But while I have no problem with the idea that there should be consequences for Beverly Hall or Michelle Rhee or any other school chancellor who presides over cheating, I’m genuinely puzzled by what anti-reform people think these cheating scandals prove.
Genuine puzzlement, right up there with “swear to God”, usually precedes a lie. It’s the verbal equivalent of clammy sweat and rapid blinking, and even on the rare occasion that it doesn’t presage a whopper, it makes everything subsequent seem dishonest. Yglesias goes on to set fire to a hiring hall full of unionized straw men who want teacher pay to be tied to tenure of service and nothing else, but what the hell, I’ll see if I can raise my voice above the crackling fire.
The cheating scandals prove that education reform is a wholly fraudulent endeavor. It isn’t the equivalent of a doping scandal in sports; it’s the equivalent of Enron, Madoff, the financial crisis. You think testing has something to do with compensation, hiring, and firing? It doesn’t. Testing is the accounting of the reform movement, and the executives are cooking the books. They’re manipulating the statements so it looks like the venture is turning a profit. Well, actually, it’s got negative cash flow. The gains are phantoms. The enterprise is insolvent. Even by its own standards, reform fails.
The central proposition of so-called education reform is that it endeavors to make schooling more entrepreneurial. Now this is bogus on its face. The most salient fact about entrepreneurialism is that most ventures fail. Is that the proper model for the delivery of a universal service? Consider the question irrespective of your thoughts about the larger questions surrounding the provision of universal education. Ostensible reformers say they want to mimic the dynamism and innovation of the private sector. The first question is: to what end, exactly? The second is: do you know how dynamism and innovation work?
Like most pro-market types, these people are ignorant of the actual workings of capitalism. They see Apple’s glittering headquarters, Google’s quarterly revenue numbers, and they think, Damn! I wish schools could be more like that! Strewn across the historic landscape behind all this success are hundreds of thousands of failed attempts, many of which don’t make it out of their first year. And you want school to look like this? Well, uh, no; we only want school to imitate successful ventures! Well, I want better arms and a bigger dick, but editing every other eighth of an inch out of the measuring tape will not make it so.
Here is a question for you: who is more fixated on pay, education reformers or traditional teachers’ unions? Reformers make two mistakes that have plagued badly run businesses for an age. If Yglesias had half the MBA he tries to write like he has, he’d be familiar. 1.) Monetary compensation is an ineffective and inefficient motivator of employee performance (Organizational Behavior: Leadership and Group Effect), and 2.) Labor-cost arbitrage—in this case, from union to open shop—can have diminishing productivity returns (Managing Human Resources in a Global Economy). And once again, I’m saying: leave aside the ideological and human problems of late capitalism; even by its own standards, it fails.
What does the ubiquitous cheating in reform-era education mean? It means that reformers are so dumb they can’t even set up arbitrary benchmarks for success; they literally fail their own tests despite having written the questions and answers themselves. Imagine a panel of fish oil salesmen riddled with arthritis and clearly suffering from memory loss and you get some idea. What the cheating proves is that these people are liars and cheats, but more than that, it proves that the systems of accountancy and auditing promoted by the liars and cheaters are themselves a lie. The reform is doubly fraudulent.
Now, it may be true that seniority is a bad way to determine pay. I don’t really have a dog in that fight. But let me propose to you this one staggering advantage seniority has over “performance.” It cannot readily be faked.