Barriers to Effective Schooling

The international evidence shows that private provision of education is often better but never worse than public provision. That there is so little private provision — not just in the U.S., but anywhere — can seem like a puzzle if you happen to think policy will tend to reflect the preferences of a benevolent technocrat. As Carney’s piece below shows, powerful entrenched interests may have a stake in making sure private provision stays crowded out. So they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure only rich people can afford to send their kids to private schools, maintaining a cartel in control of supply for the rest of the population.

Why else might private provision be so rare? Or, put another way, why might there be such a strong interest in maintaining government control over the supply of education? In a recent working paper, Harvard’s Lant Pritchett and Martina Viarengo argue that this is explained by, among other things, the desire of those with a stake in government institutions to control the socialization of children. They build a model that illustrates how the the aim of controlling socialization can help explain the pattern of resistance to private provision, even in places where it is clearly vastly superior. I find this pretty intuitively plausible. One of the first arguments against vouchers, tax credits or other systems of publicly-financed, privately-provided education is that taxpayer money should not go to schools that teach this or that allegedly malign belief. It just so happens that, on the way to making certain that children are not taught that the world is 6000 years old (which would obviously neutralize one’s ability to earn a living as a middle manager), children are also imbued with a certain nationalistic civic piety and the belief that, say, FDR saved capitalism from itself. Who knows what chaos might otherwise ensue?

The Structural Inequality Lobby

Tim Carney’s piece on the power of the teachers’ unions and their massive push to drive a stake through the heart of Washington, DC’s modest and locally popular experiment in school vouchers should be sobering to anyone with a romantic view of democracy. 

Beltway bandits, defense contractors, influential industries—most of them pale in their influence efforts compared to the teachers unions, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Take defense contractors. Lockheed Martin, the top recipient of military contracts most years, spent more on politics than any other defense firm in the 2008 elections. They still spent less than the American Federation of Teachers, which shelled out $2.8 million in the last cycle—with nearly every AFT dime going to Democrats.

The top two teachers unions—AFT and the National Education Association—spent more combined, $5.27 million, than the top two defense contractors.

The top five lobbying firms, combined, didn’t equal the AFT and the NEA in federal contributions in the 2008 cycle. Both of the teachers unions gave more than any oil company, and the NEA and AFT combined gave more than the top four oil companies combined.

These contributions give the unions clout, and federal lobbying records show they use this clout. Again, on closer inspection, the teachers unions look an awful lot like those corporate special interests Democrats supposedly oppose.

The NEA employs four different lobbying firms in Washington, in addition to their in-house lobbying arm, which includes at least six lobbyists.  Over the past two years, the NEA spent $10.7 million on lobbying. Reviewing the filings of the NEA, the AFT, and their K Street hires reveals that lobbying to kill DC vouchers was a priority.


Again, there are substantive arguments against D.C. school vouchers. But with this money trail, it appears that congressional Democrats’ push to kill vouchers is simply a case of the piper playing the tune that the AFT has called.

If you believe, as I do, that the returns to further government spending on education, given its present structure, is zero or negative, and that the best hope for increasing the quality of education for the least well-off, and for increasing economic and social mobility generally, is to legalize competitive markets in education, then you will tend to believe, as I do, that this attempt to destroy voucher programs before than can show themselves effective is nothing less than a powerful political interest group screwing over poor people by bending the democratic process to their advantage. The sad thing, from my perspective, is that strong Democratic partisans (and especially members of the teachers’ unions) are likely to violently reject any such argument out of hand on the basis of their deep conviction that the Democratic Party cares about the poor, and so would certainly not allow itself to become captured by groups with interests diametrically opposed to interests of the poor. As time goes on, I think the relevant social science is going to brutalize the standard Democratic position, and the clash between the Democratic Party’s most powerful client and the poor will become increasingly stark. But for now, the unions will probably succeed in temporarily extinguishing the possibility of demonstrating a superior alternative to the status quo system of education.

Nothing to Do With Quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on the crucial importance of teacher quality and the difficulty of identifying talent is typically Gladwellesque in its irresistable readability, unexpected connections, and profound blindspots. Gladwell’s hook is the “quarterback problem.” Did you know that college performance fails to predict pro performance for quarterbacks? Interesting! But what on Earth does this have to do with teachers? Nothing, as far as I can tell. One comes away from Gladwell’s essay with the ideas that (a) success as a teacher, like success as an NFL quarterback, requires a combination of traits so ineffable and rare that (b) it can be determined only by actual performance in “the show.”  But (a) is certainly false, which is a relief since we need many, many more successful teachers than the number of NFL franchises.

But who cares? The frothy quarterback stuff is a completely superfluous distraction from the point that emerges in Gladwell’s piece. That point is (b): to find out if somebody is a good teacher, you’ve got to see how well he or she actually teaches. Gladwell illustrates how this sort of thing works by inspecting the way one financial firm casts a very wide net and then narrows the field by filtering out candidate financial advisers on the basis of real preformance. Select and compensate people on the basis of their actual demonstrated skill. It’s so crazy it just might work!

So what does Gladwell have to say about this? He makes a number of outstanding suggestions and profoundly important points: 

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s [the financial firm recruiter’s] training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance.


Is this solution to teaching’s quarterback problem politically possible? Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one. Teachers’ unions have been resistant to even the slightest move away from the current tenure arrangement. But all the reformers want is for the teaching profession to copy what firms like North Star have been doing for years. … What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children? 

Now, there’s no point in saying things that will make your readers think you are an evilcrazy person, so I can understand why Gladwell wastes words on quarterbacks instead of on the deeper mechanisms at work here. But why is it that “society devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?” The obvious answer is that care and patience are in greater supply when care and patience pay. When the provision of education was made a predominantly public, not-for-profit affair, “society” basically ensured that teacher selection would receive far less care and patience than money-handler selection. Maybe we should do something about that. 

Also, why should teachers need a college degree?