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Mister Ed

Obama’s second most important reform.

Liberal anger with the Obama administration generally takes the form of disappointment that his agenda hasn’t gone far enough. The exception is the teachers’ unions and their allies, who are furious precisely because Obama has gone too far. The president of the National Education Association laments “the most antieducator, anti-union, anti-student environment” he has ever seen. Two weeks ago, a consortium of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Rainbow push Coalition, labeled Obama’s education agenda discriminatory, arguing that “communities of color have been testing grounds for unproven methods of educational change.” An editorial in The Nation attacked Obama’s “disturbing continuity” with the Bush administration. Diane Ravitch, a recent and fervent convert to the cause, has undertaken a revival-like speaking tour before teacher-dominated audiences, accusing Obama of “promot[ing] privatization” and “dismantling the teaching profession.”

The terms of the debate seem calculated to make liberal knees jerk. On one side: civil rights groups, traditional government programs, and teachers. (Yay!) On the other side: the market, competition, and even George W. Bush. (Booo!) What reasons could progressives possibly have to side with all those nasty things against that which they hold so dear? Actually, there are plenty.

Obama has called education reform “the single most important thing we’ve done.” That may not be true—the health care overhaul is—but education reform actually has a lot in common with health care reform. In both cases, the country is saddled with a system shaped by the interests of providers, with little effort to match inputs with outputs. By international standards, the American system is increasingly expensive and decreasingly effective. And, for a significant minority of the population, the results are utterly disastrous.

Much like in health care, the education landscape features small pockets of innovation in a sea of inertia. And, as with health care reform, Obama’s education goal is to rationalize the system by correcting the incentive structure. The biggest step in this direction is a $4 billion pot of federal grants, called "Race to the Top," being doled out to states that overhaul their education systems.

The most bitter fights about Obama’s agenda center around evaluating and compensating teachers. Copious research has shown that teacher effectiveness has the single most dramatic impact upon student performance. The best teachers advance their students one and a half grade levels in a year. The worst teachers advance their students half a grade level.

The trouble is, most schools have no way to reward good teachers or weed out bad ones. Most union contracts require schools to pay teachers based on seniority. Want to fire a terrible teacher? Good luck—the best that most principals can hope for is to ship their worst ones off to some other school. Thus the need for measures to evaluate teachers. And so, Race to the Top has pushed states to improve assessments of teacher performance, via a mix of objective standards, such as improvement in student scores, and subjective ones, such as classroom observation.

The traditional liberal slogan demands that we “treat teachers like professionals.” (You hear this ringing from the podium at every Democratic National Convention, where teachers make up about 10 percent of the delegates.) Professionals have the opportunity to earn more money if they excel and run the risk of being demoted or fired if they fail. This, ironically, turns out to be the exact opposite of what many teachers’ unions want.

Just how sacrosanct do teachers consider their tenure protection? In 2008, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. public schools, offered teachers a $10,000 bonus and a 20 percent across-the-board pay raise, plus—only for those who accepted it—performance pay and an even larger pay raise that would bring the chance to earn up to $131,000 per year. In return, the local union had to accept easier provisions for firing the least effective teachers. The offer sparked bitter protests.

Education traditionalists offer a flurry of objections to Obama’s agenda. First, they insist that compensation reform devalues teacher experience. “If you go in for surgery,” writes Ravitch, “do you want an experienced surgeon, or a resident?” In fact, the evidence shows that teacher experience only helps up to the third year.

Second, traditionalists insist that test scores fail to properly measure teacher performance. Yet nobody claims that test scores are perfect. (Nor have reforms made test scores the sole gauge of teachers’ success.) But some teachers do produce higher levels of improvement than others. Anyway, very few professions have a perfect method for measuring effectiveness. Rewarding teachers on the basis of imperfect evaluations—the way most professionals get treated—beats evaluating them based on a measure (seniority) that bears no relation to effectiveness.

Third, traditionalists lambaste Obama for lavishing money on “unproven” methods, to quote the favorite epithet of Ravitch and recalcitrant unions. Or, sometimes, they go further, insisting that you can’t improve educational outcomes among poor kids unless you resolve poverty itself. (The Nation editorializes that education reform can only work if it “address[es] the roots of failure in the most depressed areas.”)

It is true that the school-reform movement has produced a wide array of outcomes. Some models have failed, while others have yielded staggeringly impressive results. In several cities, kipp schools—which serve inner-city neighborhoods and accept students by lottery—have completely closed the achievement gap with affluent suburban schools. Race to the Top has both given states the incentive to allow experimentation and helped scale up experiments, like kipp, that have proven successful. To decry Obama for funding “unproven” methods misses the point completely. Innovation, by definition, requires experimenting with unproven methods.

Education and health care are two key sectors of the economy that have failed to increase their productivity. They are also two cases where resources have been allocated without regard to outcome. Few liberals opposed the administration’s aggressive campaign to impose rigorous measurements and accountability upon the sclerotic medical system. They should welcome the same reformist impulse in education. 

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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