August 30, 2006

A Neutral Education Investment Strategy (or something)

Justin Katz

Within the past week, my wife had to drop my niece off at Tiverton High School (of which town both we and my brother-in-law are relatively new residents), and she returned with this commentary: "That school is a dump. I hope they improve it before our children have to go there."

It is with that recent context that I read National Education Association Executive Director Bob Walsh's simple and direct comment to one of Andrew's recent posts:

National average Math SAT: 518
Rhode Island average Math SAT: 494
Barrington average math SAT: 580
East Greenwich average math SAT: 575
Central Falls average math SAT: 383

Working on the issues related to poverty will help teachers help students. It is as simple as that. And yes, it costs money, and to the extent you wish schools to be a partner in addressing the impact of poverty on students, it will require more money for schools. If you care about kids, or the future of our country (hopefully both), you will agree.

At first look, even the most free-market anti-unionists among us would have to admit a complex argument — which is not to say that resolution of the complexity would be amicable to the NEA. (N.B. — If Bob, or anybody else, has better data for what follows, I welcome it.) Comparing SAT scores and median household income for selected towns might, indeed, lead one to agree with Mr. Walsh:

Assuming, then, that the matter is "as simple as that" — that household income correlates with SAT scores — the ensuing question must be, "Is the impact of income the same as the 'impact of poverty'?" Well, considering that Tiverton (PDF) and Barrington (PDF) have pretty much identical percentages of families living below the poverty level (2.9% and 3.0%, respectively), the answer appears to be "no." In other words, "working on the issues related to poverty" would have to actually imply an effort to make everybody equally wealthy.

However, wealth being relative (and the market tracking to its scale), even a simplistic understanding of economic reality ought to be sufficient background for one to conclude that such leveling is simply impossible, least of all when forced through government policy. To the extent that government can affect household income at the middle-class range and above, it is mainly through the fostering of a healthy business environment that encourages entrepreneurship and the importation of existing businesses (e.g., by means of reasonable taxes, respect for businesses' freedom and rights, and a light hand when it comes to employment regulations).

Whatever the strategy, of course, towns must work with finite resources. Subsidizing one area of the town's affairs requires a decrease elsewhere. Granting exemptions and aid to businesses requires that money be redirected from some other area of municiple investment. So, since we're dealing with Bob Walsh, the NEA, and SAT scores, let's throw a specific municiple invesment — that devoted to teachers' salaries — onto the same chart:

The first thing to note is that, if it's class strife that Walsh seeks to foment, honesty should compel him to admit that step-10 teachers — most of whom need only to have been teaching for just 10 years, as I understand — make more than Tiverton's median household income. With even a modest spousal contribution, their households would easily surpass Barrington's.

More importantly (and less contentiously), note that teacher salaries do not appear to correlate with either median income or SAT scores. In fact, the salaries vary only negligibly from town to town. While median income may in fact be a measure worth considering when devising strategies to raise SAT scores, teachers' salaries appear not to make a difference whatsoever. On the limited basis of these statistics, therefore, a town such as Central Falls (or Tiverton, for that matter) would be well advised to lower teachers' salaries and redirect the savings toward such improvements as will increase average household income — and with the emphasis not on welfare-style poverty programs, but on working/middle-class economic activity programs.

Not to be flippant, but the most effective way to ensure that "schools [are] a partner in addressing the impact of poverty on students" might just be to decrease the degree to which they — as costly departments of the public corporation — contribute to the circumstances that perpetuate poverty. That, if one were to ask my wife, might involve investments to make the facilities encouraging to students, comforting to parents, and inviting to potential residents.

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Justin –

Given that most private sector workers will not get pensions, in order to make an “apples to apples” comparison one must add the value of pensions back into teachers’ median income … in which case their income goes off of the charts in comparison to “average.”

Consider their formula – something like 75% of their average earnings for their three highest consecutive years (those that do have a pension in the private sector get a lower percentage, and it is calculated against the much-lower average career-long earnings, not the highest three years). That is to start. There is also (I believe) an automatic 3% pension increase every year (typically private sector pensions are fixed).

Moreover, the vast majority of the teachers currently in the system are “grandfathered in” to no minimum retirement age – meaning that they can “retire” after 28 years and start collecting a pension in their 50’s (which also means, given the 3% automatic increases, that by “normal” retirement age their making more than they did while working)!

And then there’s retiree health care ...

As for pay between districts, the school committees collaborate with the unions in “pattern bargaining” by using comparisons between RHODE ISLAND school districts (vs. national figures, using which would show that RI teachers are already among the highest paid in the country) – such as the recent cry in Cumberland of being the “lowest paid in RI” – so they play contractual leapfrog from district to district, each increase in one serving as the floor or benchmark in the next round of talks in the next RI district.

It is also well known that colleges of education are essentially diploma mills, and that an education degree is essentially a joke. So it is little wonder that (though there are individual exceptions) as a group public school teachers are doing a miserable job – and little wonder why the unions are so vehement in preventing anyone from teaching unless they first devote years going through the teachers colleges (thus inhibiting skilled professionals from entering teaching as a second career) for they know that such skilled professionals coming in off of the street without a teaching degree would almost instantly start performing at levels far in excess of the existing teaching force, and thus make the union membership look bad.

Posted by: Tom W at August 31, 2006 9:54 AM

Oh, and speaking of "apples to apples" comparisons, let's not forget that being a teacher in a public school is largely a part-time job.

So their compensation package is proportionately higher than 40+ hour week / 48-52 weekers.

Posted by: Tom W at August 31, 2006 11:03 AM

if the teachers just worked harder and smarter there would be no education crisis. TomW is right about teaching jobs being part time. i would like to get paid what they get paid for working part time.


Posted by: Crapwell Crook at August 31, 2006 11:37 AM

kudos to Justin and TomW for their insightful takes on this issue.

As someone who benefited from a union-free public school system with small class sizes and dedicated teachers, Rhode Island's educational environment is totally foreign me.

However, just like former Justice Stewart said when asked to define pornography, "I know it when I see it" so too may I not be able to comprehensively describe the problems of RI's education woes. But when it comes to identifying union abuse, "I know it when I see it." And I see it all over RI's public education problems

Posted by: johnb at August 31, 2006 11:59 AM

Merit? Competence? We don't need no stinkin' competence - we're in the union an' we got seniority!

Another example of the ways in which the mere presence of unions renders inevitable mediocrity in public education.

Excerpt from today's New York Times:

Schools Chief Says Union Rules Lead Him to Create Unneeded Jobs

Published: August 31, 2006

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said yesterday that he would create unnecessary jobs at full pay for 44 assistant principals who have not found regular assignments despite numerous vacancies, rather than allow them to bump less senior assistant principals from their posts … The provisions give unassigned assistant principals the ability, in some cases, to displace junior colleagues from their posts, upending efforts by principals to assemble a cohesive team.

Posted by: Tom W at August 31, 2006 1:15 PM

If the RI Republican Party is on the ball this year (and we all know that is not guaranteed) they should go out of their way to heavily publicize those Democratic candidates, especially for the General Assembly, who have been endorsed by the RI teachers unions. I'm convinced it has become the equivalent of having George Bush come to campaign for you.

Posted by: John at August 31, 2006 1:29 PM

Looks like this is going to be rerun on this Friday's show (how appropriate at the start of a new school year):

John Stossel - ABC 20/20: "Stupid in America" is a nasty title for a program about public education, but some nasty things are going on in America's public schools and it's about time we face up to it.

Posted by: Tom W at September 1, 2006 12:15 AM

Re: the Stossel "Stupid in America" piece, there are some video excerpts and other information on it at this link - his response to "angry teachers" after the first airing is quite good as well:

Posted by: Tom W at September 1, 2006 10:41 AM

It's even worse, JohnB. We HAVE small class sizes. The classic example is South Kingstown, where the teacher to student ratio is down to nine to one and the staff to student ratio is at six (yes, 6) to one. And by all standards, the return on that investment is no better than anywhere else.

Rhode Island has exploded the last myth about education: the necessity of low teacher to student ratio to provide a good education. The teacher unions have used this excuse to turn our schools into a massive job fair. But now that they've accomplished this, they've been caught out in the lie.

Most of the problems with our education system have been very well articulated on this blog (TomW and others). One I have not seen mentioned is the loss of authority of the principal. In South Kingstown, an excellent principal, Donna Sennett, was hounded out of her job because she dared to hold teachers accountable. (Silly things like, if you need to meet with your union shop steward, don't do it during class time.) And this has occurred throughout the state. Dan Yorke saw this first hand when he visited a school in Woonsocket.

Sure the bad and undisciplined teachers are a relatively small percentage of the total. But they are all it takes. And they are the reason that, regretfully, we are losing respect for all teachers. Good teachers need to stop being afraid and take their profession back.

Posted by: SusanD at September 1, 2006 10:08 PM

Dear SusanD,

I'm sorry, but all I see is union hating. That does not well articulated make.

The moment someone posts that teaching is a part time job, they lose all credibility.

One fact is undeniable because it comes from the nonpartisan office of management and budget:

No Child Left Behind was underfuned in fiscal 2002 by $6 billion, in fiscal 2003 it was $11 billion and had gotten worse since. You cannot run a system if you choose not to follow your own mandates.

You can all return to union hating now. By the way, before giving advice on how to win elections, you might want to a.) put your name on a ballot; b.) have enough candidates to fill all the slots; and/or c.) get your facts straight first.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 2, 2006 6:12 PM

First of all, there is a big difference between “union hating” and “hating the teachers unions.” ;)

Anyone who studies the issues, cares about children and their future, not to mention the economic future of this country, will “hate” teachers unions. That doesn’t mean that they hate all unions or the idea of unions FOR IT IS THE TEACHERS UNIONS THAT HAVE INSTITUTIONALIZED MEDIOCRITY IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

Second, it is a part-time job. 180-ish days a year. Summers off. Multiple weeks off during the “school year.” Mega-amounts of “sick” and “personal” and “professional development” days. Out the door at 2-ish p.m. And how many hours of actual classroom time in a day? By most standards, that qualifies as “part time.”

Yeah, I know, you guys correct papers at night blah blah blah. It isn’t required; it isn’t monitored; the actual time spend on it isn’t independently confirmable and most (if not all) of it could be done during non-class time during regular school hours. Sitting correcting papers at home while your feet up watching “Wheel of Fortune.” Gee, tough duty, I’m cryin’ a river for you.

As far as “No Child Left Behind” let’s stop with the red herrings, shall we? Federal aid to education is up in double-digit percentages in recent years. And why is it that a federal law (that is mere baby steps) toward requiring schools and teachers to do what they should have been doing all along mean that megabucks more of federal funding is supposed to appear? Go cry to Ted Kennedy.

Incompetent and slacker teachers need a union; competent professionals don’t need a union. The union protection means that the incompetents and slackers are pulling down performance overall – and if teachers overall were doing a good job then students passing NCLB testing would occur anyway without the need for “more funding.”

Hope you watched John Stossel – 20/20 last night. It was … EDUCATIONAL.

Posted by: Tom W at September 2, 2006 8:46 PM

Dear Tom W,

Yes, federal aid is up. However, so is federally mandated cost. If aid does not catch cost, where do the money comes from? That's right, your property tax. The Founders never had this in mind.

Unions have produced the following:

safer work environments
end of child labor laws
overall higher wages throughout the marketplace

What do any of these things have do with competence? Last time I checked, professional athletes had unions. Are they slackers too?

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 3, 2006 10:14 AM

1) I'm all for getting the feds out of education, including disbanding the Department of Education.

2) It's 2006, not 1936. Harping on what the unions "accomplished" way back when is not particularly relevant today.

Today unions are associated with higher pay accompanied by job loss. Airlines, autos, steel - pick your industry.

One reason is that unions introduce and institutionalize mediocrity into the workplace - so that in competitive environments their employers (over time) wither, if not die. The only exceptions seem to be police / fire, airline pilots and nurses - probably because the union mentality doesn't overwhelm life and death situations (particularly when it is the union members own butt on the line - even unionized pilots don't want an incompetent copilot to be protected by contract).

As for sports figures - they're more "free agents" than unionized. In fact, the high performers make more than the others - the very antithesis of the union "seniority is everything" model.

Posted by: Tom W at September 3, 2006 12:03 PM

Dear Tom W,

We might actually agree on something. Point 1 might well be worth some pursuit.

However, point 2 is not so wonderful. Within the last calendar year, we have seen the GOP Congress move against overtime. Without unions, we would be back under 1936 conditions within months.

Your point about job loss has more to do with globalization of products and services without globalization of workers' rights happening at the same time.

No one intentionally instutionalizes medocrity. However, it is fair to say that some working groups self police more effictively than others.

As far as your athletic point goes, need we run down the list of bench warmers making mega millions, especially in the NBA, just because?

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at September 3, 2006 1:09 PM

I don't buy the "without unions we'd be back to 1936 in months" scare tactics. Free markets raise living standards. The conditions of factory work in the 1930's was primarily a result of an excess supply of labor due to large-scale immigration and the federal reserve botching 1929.

It's interesting that today organized labor is pulling the rug out from under its current members by supporting mass (and illegal) immigration in return for the quick-fix of dues income by organizing janitors etc.

As for globalization, that is a red-herring. Airlines jobs aren't "offshorable" and yet unions have driven many out of business - Eastern, Pan Am, Braniff, TWA ...

Ditto the UAW - its membership is down by half because the "Big Three" can't compete with the products assembled in transplant factories in right-to-work states such as Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama.

Unionization hurts competitiveness, and in competitive environments, over time, unionized companies shrink (if not disappear). Therefore unionization leads to job loss.

That is a big reason why the only sector in which unions are thriving is the public sector, which needn't fear "going out of business" nor feel any compulsion to deliver a necessary product, much less a quality one. Hence we get the Registry of Motor Vehicles and public schools.

That is why NEA / AFT so vehemently oppose vouchers, for that would introduce some modicum of competition.

Posted by: Tom W at September 4, 2006 12:21 PM