Tag Archives: teachers

The Enemies of the Federal-Academic Complex

The Federal-Academic Complex is that collection of bureaucrats and researchers that set the educational agenda in the United States. The Federal-Academic Complex does this through understanding the mechanics of education, while being empathetic to the concerns of educational stakeholders (such as parents and employers).

The Federal-Academic Complex has enemies of two classes. The first is composed of conservatives and Republicans who are generally hostile to public spending. One member of this class is Sen. Chuck Grassley, as I described previously. Conservative/Republican opposition to the Federal-Academic Complex is concentrated among an ideological minority in both movements, and I will not address it further in this post.

The second class of enemies is composed of teachers. Teachers and their front organizations (the NEA, the AFT, the NPTA, etc.) used to set the education agenda. Because teachers were unable to education children and were unable to act empathetically to others, they no longer do – that is the role of the Federal-Academic Complex.

An example to teacher hostility to the Federal-Academic Complex is this tweet by Diane Ravitch:

Tax breaks for rich Princeton, pennies for public colleges

Ravitch’s comment is in reaction to an article by Richard Vedder that notes successful universities are successful, in part, for their success in attracting alumni support and federal research grants.

Teachers unions and similar groups do not care how academia works. They simply want to demonize academia (a successful part of the American social fabric) to rescue their own position in public elementary, middle, and high schools (a failed part of the American social fabric).

The Class War

My friend Mark Safranski of Zenpundit recently discussed class resentment in the context of education reform

The mostly lower middle class, status-anxiety rage against teacher’s unions has it’s root in being an obstacle to forcing teachers to accept second-class citizenship and artificially low standards of living for the benefit of every child except their own. A system that also depended on free-riding a national labor force sharply segregated by gender. That component of creaming a talent pool with limited options is never returning, no matter what happens to unions

Mark is right on several key points.

  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is most acute lower in the economy spectrum
  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is related to economic anxiety
  • Teachers will not willingly sacrifice their will being for the good of society
  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is partially a result of encouraging women to have careers beyond teaching.

Teachers formerly were the central actor of the educational system. That role has been taken & is being took over by the federal-academic complex. The proximate reasons for the collapse of the positions of teachers is that teachers do not understand how to educate children and their are not empathetic to other stakeholders.

The ultimate cause, however, has to do with the lobotomization of the teaching workforce in the United States. The historical pay scale for teachers way high enough to attract ambitious and educated workers because the economic system of the United States funneled women into teaching on the basis on non-cash rewards. While it would be possible to pay teachers like professionals, the integrated workforce means the cash cost of this would be quite high, and I doubt it will happen.

This lobotomy added a new stress to American families: it was now harder to find a good school. The same desegregation that lead to the collapse of the American teaching profession also allowed more mothers to leave the home, go to work, and use that extra income to purchase access to a better school district. Of course, other women did the same, which bid up the cost of good schools and lead to an increase in general misery. In a competitive market higher prices caused by greater demand should lead to better production. Unfortunately, the American teaching monopoly was already in a cycle of incompetence and lack of empathy, so such an improvement did not happen.

Like most economic stresses, the problems caused by the low quality of the American teaching workforce hit the working poor and lower middle class the hardest. The lumpenproletariat simply does not care about the quality of education, while the well-off spend a lower fraction of their incomes on securing a good school district. The anger felt by these against teachers — who are protected from evaluation by their employers and have summers off – is real, and it has material causes.

Teachers find themselves in a bad position. Their workforce quality is probably not high enough to become more competent or more empathetic. And as Mark mentions, they are not selfless, and don’t want to see themselves or their families hurt. Thus they fight the losing fight against all the forces in the world, and soon they themselves will leave the scene as a force capable of great things.

Why Are Teachers So Rich?

The New York Times has an infographic with the title “The Top 1 Percent: What Jobs Do They Have?” It looks like this:

The fascinating part is how many elementary & high schools teachers are in the top 1%: 59,362.

Half-Sigma interprets this as implying that teachers marry into money. I think something like this is close to the truth: teaching is a “polite” profession where workers are basically unaccountable and output is essentially unmeasurable. If the wife of a one-percenter wishes to work, but wishes to work in a place where she she does not have to sully herself with competition, results, or measurable contributions, teaching is a fine profession. And because many Americans mortgage themselves into the most expensive school district they can afford, human cognitive biases will make teachers’ neighbors think they are doing a good job! (After all, if you mortgaged yourself into a bad school district, that implies you’re a pretty bad parent.)

Teachers and Intelligence

An individual’s performance is influenced, among other things, by his creativity, his motivation, his personality, and his intelligence. Intelligence can either be crystallized or fluid. Crystallized intelligence is in long term memory: it is what his knowledge, his expertise, his experience. Fluid intelligence is the central executive of working memory which controls what you think, what you pay attention to, and how you reason. Besides the episodic buffer that provides context, fluid intelligence is composed of a visuo-spatial sketchpad associated with scientific and mathematical reasoning, and also a phonological loop associated with rhetorical and verbal reasoning.

This is the context for some charts provided by the Educational Testing Service [PDF download], and already discussed by Education Realist, Razib Khan, and Steve Sailer.

Here is the chart for the verbal SAT score of teachers, which is a rough measure of their verbal and rhetorical:

Here is a chart for the mathematical SAT score of teachers, which is a rough measure of their scientific and mathematical reasoning ability:

Steve Sailer had the following thoughts:

Overall, public school teachers are pretty average for college graduates. It looks like they average about a quarter of a standard deviation lower on college admission tests than do average college graduates. But then college graduates are above average. With the exception of high school math teachers, teachers tend to score higher on the Verbal / Critical Reading section than on the Math section. That’s their job: to use words to explain stuff. But it also explains why they have trouble dealing with the flood of data that’s been incoming in recent years: thinking about statistics isn’t their strong suit.

My guess is that smarter teachers would probably be a good thing, so we ought to be thinking about ways to make the job of teaching more attractive to smart people. In general, smart people don’t like dealing with knuckleheads, so forcing teachers to carry most of the burden of discipline, a growing trend in recent decades, is a good way to keep smart people out of the business. You can instead use some of those gym teachers to run after school detentions instead of delegating most of the disciplining down to the teachers as happens in so many public schools desperate to avoid disparate impact lawsuits by not generating a paper trail of discipline actions carried out by the administration.

My take is if you want more lawyers and MBAs produced by our educational system, you should be happy with the status quo. If you think Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are better at producing wealth, though, you should be unhappy for this.

On the other hand, if we don’t start treating teachers as professionals we’re going to end up with idiot-proof instructional technology anyway, so it might not even matter.

How Platform Monopolies Fail

Technology platform tend towards monopoly. Whether physical or virtual, platforms provide a level playing field for other actors to use to their advantage. The predictability of monopolies allows other actors to plan for the future, and the technological stabilization they present make the road ahead a lot less frightening for most involved. Monopolies cannot and do not “charge whatever they want” — they price their goods so that they capture a portion of the value they provide that is still low enough to deter other potential competitors from entering the market.

Markets fail through either lack of empathy or lack of understanding. Lack of empathy occurs when the monopoly is blind to the political concerns of other stakeholders, and they therefore use their power to break the monopoly. For instance, in the United States, the left-of-center turned strongly against the physical sciences after the Vietnam War, at the same time at the right-of-center was agitating against government control. The Bell System, by continuing to fund physics research while relying on government control of rates, thus back unempathetic to other actors, and was broken up.

General Motors was a much more empathetic monopoly. They encouraged the growth of the United Auto Workers, allowing both the capital and labor sides of the organization to strongly influence the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. GM cleverly overcharged for their products, allowing niche competitors such as Ford and Chrysler to survive (and providing a veneer of competiton), while keeping those marginal companies captive through the threat of lower prices. Indeed, GM as an organization was so empathetic that management and labor was bailed out by the Bush and Obama administrations! Unfortunately for GM,the shock of high oil prices lead to a decline nonetheless.

In the US education system, the Teachers Front Organizations opeated as a monpoly for nearly a century, until being replaced by the federal-academic complex.The reason was both lack of empathy and an external shock. The lack of empathy was exhibited primarily from the Teachers Front Organizations’ lack of concern with State power or Employer’s seeking workers that can be hired. The external shock was first the sexual integration of the American workplace, followed by globalization.

I imagine that if either of these things had not been there — if the Teachers Front Organizations had not been lacking in empathy, if the workplace had not been integrated, or if globalization had not occured, the Teachers Front Organizations would stil be the platform monpoly in the US educational system. If the workforce had not been integrated, teaching would not have suffered from the lobotomy of low wages, as the sexism discount would have still brought many high-performing women into teaching. Likewise, if globalization had not occured, large employers would not have faced the stress of tring to hire a proportionate fraction of their labor force in the United States while facing a disproportionate incompetent labor force in the form of public school graduates.

The consequences of this failed monopoly are as hard for teachers as the failure of the Bell System or GM where for their stakeholders. The teacher leadership in the United States has left everyone — including teachers — down.

Monopolies do not last forever. And monopolies are not all bad. But the Teachers Front Organizations died as a monpoly because it was bad at its most basic job: survival

The Hard Way

Earlier I analyzed the political economy of education reform, and argued that supporting Publishers was the easy way to put better tests in front of students. This is because a testing regime flatters the money-seekingnature of Publishers, so their greed can be coopted. Nonetheless, it would be convenient to co-opt teachers as well.

I could see this happening in a number of ways, thought I don’t know if they are plausible


  • Teachers might be sufficiently educated through propaganda they actually become oriented around student outcomes
  • The solidarity in the teaching profession cracks, and teachers organize around different (though presumably still self-oriented) lines based on broader social and economic factors
  • Teachersaccept a smaller but more professional workforce organized around technology

The first and second of the above options assumes teachers stop acting as a rational actor. Teachers want money — they are politically active in order to divert welfare away from students to themselves — and because no one really knows if they are a ‘good’ teacher or not (as there is no good testing regime to tell), teacherse are naturally risk adverse. While no publishers see a risk of going out a business because of better tests, better tests would make it much easier to dismiss. low-than-great teachers

The third option — that teachers might agree to higher wages in exchange in exchange for integrating testing technology into the classroom – is possible. The West Coast Longshoremen struck an almost identical deal, and enjoy six-figure salaries as a result. This possibility requiers that teachers remain rational but have a hard-headed understanding of their operating environment. As the teaching profession has been lobotomized through generations of low wages, I doubt this degree of rationality will be forthcoming. Teachers have failed to use the federal-academic complex to pivot their front organizations into political success — what hope is there of teachers wising up now?

Even though working with publishers is the easy way to build a nation-wide testing infrastructure, and working with teachers is the hard way, both ways should be persued. Teachers still have some political power, and every iota of it that can be neutralized is an outa that can be used to improve the terms of trade with Publishers, a self-interested group that is not actively hostile to educating children through testing technology.

What Good Tests Look Like, and Why We Don’t Have Them

Back when I was a teacher-educator, I would teach pre-service teachers what a good test looked like. This was so they could recognize one when it appeared, and when their students received standardized test scores, they could explain them to parents. I used the acronym “RSVP” (taken from this pretty good educational psychology textbook) to emphasize the quality of good testing. “RSVP” has implications for education reform, not just one-off tests.

RSVP stands for Reliable, Standard, Valid, and Practical.

  • Reliable means the test gives the same score each time. A reliable test should give the same score even as testing conditions change. It is of course hard to demonstrate the reliably for ‘high-stakes’ testing that takes place once a year. It would be far better for testing to occur on a quarterly, monthly, yearly, daily, or (preferably) nearly-continuous basis. If a standard scores high on a test over a subject-area on time, and low the next, and the same subject area is being tested at the same level, the test would have low reliability.
  • Standard means that every student gets the ‘same’ test scored the ‘same’ way. Note this doesn’t mean something foolish like, ‘Everyone gets the same test on 8 AM the same day of the year.’ It does mean that subjective “portfolios” — the only type of ‘testing’ that teachers as a politica bloc oppose — are wrong-headed. “Portfolios” aren’t a form of RSVP testing at all, but serve as a political attempt by teachers to prevent any measurement of their quality as teachers in inspiring learning.
  • Valid means the test actually measures what it is supposed to measure. So a reliable and standard testing on the Revolutionary War, composed entirely of geometry problems, probably isn’t valid. Likewise, a test of working memory capacity which would show blacks and hispanics average at the same score probably isn’t valid, owing to the strong psychometric evidence of durable gaps in general intelligence between these populations. Validity thus incorporates a very large range of issues, some almost purely political, some almost purely technical.
  • Practical means that the testing can actually be accompmlished without harming learning. The test should be easy enough to administer and score that the teacher can actually obtain scores that make sense. Likewise, information from the test should be used as feedback so teaching in that particular class can improve. A once-a-year disruptive test that takes three days and whose scores are not returned that semester would only be ‘practical’ if those three days are academcially worthless.

Most tests now used in education are not RSVP. This is because the six forces involved in the education reform debate either don’t care or are hostile to RSVP testing. Neither Districts nor States have created tests which are RSVP. On a day-to-day level, neither Parents nor Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers understand how to read test scores. Neither Teachers nor Publishers regularly create RSVP tests.

But between teachers and publishers, only teachers are opposed to them in principle. RSVP tests would allow districts to fire bad teachers and pay more to good ones, which wouuld be a disaster to the work rules the lobotmized teacher labor force has grown accustomed too. Teacher labor agitators like Diane Ravitch are like the longshoremen on the east coast — opposed to change and so content to watch their industry be destroyed beyond all recognition. Publishers, on the other hand, simply don’t have the skill to give RSVP tests — because they’re influence is contracts and profit, they are indifferent as to whether RSVP test will be given or not.

The federal-academic complex works as a bank for multiple interests. It allows Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers to convert their financial resources into power that encourages States, Districts, and Publishers to embrace measurable results, in the form of testing. It allows States to translate their power into money, which can encourage Publishers to make tests. It also creates tests which actually are RSVP, and can be embraced by Publishers as their own products.

Good tests should be RSVP – Reliable, Standard, Valid, and Practical. While we still have a way to go, for the time being teachers are against RSVP tests in principle, while Publishers are simply ignorant as to make to make and sell them. It’s easier to impart knowledge than to change hearts and minds. So until teacher groups wise up, the easier road to education reform is through empowering Publishers and working with them to create RSVP tests.

The Lobotomy of Low Wages

Economic incentives matter. This is true for teaching, as for other professions. In the words of a recent academic study examining teacher wages and student outcomes, “If you pay peanuts, don’t you get monkeys?” (hat-tip to Andrew Sullivan & Stephen Pampinella. While American public schools are still awful even after correcting for low wages (think Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey), the relationship between teacher wages and student outcomes is pretty clear:

The real decline in wages for teachers that occurred when society stopped massive de jure and de facto discrimination against women lobotomized the teaching profession.

The reason is obvious: workers have alternatives to teaching, and if you ‘tax’ teaching by paying it less, you get fewer high quality workers in it. This matters beyond just test scores: the collapse of teachers as an influential political bloc and teachers’ embrace of such agitators as Diane Ravitch may well be explained by the emergent effects of lowering the quality of teachers through paying them less.

Teachers want money, and they want it in a way that avoids measuring teacher performance. Unfortunately for teachers as a political bloc, other powerful forces have entered the debate, including powerful federal and academic institutions.

I do not think it is politically sustainable for teachers to unaccountably deliver terrible results while loudly demanding comfortable wages. In fact, I believe this political strategy is downright foolish. It is a sign that the teaching profession has suffered the lobotomy of low wages. While teachers sit like vegetables as the world pass them by, other forces are replacing them (such as this example of a move by Districts and the Federal-Academic Complex to have some students taught by professors, not teachers at all).

If teacher advocates do seriously join the debate, and contribute to a discussion of how better paid teachers can be better measured, we will get “idiot-proof teaching” scripts and the replacement of teachers by completely fungible drones.

The Bank of the Federal-Academic Complex

The battle for education reform is being occurring along three major axes — power (among States and Districts), childcare (among Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers and Parents) and money (Teachers and Publishers). Tradtionally, Teacheres were able to oversee all three of these axes through united front organizations they created — such as the NEA, AFT, NPTA, and Districts whose boardmembers were elected by the NEA, AFT, and NPTA activists. Unfortunately for Teachers, Democrats created a new power nucleus which is now overseeing a radical transformation in the teaching profession.

In 1950 President Truman created the National Science Foundation, and in 1979 President Carter created the Department of Education. As outline in Jonathan Cole’s excellent book, The Great American University, the NSF was created to use America’s excellence in the practical sciences to better society. The Department of Ed was a tentative move to subsidize teachers while removing a small amount of power from both States and Districts.

As the NSF & DOE matured together, it created a federal-academic complex unlike any other player in the political economy of education. DOE bureaucrats wanted more power, the NSF “Research Directorates” wanted more funds, the academics who won NSF grants wanted more freedom to research, all these players interacted with advocates for childcare. The Federal-Academic Complex contains interests at least as aligned as other blocs such as “teachers” or “publishers,” so is capable of political action, but it became interested in all of the axes in the education debate (power, childcare, and money), due to its diversity of operating environments.

In short, the interlocking relationships between DOE and NSF stakeholders created a federal-academic complex, or “bank.” Both Parents and Large-Scale Consumers of Education Workers were always able to translate their interest in childcare into money, but the DOE/NSF (“the federal-academic complex”) made it easier to translate their interest in money into political power over education. The same of course was true for Districts and States, who had the standing Federal-Academic complex to lobby and influence. Likewise, Teachers and Publishers could invest funds (and expected funds) harvested from education funding and translate that into power through the Federal-Academic Complex.

With the exception of States (who viewed the Federal-Academic Complex as essentially an arm of the federal government, and so focused on opposing it), every rational actor began using the bank of the Federal-Academic Complex to pursue its interests. States rationally opposed the Federal-Academic Complex, other rational players rationally used it. Teachers, suffering from the lobotomy of low wages and arrogant in their united front organizations, stupidly saw the complex simply as another source of profit and ignored the changing political landscape.

Districts put up propaganda posters in favor ofhe NSF and DOE, and fawned over funding for NSF Computer Labs and other sources of funding that could be used to weaken State power. Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers used the Federal-Academic Complex to push for a better educated workforce. Publishers, observing the possibility to increase their revenues, used the Federal-Academic Complex to push for changes that would require buying more goods and services from publishers. Parents, the easiest of all forces to satisfy, slept soundly knowing that entrance of a new force meant it was even less likely would have to care for their own children.

Politically naive teachers imagined the Federal-Academic Complex would mean higher pay without greater responsibilities. And so they voted in blocs in favor of intiatives that aggrandized the Federal-Academic Complex, and subsidized the step by step the encirclement of their own united front organizations.

The Encirclement of a United Front

According to the Communist International, a “united front” is

simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie

Except for Cuba, the remaining Communist countries still have bureaucratic offices to manage the ‘United Fronts,’ which are now just shadows of their former selves. No one imagines that the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese KMT or China’s other “democratic parties” have any real power, and hence they have no legitimacy. “United Front Work Departments,” or their equivalent, exist in Vietnam and North Korea.

But as the example of North Korea shows, even a “United Front” can be encircled by hostile forces. North Korea’s incompetent leadership has acted so erratically, empathetically, and selfishly. And its emasculated United Front partners are unable to help it.

Teachers in the United States are the analog of the North Korean Kim Family Regime. US teachers have emasculated their United Front partners, alienated all but one outside force, and have allowed a massive brain drain to lobotomize their movement.

Under previous, smarter, leadership, teachers had created a United Front that remained relevant until the late 20th century.

  • Teachers allied with labor unions, even though as public workers teacher wages were paid from funds partially taken from labor. To this day, the National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States, and the American Federation of Teachers is the second-largest.
  • Teachers allied with parents to form the National Parent-Teacher Association. While the NEA and AFT use labor-rhetoric to form alliances, the NPTA uses the rhetoric of childcare, used the rhetoric of childcare.
  • Teachers allied with Districts, using a quirk in US election law to dominate the boards. In the US, even though local elections have the greatest impact on the lives of citizens, these elections also have the lowest turn-out. Therefore, an organized minority can regularly influence the outcome of local elections. Using both individual initiative and the NEA/AFT/NPTA alliances, teachers regularly take school board seats, allowing them to also act as stake-holders in districts.

Yet this “united front” is now as worthless as North Korea’s. The labor movement union has passed the teachers by, and the main utility of the NEA and AFT seems to be to obtain divisive partisan allies (which increases the stakes greatly). Parents are lukewarm allies, as they only want to make sure nothing wrong with child care. Districts have been under assault from the States for more than a Decade, and the harm caused by Teachers to Districts influence in that fight outweigh the influence Teachers are able to exert through local elections.

Teachers have allowed themselves to become encircled.

By failing to prepare workers for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), teachers have alienated Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers. By not flattering State power, they have alienated States. By refusing to help Districts in political battles against States, they have alienated the local school boards, too. By virtue of their position as a consumer of education resources, they naturally alienate Publishers. And by refusing moves to allow the measurement of their performance, they have alienated the Federal-Academic Complex.

The encirclement of the Teacher’s united front has happened because the teaching profession has been lobotomized. Previously, highly discriminator labor norms effectively closed off many professions to ambitious women, funneling “the best and the brightest” into teaching. A small number of people may be able, for a short amount of time, to ignore their own interests for a political cause, but everyone else requires economic incentives. De facto and de jure discrimination against women in other fields had the effect of economically incentivizing smart and ambitious women into teaching. Now, however, those same incentives have the effect of moving smart and ambitious women away from teaching. As the ambition and sharpness of the teaching profession has declined, it is not surprising that this has effected the political abilities of teachers as a bloc.

The situation is not hopeless for teachers. The high-reward, high-risk movement of publicly aligning with the Democratic Party raises the possibility of a new set of political allies. But this is risky, and the agitators like Diane Ravitch appear to criticize Democrats (President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Chairman Gates) at least as much as Republicans. The old united front is now to emasculated to carry water for teachers. And teachers have shown no signs of being empathetic to other stakeholders in the education reform debate.

I don’t know what will happen to North Korea. And I don’t know what will happen to Teachers. Both groups built earlier success using a clever United Front, both emasculated their traditional partners, and both now find themselves surrounded by hostile enemies. The future of both is bleak, but not hopeless, and there’s always chance a great leader might be waiting in the wings…