Say It, Joel, Say It!

By almost all indications, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein knows first-hand the pernicious power of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs in government schooling. He knows how political control of schools is skewed mightily to the side of teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and all of the other power brokers representing the adults whose livelihoods come from the schools, to the huge detriment of the students, parents, and taxpayers the schools are supposed to serve. As he bleakly describes public schooling reality in a new Atlantic piece:

To comprehend the depth of the problem, consider one episode that still shocks me. Starting in 2006, under federal law, the State of New York was required to test students in grades three through eight annually in math and English. The results of those tests would enable us, for the first time, to analyze year-to-year student progress and tie it to individual teacher performance—a metric known in the field as “teacher value-added.” In essence, you hold constant other factors—where the students start from the prior year, demographics, class size, teacher length of service, and so on—and, based on test results, seek to isolate the individual teacher’s contribution to a student’s progress. Some teachers, for example, move their class forward on average a quarter-year more than expected; others, a quarter-year less. Value-added isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s surely worth considering as part of an overall teacher evaluation.

After we developed data from this metric, we decided to factor them into the granting of tenure, an award that is made after three years and that provides virtual lifetime job security. Under state law at the time, we were free to use these data. But after the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, objected, I proposed that the City use value-added numbers only for the top and bottom 20 percent of teachers: the top 20 percent would get positive credit; the bottom would lose credit. And even then, principals would take value-added data into account only as part of a much larger, comprehensive tenure review. Even with these limitations, the UFT said “No way,” and headed to Albany to set up a legislative roadblock.

Seemingly overnight, a budget amendment barring the use of test data in tenure decisions materialized in the heavily Democratic State Assembly. Joe Bruno, then the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, assured me that this amendment would not pass: he controlled the majority and would make sure that it remained united in opposition. Fast-forward a few weeks: the next call I got from Senator Bruno was to say, apologetically, that several of his Republican colleagues had caved to the teachers union, which had threatened reprisals in the next election if they didn’t get on board.

As a result, even when making a lifetime tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning. That Kafkaesque outcome demonstrates precisely the way the system is run: for the adults. The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.

And this was no isolated incident for Klein. Indeed, in his Atlantic treatise he goes on to give many more miserable anecdotes of hopelessness from his tenure in the Big Apple, and eventually identifies the problem right at its core:

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.

Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

So in the end, does Klein call for what all his experience screams like a banshee we need, that he explains explicitly above?  No! He calls for more government-controlled charter schools; a little more choice between traditional public schools; just the sort of merit pay and “accountability” he observes is constantly stymied; more reliance on technology; and, of course, national curriculum standards. But giving parents control of education dollars for private school choice? Never! Apparently, allowing actual markets – the things that “impose accountability” and inject powerful incentives “for better performance, greater efficiency” and “more innovation” – to work in education can’t even be contemplated.

I don’t know why Mr. Klein refuses to say what cannot be denied: We must have freedom in education. I suspect, though, he is entrapped by the same ideological blinders that are wrapped around the minds of other big names in education who have seen all the symptoms of what’s killing the patient but refuse to see the cure. I suspect Mr. Klein simply believes that education must be run by government – that it must be “public” in the absolute worst sense – and all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary won’t overcome that. It is, unfortunately, an all too common mindset, but for the sake of America’s children, taxpayers, and society, it must be overcome.