Noah Millman has a very long and thoughtful piece on the Chicago teacher’s strike, which I recommend you read in full. In typical Millman fashion, he is sympathetic to both sides: to Rahm Emmanuel’s desire to use layoffs to target the worst performing teachers, and to the teacher’s union’s wariness of relying heavily on standardized tests to assess who those worst teachers are:
On the second point, though, the experience of New York has not made me sanguine about the efficacy of this kind of evaluation system being implemented across a school system. What’s happened in New York is that the curriculum has been badly distorted by the imperative to teach to the test, an epidemic of cheating has broken out, and some of the most talented teachers have fled the system in frustration. In hindsight, it’s kind of obvious that a heavy-handed command-and-control approach to running a school system produced perverse incentives. That’s just what you would expect in any organization, public or private, that attempted to run everything from the home office.
I will now attempt an Olympic-caliber blogging stunt: I will out-Millman Millman. It is true that standardized tests are a fairly crude tool that ignores local, decentralized knowledge in favor of a single metric. Even if that metric were better than standardized tests usually are, that would not be a very good policy.
And yet, what else do the schools have? There is no way, within the current structure of government, to have the kind of decentralized decision-making that Millman and I would presumably both like to see. Millman sort of nods at this when he discusses the decentralized autonomy of charter schools, and says "Unions would undoubtedly resist even more fiercely reform proposals that would, effectively, 'charterize' the public schools". But in fact, as I understand it, they're fighting it right now: one of the sticking points in the negotiation is Emmanuel's plan to open more charter schools.
Partly this is just the bureaucratic imperative of any large organization. On Twitter yesterday, Justin Wolfers asked me why I thought corporations would require a college diploma for any job more complicated than mopping the floor, unless this was adding value. I responded that government and large corporations--which is still where most of the jobs are in this economy--have a natural tendency towards credentialism over time because when you have a large organization to manage, you tend to simplify things by issue blanket rules. And when the decisions are individually relatively small--”What level of education do we require for advancement to manager?”--it’s very easy to issue a rule that may have a small effect on productivity, but isn’t worth the energy to fight.
But that’s only part of the story. Government workers have been deliberately stripped of that sort of autonomy over the last century. Courts ruled that beneficiaries of government programs--including state employees--had a protected property interest in their checks, and could not be separated therefrom without due process. Voters and legislators worried about Tammany-Hall-style corruption and nepotism instituted so many safeguards that government workers can no longer order sandwiches for a lunch meeting without an appeal to the state supreme court. Liability concerns further battened down the hatches.
And let’s not forget the role of the union in all of this. Unions, at least in the United States, are specifically designed to deal with large, centralized organizations that make all the rules from the home office. They thrive on blunt rules. Teachers currently get rewarded by exactly the sort of blunt rules that Millman is discussing: seniority and the collection of useless education credentials. The main difference between these things, and standardized tests, is that teachers like them. And the fact that while standardized tests are only somewhat correlated with teaching progress, ed credentials and seniority are entirely uncorrelated with any known measure of student achievement.
Unions like blunt rules and centralized decision-making because those things are what keep the overhead cost of collective bargaining down. That’s not to say that unions can’t work out a relatively harmonious relationship with management--I’ve seen it in the construction industry. But that industry is a little weird because firms come into business, and go out, so frequently that the unions and employers find themselves in a fairly fluid give-and-take situation. The contractor wants to get the job in on time, and knows that the union can stop it; the union, on the other hand, is keenly aware that they can talk themselves right into the unemployment line at any moment by being unreasonable.
But even in those industries, the unions are not interested in establishing in principle that the employer has all sorts of fuzzy, discretionary rights over employment. Jobs are still in principle allocated by seniority, the union has a right to every featherbedding work rule specified in the collective bargaining agreement, and so forth. Your union workers and their rep may be willing to workaround these things for you, but it is a favor, not a right you have. If the unions allowed discretion in principle, they would lose an enormous amount of their bargaining power.
The American system of government cannot, in its current state, cut those kinds of deals. For one thing, the Chicago school system is not going to go out of business, so the union has no urgent reason to cooperate in this way. For another, in many urban areas, the relationship between teachers unions and the governments that nominally employ them is kind of toxic. Both sides will claim that the other is to blame for this, and I suspect that the fault is usually on both sides, but that’s besides the point. You can’t wave it away and proclaim a cooperative, sunshiney relationship in its place.
Given that, what’s the alternative? We can say that teachers can’t possibly do any more than they are already doing, and keep the system exactly as it is--which in Chicago, means failing more than half the kids, and too bad, but that’s the way it is. This may not be morally defensible, but empirically, it’s certainly a possibility.
But if you think that teachers do make a difference, and that some of the teachers aren’t very good, it seems to me that you have two choices. Hold out for a decentralized, discretionary, local-knowledge based system which has no change of materializing for various legal and structural reasons. Or develop admittedly imperfect evaluations, and use them as a replacement metric for seniority and ed credentials. Naturally, the teachers will hate this, in part because some of the resulting decisions will in fact be unfair. But it might be the best we can do.