants to publish Kahlenberg's analysis.

But a straightforward reading of the policy implications of Kahlenberg's piece is that instead of pursuing Rhee's reforns, Adrian Fenty's administration in DC ought to have reduced spending on teacher salaries and invested the funds instead in low-income housing subsidies and tax cuts for high-income families. Promoting more economically integrated schools and neighborhoods isn't going to seriously reduce the city's need for police and fire officers, for garbage collection and bus service, or most other things. But if it's true that socioeconomic integration is much more important for student achievement than teacher quality, then it seems like a no-brainer to reduce expenditures on teachers (accepting that some good ones may leave and be replaced by somewhat worse candidates) and reinvest the funds directly in the key driver of achievement. Now maybe that's right (though I doubt it) but certainly it's not something AFT or other unions would be interested in seeing happen.

Yet it seems to me that if I want to make the business case for paying Slate writers, I have to persuade the bosses that Slate traffic is related to the quality of the writers employed in an important way. If it's not fair to blame us for bad traffic because actually all that matters is the photos that accompany the stories, then obviously the thing to do would be to spend less on paying writers and more on photographers or photo licensing services.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.