Thursday, October 15, 2009

(Public) education and inequality

Two separate New York Times columnists have raised the connection between education and inequality in recent days. Ross Douthat's main point was that Democrats would be unable to stem a tide of rising inequality, and that although this is not their fault, it will nevertheless undermine the credibility of liberalism because liberals have argued the conservatives were to blame for the rising inequality.

This is a sloppy (or perhaps simply disingenuous) argument, for Douthat makes four separate unwarranted assumptions in reaching his desired conclusion. After all:
1. If conservative policies contribute to rising inequality, it does not logically follow that a change in government will end this effect: policies, once implemented, can continue to have an impact for a long time.
2. If the Democratic Party-led government puts into effect policies to counteract these existing policies, it does not logically follow that inequality must stop rising: many other factors influence inequality.
3. There is a big difference between some people arguing that conservative policies contribute to rising inequality and concluding that the entire Democratic Party does so.
4. It is even less valid to make the same kind of jump to implicate all of "contemporary liberalism".

Douthat's second main message is that political realities prevent the Democrats from adopting some key inequality-reducing policies. In support of this point, Douthat makes a number of simplistic claims about inequality that are worth rebutting (or rather, confronting with the evidence):

1. "Federal income tax is already quite progressive" (hence making it more so will matter little).
In fact, according to the OECD, the U.S. ranked just 21st among OECD countries in terms of top marginal income tax rate. Its ranking differs on other measures, but none that I am aware of justify the conclusion that U.S. federal income tax is "quite progressive".

2. "Inequality is driven in part by low-skilled immigration"
True, but the available evidence suggests that "immigration accounts for a small share (5%) of the increase in U.S. wage inequality between 1980 and 2000."

3. "Immigrants... are taking longer to achieve upward mobility than earlier generations did."
Partially true, but driven primarily by high rates of high school dropout, as Douthat's own source indicates. This means it is a problem more of education than of immigration per se (as that source also notes). Which brings us to:

4. "Inequality is perpetuated by our failing education system — and especially by the bloated cartel responsible for educating the nation’s poorest children"
The second part of this claim is pointlessly tendentious. Obviously there is no single cartel responsible for educating the nation's poorest children. It is true that several different (but not all!) teachers' unions have made educational reforms needlessly difficult. But it does not follow that they are primarily responsible for perpetuating inequality.

Numerous other factors contribute far more to problems with the public school system: de facto segregation, funding, etc. (See, for example, some of Jonathan Kozol's excellent reporting; also in book form.) In other words, Douthat is taking the same kind of cheap shot at teachers' unions as he does at low-skilled immigration: yes, these are contributing factors, but they are far from decisive.

Nicholas Kristof
focuses more specifically, and also more thoughtfully, on teachers' unions. Among others, he refers to an excellent, but also very discouraging, recent New Yorker article on the difficulty of firing incompetent teachers in New York City. This article makes clear that the teachers' union is not doing itself any favors; indeed, their behavior explains why people like Douthat often jump to unfair conclusions regarding the union's share of the blame for poorly performing schools.

Much recent research has shown that the quality of teachers is more important than class size, spending per student, or other factors. It thus follows that resistance by the unions to the firing of incompetent teachers makes matters worse. But it does not logically follow that if only the unions would get out of the way things would magically get better, without having to do anything else. Blaming the unions is an easy way to avoid having to face more difficult problems.

How, after all, does one attract good teachers? Offer them good salaries, reasonable-size classes, functioning equipment, a good support staff, a school building in good repair, etc. All of that, of course, requires money. Research shows clearly that funding alone is not enough: there has to be more of an emphasis on teacher quality. On the other hand, it is ludicrous to pretend that there is some vast army of very good teachers who are just chomping at the bit to build a career in overcrowded, underfunded, run-down public schools, for a low salary, and who are being prevented from doing so only by recalcitrant unions.

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