Free Market Reflexes

By James Kwak

I’ve been reading a lot about education recently, for reasons that are not worth going into here. I don’t know that much about the area, so I’ve been reading some background stuff and review articles, including a Hamilton Project white paper by Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, and Paige Shevlin.

It’s pretty mainstream, self-professed “third way” stuff, with a heavy dose of measurement and performance evaluation. Basically they repeat over and over again that educational policies should be based on evidence and new programs should go through rigorous assessments. There are a fairly strong tilt toward market mechanisms and some idealistic naivete about practical problems (e.g., “One way to [improve accountability systems] is to develop tests that measure the skills children should learn”), but nothing too outrageous in substance.

The white paper, however, betrays a certain conceptual bias that I find disturbing, even in topical areas where it seems otherwise reasonable.

Here’s one example, in the context of teacher effectiveness:

“According to one estimate, if average effectiveness could be raised enough to put American students on par with those from the highest-performing countries it could be worth as much as $100 trillion in national productivity benefits over the next eighty years (Hanushek 2010). The bottom line from this recent body of research is that potential benefits from increasing teacher quality are enormous.

“Realizing the gains from effective teachers requires attracting more qualified people into the profession and then identifying and retaining those who are most effective.”

I have no problem with the premise: better teachers improve student outcomes, which is worth a lot of money. But do you see what’s going on? To get better teachers, the authors say, requires “attracting more qualified people” and then “identifying and retaining” the most effective ones.

That just doesn’t follow. And anyone who’s worked in an actual company should realize that. Yes, it’s always better to have better workers. One way to get better workers is to hire more effective people and to fire less effective people. But the other way—which, in most industries, is by far more important—is to make your current workforce more effective. You do that in part by figuring out what attributes or processes make people more effective, and in part by training people and implementing processes in ways that improve productivity.

The idea that the only way to improve teacher effectiveness (remember, they said “requires”) is to increase quality at the front end and link retention to quality on the back end is the kind of illogical, impractical inference you draw if you have a certain type of attitude toward workers: the attitude that there’s only one abstract attribute that matters (quality) and that it’s intrinsic and unchanging. What’s surprising is that this is a non-obvious kind of fallacy: again, anyone who has run a business realizes that what matters more is what you do with the workforce you have.

To a certain degree, this is the banking/consulting view of the world. Investment banks and consulting firms largely hire (at least for some positions) based on abstract quality measures that have relatively little to do with the skills you actually use in banking and consulting, and then use their review processes to weed out low performers. But even they (consulting firms, at least) place a large emphasis on on-the-job training, because they realize that many of their new recruits really have no relevant skills or knowledge.

This attitude is further reflected in this passage:

“But the relevant question is whether the combination of relatively low salaries and relatively high deferred benefits is the right formula to attract talented young people with many career opportunities to teaching, and to retain the most effective teachers throughout their career. . . .

“The bottom line, however, is that the teaching profession can have difficulty attracting the most talented people when relative salaries are in decline.”

Again, I agree with the basic point: we should pay teachers more. But it’s this idea of “talented young people with many career opportunities” and especially “the most talented people,” and the faith that it betrays in an abstract conception of talent, that bothers me. I’m arguably the kind of abstractly “talented” person the authors are thinking of. I have fancy degrees, and got a job at McKinsey, and did well in business, and wrote a bestseller. But I would have made a lousy K-12 teacher. I think I’m a decent law school teacher,* but that’s because my strengths are useful in a classroom with highly educated, highly motivated students, and my weaknesses would be much more of a problem in primary or secondary school. (For example, for the most part I don’t have to worry about motivating my students, or about discipline issues.)

As a policy recommendation, I have no problem with paying teachers more. At the margin, there’s probably some kind of positive correlation between abstract “talent” (as defined by, say, McKinsey or Goldman or TFA) and teaching effectiveness, so some of the people who would switch from banking to teaching would actually be good teachers—although, as the authors acknowledge, college GPA and college prestige are not valid predictors of teaching effectiveness. Maybe that’s all the authors mean.  But I also suspect that there’s a feeling, maybe not among these authors, but among the billionaires who like investing in education, of “if only more people like us became teachers”—that there are highly productive people and less productive people, and all we need is to adjust the incentives so more of the former go into teaching. I don’t think the world is that simple.

* Actually, I get good student evaluations, but the people who study these things say that there is no link between student evaluations and actual teaching effectiveness, which seems right to me.

50 thoughts on “Free Market Reflexes

  1. You’re going to have to deliver job security to keep ’em, and after decades of cuts, that’s not possible. No-one believes those promises; we’ve seen that the Republicans, and even the centrists, will break them in a trice to save a few dollars.

    I love my work. I do not love being told I have to do it for love, and without any promise of job security.

  2. The well-funded “reformers” (e.g. Michelle Rhee) typically push a) merit pay, b) (union-busting) charter schools and c) testing, testing, testing. No actual science supports those tactics, but those are the proposals, along with a relentless focus on the quality of teachers.

    In fact, as part of this astroturf “movement,” the reformers produced “Waiting for Superman,” a film that touts the (super!) Finnish teachers as the ones to emulate. No mention in the film, BTW, that in Finland, teachers are well paid, unionized and tenured.

    But what does correlate with educational outcomes if the merit/charter/test actions don’t? Childhood poverty.

    In Finland, childhood poverty is 2%. In the U.S. it’s 23%.

    So could educational “reform” be a little misdirection? Gosh! I wonder!

    Late breaking news: “Students First” (Rhee’s organization) in NY State recently started lobbying against defined benefit pensions for teachers. Your guess about what the f*ck that has to do with educational outcomes is as good as mine.

  3. Perhaps there is little attention paid to implementing productivity-enhancing processes or quality-focused training because the authors (and pretty much everyone) have absolutely no idea what those things are with regard to education.
    Even business managers often have only a tenuous grasp of what makes some workers more productive than others that can be replicated throughout an organization. Some make a few lucky guesses and are written up in Fortune as the new geniuses.
    In general, it’s just easier to blame the workers, who are either born “high performers” or not.

  4. The “best performing” schools in our area are in wealthy suburban districts. Curiously, no one in these districts clamors for charter schools, and unionized teachers with tenure are the well-accepted norm. According to the geniuses, these schools should be doing horribly.

  5. Are talented potential teachers dissuaded from a teaching career due to the salary? Something tells me there are multiple factors with different weights. I remember when “computer science” was a neophyte field; it didn’t really pay all that well (relatively speaking). Then when programmer salaries began to climb, many kids began to major in CS. However the quality of computer programmer actually dropped (by far, in my observation) as most of these kids were trying to enter the field to satisfy future salary desires, rather than sustaining a hunger for understanding how to design quality code (which is what interested the early generation of CS student).

    I do believe that pay is important, but other attributes need to be addressed. There is more to teaching than “Well, I like to work with kids” on the input end of the equation. Perhaps some degree of screening would help at the college level, and at the practical (“on the job”) level there needs to be better measurement. The latter would likely mean that the teaching unions would have to acquiesce to evaluations that use metrics of achievement for each class, and that any bonus should be awarded based on attaining the metrics. That’s the ideal. The reality is that I’m sure teacher unions would fight this tooth and nail as it rocks the boat of job security and steady pay.

  6. Adam Eran is 100% spot on. Every thing he says is right.
    It appears that Mr. Kwak has ass u me d that U.S. education is going to hell in a handbasket, and, the reason is teachers. It has been known at least since the time of Horace Mann that the income of parents is the single best predictor of how a child will do in school because it is a proxy for other things such as education of parents. It’s best for a kid to choose a family where both parents are college educated and not a single parent family where neither did and she lives in poverty. The corporate reformers ass u me that the only factor is the teacher. Wrong.

  7. “SocioNet. The Center for Sociocratic Governance, Inc., a nonprofit (501(c)3 under USA tax code) in Washington, DC, USA, supports, a general education and information node for those interested generally in sociocracy throughout the world. It offers free online introductions monthly, study circles, blogs, and a library of sociocracy resources.”

  8. Dryly,
    I don’t think Kwak has assumed that, he’s said he agrees that better teachers produce better outcomes. His attack is even more forcefully against those blaming teachers. He is saying the reformers assume the current teachers are lost causes. And, as I mention above, this sort of assumption on behalf of the reformers shows they don’t really believe in education to begin with.

  9. ‘The “best performing” schools in our area are in wealthy suburban districts.’

    Because they have the financial wherewithal to move out of the neighborhood, or send their kids to private schools if the public schools don’t meet their needs.. It’s known as competition, and it works wonders in every field where it’s tried.

  10. In response to Patrick Sullivan. I live in a wealthy community where about 1/3 of students attend private schools. The public schools are rated highly based on student test scores, college admissions, etc. So we are an example of the competitive model you speak of. However, If you look at students in this district from low income families- they are not doing very well, by the same standards. Do you think the schools and teachers treat these students differently because they, individually, don’t have private school choices? Or maybe it is a little more complicated than just “competition”. In addition, it actually benefits the town and schools financially to have more students in private schools- fewer students for the public schools to educate. In reality, I think the private/public nature of education here is the background environment. In reality teachers, school administrators and the board of ed don;t see themselves competing with private schools or worrying about losing students to those schools. They are focused on other metrics like test scores in similar communities and the state, graduation rates, what prestigious colleges students get into, etc. There is competition and striving for status and excellence, as there are even in “failing” districts, but most of that is not focused on the private school segment- but on the broader education landscape. In the local media how this town’s students rank compared to other wealthy towns public schools and against all towns in the state is news- how the public school rank compared to the elite private schools in town or elsewhere is never mentioned.

  11. “Mad Men” are in charge of ehjukayshun…..gee, what could go wrong there?

    TV and other “entertainment content” are the major *educators* of “low income” children….sounds like the problem now is that there is so much “niche” and “diversity” that kids are being driven into tyrant-run gangs/tribes which is the only economy they have to operate in now that the Middle Class has been demolished – the Middle Class which supported Welfare Queens – like Israel and Mormon breeder colonies….

    Eight year olds in the 1960s went to school and started to learn how man landed on the moon. Eight year olds in the first decade of 2000 went to school and learned about water-boarding.

    Mad Men TEACHERS – the advertising business model of “media” – are most definitely the problem with ehjukayshun….

  12. ‘If you look at students in this district from low income families- they are not doing very well, by the same standards.’

    Which is a little vague, Robert, do you have some specific metric in mind?

    ‘ Do you think the schools and teachers treat these students differently because they, individually, don’t have private school choices?’

    Why do the parents of these low achievers live in this district? Is there any evidence that they would do better in another (less affluent) community?

  13. If you believe in teaching effectiveness you can teach teachers to be better. If not you just have to hire the best… no wait!

  14. Education is a national security issue. Nations that fail to education their populations are doomed. It is each societies and governments responsibility to provide excellent education to all of “the brilliant young minds of tomorrow” in their populations or suffer the competitive consequences of failure. And that failure can and will be destructive to societies and governments failing to educate their populations long into the future.

    Privatizing education is great for the predatorclass and the souless profiteers who singularly benefit from Amerika’s education industrial complex – but it is a horrorshow for our population and the nation.

    We are barely competitive now, and the future is grim as we advance a population of poor educated, disinformed supremist into an ultra competitive world. Again – sadly – the malevolent greedmongering shades of socalled capitalism have destroyed an education system that was once envied and successful and served our population well – for the personal profit of a few predatorclass fiends!!!

    Burn it all down! Reset!! There is no other hope for the 99%!!!

  15. I wanted to thank you for this very good read!! I certainly loved
    every little bit of it. I’ve got you saved as a favorite to look at new stuff you post…

  16. Why aren’t we doing this everywhere?
    To many bills piled up and now there are only the consequences to pay.

  17. The University without Borders:
    HUMANITY 101: lecturer = Pope Francis (open enrollment)
    Some challenges of today’s world [52-75]

    No to an economy of exclusion [53-54]
    No to the new idolatry of money [55-56]
    No to a financial system which rules rather than serves [57-58]
    No to the inequality which spawns violence [59-60]
    Some cultural challenges [61-67]
    Challenges to inculturating the faith [68-70]
    Challenges from urban cultures [71-75]
    Tuesday, Nov 26, 2013 01:08 PM EST
    Pope Francis: Capitalism is “a new tyranny”
    “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” the pope writes in a document laying out the platform for his papacy
    Katie Mcdonough

  18. Well that’s for us to know, and for you to find out.
    And no, I ain’t no Nancy Pelosi but I do have a violin and a flute ready to play if so required.

  19. Here’s a drink to all blog hosts/lawyers who are too pretentious to give you the time of the day.

  20. You can’t call yourselves “bankers” if you insist on taking away the right of people to make their lives less miserable through honest work.

    Fiat $$$$, especially, is a SYMBOLIC transaction. Maybe herding 1000 head of cattle through your office will remind you. Or dumping off barrels of crude oil polluted with the salt water of the Gulf of Mehico….? Grandma wanted to water board you with that stuff…never witnessed her more p-ssed about anything in her 90+ years of live than when a TYRANT deliberately ruined the waters of the earth to remain in power over others.

    If one of the reasons for censoring a commentor from the internet – yes the whole internet – is not “still grasping for the moral high ground” – then people are ready to declare a Just War, en masse, or “populist” decision, if you will. No one is going to keep fighting skirmishes that only advances the financial interests of the most vicious wealth. Nothing “holy” about that. It’s take out the rabid raccoon time…

    Not bending my knee to GLOBAL War,, Drug and Slave Lords.

    I accuse their worst crime to be the one of “BORING”. When does iniquity ever chance its face?

    You don;t stand a chance against spiritual power. Especially if you believe to be an algorithm that for some reason needs to type vicious psychobabble on the internet.

    Billions spent on a spying network that left behind a “ploughshare” from the sword – a for-profit health insurance scheme of skinning alive more humans through taxes.

    Yeah, “Duck Dynasty” is the biggest political correctness brouhaha that is supposed to establish the continuing ILLUSION of who is in charge of humanism-gone-nihilistic as a SUPERIOR new world order.

    I wish I had an uncontrollable puke reaction to such hypocrisy…

  21. @ I accuse their worst crime to be the one of “BORING”. When does iniquity ever chance its face?

    Why when there is a dog in the room silly.

  22. A comment everyone is “like-ing ” – not mine but SO MANY LIKE minds AGREE about the next steps:

    ……it is criminal that america is wasting so much human potential. we are an incredibly schizophrenic society, devoting limitless resources to finding ways not to age, to prolong our lives as much as possible,while at the same time finding ways to be able to throw people away earlier and earlier in life in order to avoid “wasting” the money on keeping them employed.

    in doing so, we are depriving ourselves of knowledge that can only be gained by living a long time. we have no direction, we have no future.

    the only people who do are those with enormous amounts of money amassed through eliminating the purpose of others, and devaluing work and experience to the level of slave labor.

    it took nearly seven hundred years for the human race to pass through the last dark age. we do not have that kind of time this time around, and need to turn it around now if there’s going to be any hope for a future….”

    Like I said – INIQUITY IS BORING….

    When the psychobabble stops, the “economy” will become REAL.

  23. Amerika is owned and controlled by the preadatorclass, who are ruthless, supremist, psychopaths seeking the enlsavery, incarceration, or extermination of the unwashed masses, -affectionately know as the 99%. To impose this domination, control the predatorclass commandeers the worlds wealth and resources, – particularly oil and energy resources. – by any and every means possible. Fraud, outright thievery, wars and endless illicit, unholy, and unnecessary warmaking are essential to both feeding the monsterous warmachine and acquiring oil and energy resources by any means possible, to commandeer and control oil and energy resources!!! Control of oil and energy resources is necessary to control and exert total domination of the earth and all the earths creatures, – most notably – the harrowed 99%. The kabuki theater and unholy joke that is the criminal Ponzi scheme known as the global financial system (wherein socalled debt products are majikally conjured into assets that conveniently only benefit, and are accessible to the predatorclass) is an insidious machination necessary to the commandeering and controlling of said oil and energy resources! All this evil and perfidious activity is ultimately – all about the oil….and energy resources. The predatorclass is evil! This evil is bent on, pathologically addicted to, and succeeding in control and domination by any means possible. The predatorclass is ruthless and insane and they are seeking, and succeeding in, enslaving, incarcerating, or exterminating all earths creatures including most notably the hapless 99%.

    These fiends, shades, and shi’a tans own and control most of the earths wealth and resources, most governments, most judiciary’s, most industrial complexes, most militaries, and law enforcement organizations, most socalled religious institutions, and the complicit parrots in the socalled MSM. There is no cure for this cancer. There are no legal or political solutions! There is no righting these horrible wrongs through socalled “legitimate” means! There is no balm in Gilead! The predatorclass is the arch enemy and mortal threat to the 99%. It’s either us, or them! Either this rank evil is confronted and defeated, or the future of the 99% is doomed to slavery, incarceration, or extermination. It’s us or them!!!

    Burn it all down! Reset!!! It’s the only hope for the 99%!

  24. @Tony F – the ease with which people are triggered to eat each other up – especially during an epoch where the man to land ratio is stressed – is a factor that TIME used to control. When the theft is virtual and done in nanoseconds, well, technology certainly is a benefit to NO ONE in the 99%. And OUR REAL LABOR wealth was TAXED and then EMBEZZLED to build that “virtual” web – OUR $$$$ USED AGAINST US. That is a RIGHT no one discusses – the RIGHT we had to the fruits of our HONEST LABOR to mae our lives less miserable.

    The only thing the religionists of authority are doing now via the millenia-old discussion AMONG FREE PEOPLE about Creation and a CREATOR

    is HIDING the existence of the TRUE LEADER of the 1% – Paper 53 – The Lucifer Rebellion – “….From such a magnificent beginning, through evil and error, he embraced sin and is now numbered as one of three System Sovereigns in Nebadon who have succumbed TO THE URGE OF SELF AND SURRENDERED TO THE SOPHISTRY OF SPURIOUS PERSONAL LIBERTY – rejection of universe allegiance and disregard of fraternal obligations, blindness to cosmic relationship….”.

    What a tool our “caretaker” turned out to be…kind of hysterical, now, with the CENSORSHIP and psychobabble he exerts on his beloved “internet”…

    What a BORING schtick – the same exact tactics and language used to SHUT DOWN discussion of a JUST WAR before Iraq, to SHUT DOWN discussion about TORTURE, to declare that they LOST the “war on drugs” only AFTER NSA did meta-data mining….all that is now being applied to “Duck Dynasty”…

    How many times have I mentioned that as LOW as any woman can go in “conversation”, MEN hold the record for going LOWER. Gay guys say stuff about women and to women’s faces that no SANE hetero male who has loyal and intimate relations with a women would EVER say – talk about HATE SPEECH…..scratching and clawing for the continued “perception” that MSM is ethical and moral in what it chooses to censor is just another item to put in the list of examples of HOW INSANE INIQUITY is.

    But to remain cooly intellectual is a good thing. Yes, that is their PLAN. Nihilism. And Prima Facie evidence – GALORE – that they “sanctioned” – economic genocide, if we use language to be precise,

    FREE WILL PEOPLES who CHOSE, not under duress, but with full, lucid intention of purpose, to CARE about “universe allegiance, fraternal obligations and cosmic relationship” as those ETHICS and MORALS are defined, clearly, in The Urantia Book.

    When is LUCIFER, and his buddies, going to come out of the closet….?

    That harpy’s article from CNBC (talk about a good target to SHUT DOWN, first, during a JUST WAR) – was CLEARLY Luciferian – here’s what LUCIFER wrote down in HIS Declaration of Liberty (page 604) – “….Lucifer maintained that far too much time and energy were expended upon the scheme of so thoroughly training ascending mortals (humans, if we CHOOSE to participate) in the principles of universe administration, principles which he alleged were unethical and unsound…..”

    He’s HYSTERICAL is his heavy-handed CENSORSHIP of speech – a brain pattern akin to a rabid raccoon – can’t do anything to SAVE the creature anymore because they’re so sick….

    Yeah, so how “free” is anyone when they – the FILTHY RICH – can run around biting everyone AT WILL through the NSA and other hooligan-run spy centers….

    As for the “laws” they write…laws last that can be experienced by HUMAN BEINGS as being fair and just. Name ONE law the cabal has writ that will last that test of time. There isn’t even ONE.

  25. Putin is winning too many moves during this “USA up for grabs” epoch – thanks a pantload, Putti, for emptying out your jail cells and shipping them over to the “West”…..freekin’ genius except for the long term consequences to Mother Russia….

    The “West” – a bastion of political correctness. As they issue paper after paper of MERCILESS laws protecting their “economy”,

    their EMBEDDED shamans and preachers thunder from the pulpits with “End Times” DELUSIONS and demand “Forgiveness” for their “….ooops. my bad….” PREMEDITATED acts – like embezzling TAXES to get a secret hooligan mercenary cabal to erect the “spy” network that can keep taking out INDIVIDUALS, economically, to pay themselves. How to play the Ponzi with fear and torture…?

    So what’s up for the New Year? Beating swords back into ploughshares….?

    Didn’t think so…that would be a pre-emptive strike – a JUST WAR..

  26. Since YOU lost the war on drugs, maybe the next team will be more successful. No one will ever bend their knee to the ones who “lost” the war for the rest of us….filthiest lucre on the planet, and the noveau riche who got it are flashy trash – easy to spot…..and no place to hide :-)

    Funny how the war is declared “lost” only AFTER NSA revelations….

    No Christians left in Iraq and the DELUSIONAL “evangelicals” in the USA bullet-catcher ranks STILL can’ figure it out…?! That’s stupider than the good lord created them….

    Billions to spy or billions to censor? You can’t CENSOR the Prima Facie evidence being shoved in everyone’s faces – censoring what is SAID about the evidence is obstruction of Justice.


    Without checks and balances, Judges are the ones who can OBSTRUCT “justice” the most! Stripping the moon-walking Middle Class naked, via e-spying, before you shove them into the economic furnace for disposal (sanctions, anyone?)

    will never be “legal”. It’s an abomination. The worst kind of cynical abuse of an INSTITUTION of Justice that hooligans can come up with….

    The stuff FIAT $$$$ buys, no?


    The real problem in USA now is the generation of born-in-debt who grew up learning how to define “torture” and defend its use for “national security”

    instead of learning how to not kill themselves with pollution….

    well, there never WAS a plan in place in USA for an “economy” that was not based on slavery, extraction, exploitation and pollution…

    The FRB’s Prima Facie evidence….? A TRASHED planet….look at China’s pollution and the correlating increase in cancer rates….ooops, wait, there’s an “algorithm” to prove there is no correlation, right?

  29. The issue is not entirely about dollars and cents. It is about know-how about teaching effectiveness which is not clear cut at all. However, the Gates Foundation has done a lot of work into the “technology” of teaching. By improving the technology of how to make teaching more effective, we can produce more output with the same amount of inputs. Namely, the Gates Foundation is making the resources that go into education produce more, which seems like the best solution to this issue.


    Stop taking taxes from the working class to pay off the interest on the debt issued so that the super rich can have pre-emptive wars to get even richer…

    Maybe then the working poor will have resources to “educate” themselves for better employment opportunities and thus have the time/resources to spend “educating” their offspring…

Comments are closed.