The Economist, Teachers, and Unions

The Economist magazine takes a pretty standard economist view of teacher’s unions when looking at issues with USian education this week:

All this would be technically simple to fix. Tenure could be abolished, principals could be allowed to hire and fire freely and teachers could be paid by results. School funding could also be made dependent on how many parents choose to send their children to a particular school, so that good schools would expand and bad ones would close or be taken over. But all this is politically impossible – especially with the Democrats, who grovel to the teachers’ unions, in charge of Congress.

Yes, this model makes perfect sense for business. However, we have to remember a few things:

  1. Get rid of teacher’s unions, and teacher’s pay is not guaranteed to go up, by any stretch of the imagination.
  2. Test-taking ability is not caused by good education, nor are high test scores the same thing as a good education. Witness the recent revamping of the SATs to remove injustices in the actual tests themselves.
  3. Ceteris paribus, home environment has a gigantic effect on performance in education. Teachers cannot be expected to correct for that in the aggregate. The few exceptions simply prove the rule, not the other way around.
  4. Public education is a positive externality, and as a result will be underproduced by profit-seeking organizations. Yes, those organizations will benefit from an educated work force, but (especially) USian organizations are looking at a 5-year horizon at most, not a12-year horizon. Therefore, using a free-market model will only exacerbate the education inequality that’s already observable in most USian cities – and be bad for the US in the long run.

Please don’t mistake me – bad teachers need to go. My worst teacher ever – he literally read the book to us for a year – is now the head of the science department at my old high school. That should never have happened. Simply assuming that market forces will take care of the issue is, however, a charming level of innocence that we simply cannot afford.

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