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Scapegoating Teachers


The first to discover that teachers make perfect scapegoats was George W. Bush. When he ran for president for the first time twelve years ago, Bush had a problem. He wanted lower taxes to be his rallying cry, but while taxes in Texas, the state where he was governor, were indeed low, the schools in Texas were notoriously bad.

The numbers are no better today: Texas ranks 47th in the county in literacy, 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math scores. To blind the public to the evidence of what low taxes do, Bush produced evidence of a miracle: When it comes to education money is not what matters, he declared; what matters is holding teachers accountable. In Houston, Bush told voters, the superintendent of schools held teachers accountable, and as a result Houston saw a dramatic improvement in school quality, particularly when measured by high school graduation rates. So convincing was the miracle that as soon as he took office Congress agreed to pass the Bush tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind law.

Eight years later the “Texas miracle” was exposed. It turned out that the numbers had been cooked: Instead of the 1.5% drop-out rate that Houston had reported, the actual rate was somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. And in order to boost test results children who were considered weak in even just one subject were prevented
from entering the 10th grade, the year in which the tests were administered. But by then the truth no longer mattered because the ideas that taxes are not needed to run a democratic government and that teachers, not budgets, are responsible for the failure of schools had invaded the body politic.

When Bush ran for office the rate of unemployment was low and there was a surplus in the government coffers, rather than a deficit. Today the economic situation is dire and most Americans believe that inequality is the biggest problem that the country faces. Occupy Wall Street blames the 1% — but the 1% and their elected officials have found someone else to blame: Bad teachers are back.
A new study just out from economists at Harvard and Columbia would seem to offer the proof. The study does not claim that the measurement of teachers will produce better students–this was Bush’s claim and it has already been exposed–but instead that the measurement of teachers will make students richer as adults.

President Obama echoed themes from the study when in his State of the Union Address, instead of acknowledging Occupy Wall Street, he stuck it to teachers:  “A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance,” he said. “Give them [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones…and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Unlike the Texas miracle, the Harvard-Columbia revelations are not based on fraudulent numbers. But what is deeply problematic is the spin that the authors give to their findings. The study examined the incomes of adults who, as children in the 4th through the 8th grades, had teachers of different “Value Added” scores, with Value Added defined as improvement in the scores of students on standardized tests. The study claims that the individuals who had excellent teachers as children have higher incomes as adults; we will examine the validity of this claim below. But first we must ask what these higher incomes mean. When they were children, these individuals were poor. What the H-C authors fail to mention is that even when they had excellent teachers as children and therefore have higher incomes as adults, these individuals, despite their higher incomes, remain poor.

The devil is in the details: the average wage and salary of a 28 year old in the H-C study who had an excellent teacher was $20,509 in 2010 dollars, $182 higher than the average annual pay of all 28 year olds in the study. How does this compare to the average salary and wage of a 28 year old in this country? The authors excluded from their study people whose income was higher than $100,000. As we shall see, this exclusion is problematic; but to do the comparison we must do the same. The average salary and wage in 2010 of a 28 year old who earned less than $100,000 a year was $29,041, 42% higher than the income of a 28 year old in the H-C who had an excellent teacher. In other words, even if we accept the numbers that the authors of the H-C study choose to spin, having an excellent teacher cannot pull people out of poverty.

The exclusion of people with high incomes involved some 4,000 individuals, or 1.2% of the sample. The authors justify it by claiming that such people are outliers. But what if it turned out those high income earners had “bad”  teachers? Including them in the study would have completely changed the results. Excluding a large number of the best performers from a study about the effect of teaching seems strange.

There’s more. While the H-C study found a statistically significant, if meaningless, relationship between the “value added” of teachers and incomes at age 28, the authors did not find a statistically significant result at age 30. Why? In the study the authors explain this by the small number of 30 year olds in their sample. In their interviews with the media and in public presentations the authors do not mention this result at all. Yet the number of 30 year olds in their sample is 61,639, and these are all students who went to school in the same city. Is this a small sample? To gain an appreciation for the size of the sample consider the fact that in order to estimate the unemployment rate that it publishes every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics relies on a national survey of 60,000 households with an average of 1.95 adults in each. Surely if 120,000 peoples are a good size sample to study a labor force of 150 million people spread all over the country, a sample of 61,639 is a good size sample to study a population of fewer than 5 million elementary school students who all come from the same school system. By any measure the sample size is not only adequate, it is fantastically huge, and the result is not statistically significant.

But the statistically insignificant results for 30 year olds may have been inconvenient for the authors for another reason. An increase of $128 a year is small by any standard, so the authors resorted to estimating a lifetime increase in earnings due to this increase. To do that they assumed that the percentage increase in income, 0.9 of one percent, which they estimated for age 28, holds for each year of a person’s working life. And perhaps this is why the authors chose to ignore the results for the 30 year olds. All that their findings permit them to claim truthfully is that an excellent teacher increases average annual income by $128 at age 28, and that this effect disappears at age 30. But then there would have been nothing to report.

Doesn’t teacher quality matter? Not when it comes to explaining the deliberate assault on the wages of workers by executives with the support of most of our elected officials. A federal law permits states to pass the doublespeak Right to Work law. Boeing, a major recipient of government largess, has just moved production from Washington State to South Carolina because, according to Governor Nikki Haley, “We are fighting the unions every step of the way. We are a strong Right to Work state and going to stay that way.” The Supreme Court has recently ruled that executives can use shareholders’ money to their heart’s desire to influence elections. Executive pay remains totally out of control and totally unregulated. Government workers have lost the right to bargain collectively in several states. These are the laws that must be changed if we are to fight poverty. Does the president really believe that teachers can change all these laws by themselves when he says that “a great teacher can offer an escape from poverty?”

The attack on “bad teachers” is a dishonest diversion, and nothing more than a reincarnation of the Texas Miracle. The problem is the power of the 1%; the solution is to pass it to the 99%.

Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as  an e-book.


Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as an e-book and in Chinese (2013) and Korean (2015) editions.

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