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Education Reform Policies Foster, Rather than Attenuate, America’s Permanent Underclass

Laura D’Andrea Tyson, the former chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and now a professor at UC-Berkeley, had a pretty bold opinion piece in the New York Times the other day, relating income inequality and educational opportunity in ways that I found compelling.

The United States is caught in a vicious cycle largely of its own making. Rising income inequality is breeding more inequality in educational opportunity, which results in greater inequality in educational attainment. That, in turn, undermines the intergenerational mobility upon which Americans have always prided themselves and perpetuates income inequality from generation to generation.

This dynamic all but guarantees a permanent underclass. Indeed, the process is already under way: An American child’s future income is already more dependent on his or her parents’ income than a child born in most other developed countries.

That’s a point not often made by the political or economic establishment, but it rings incredibly true. It stands at odds with the self-serving stories of triumph over adversity on display at the various political conventions.

Unfortunately, Tyson then sullies this with her prescription for reversing these broad trends in American society. She does call for increasing the progressivity of our tax and transfer policies, reducing tax expenditures on the wealthy (including raising the capital gains, dividend and carried interest tax rates) and increasing them on the poor with things like the Earned Income Tax Credit. But in with a litany of investments in education, including Pell grants, the tuition tax credit and federal student loans, she adds the President’s $4 billion Race to the Top Program.

This is the policy that leveraged that relatively small amounts of stimulus funds – less than 1% of the total US federal support for education – to bribe cash-strapped states into revamping their education policies around a host of measures, including teacher evaluations based on high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, and others typically grouped under the rubric of education reform. As the Washington Post points out, while President Obama has been successful with this strategy, getting well over half of all states to change their education policies, the ultimate success of the measures is not at all known:

But it is impossible to predict whether his policies, which are years from full implementation, will work. There is little or no research showing that these measures lead to better-educated children or higher graduation rates. Unions and some parents contend that Obama’s approach overemphasizes testing and crowds out the arts and other subjects.

There is wide agreement, however, that the administration has been particularly successful at pushing through its flavor of education policy.

What we do know is that a trend toward charter schools has done more to segregate the school system than practically anything in the past 50 years. In Chicago, site of the most recent labor flare-up around education policy, Rahm Emanuel’s city government plans to open 60 more charter schools at the same time that they claim there are 130,000 unfilled seats in the current district. The goal, explained by a private equity specialist named Bruce Rauner, is “separating teachers from the union.” These same big money interests have funded post-strike ads in Chicago, which feature Emanuel talking directly to the camera and touting the “results” he got out of the new labor contract.

We also know that a distinct focus on high-stakes testing will inevitably lead to cheating on test scores. In Philadelphia, after a cheating scandal was exposed, leading to renewed efforts to crack down on it, test scores dropped in the first year since the new anti-cheating efforts were implemented. Did Philadelphia’s teachers perform worse in 2012 than they did in previous years? No, it means that the public schools – and charter schools – in the district couldn’t cheat as easily anymore.

“It’s not just about whether they cheated, but a climate of relentless pressure on students, on family, on teachers,” said Helen Gym, of Parents United for Public Education. “Then we cut a billion dollars out of schools, and what do we think is going to happen?

“Do people really think this will result in stunning success? The cheating scandal is terrible but is it really that much of a surprise? What do people expect in a system which sets our kids up for failure? It should outrage every single one of us.”

We furthermore know that there are other evaluation methods for teachers that do not rely on easily subverted bubble tests, but that so-called reformers would rather conform them to fit their own beliefs. Peer evaluation from students are a potentially useful way to evaluate teachers, but reformers cheery-pick whatever questions correlate with the already-poor metric of standardized testing to make their evaluations. Moreover, peer review should combine with actual assistance, so the teacher can identify weak points and work on them for better performance. But as Felix Salmon says, “reformers are rushing to use this data as a quantitative performance-review tool, something which can get you a raise or which can even get you fired. And by so doing, they’re turning it from something potentially extremely useful, into a bone of contention between teachers and managers, and a metric to be gamed and maximized.”

There are even legitimate methods for student learning that have nothing to do with preparing them to fill in bubbles on standardized tests, such as analytical writing, but this would ruin the whole rigid metric designed to cleave teachers from unions and send schools into the waiting arms of hedge fund managers and other big money forces.

So yes, to follow Laura D’Andrea Tyson, we do have a permanent underclass thanks in part to inequality in educational attainment. And the current education “reform” policies will only perpetuate it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen