Matthew Yglesias seems to have created a cottage industry of willfully misunderstanding the role of poverty in education. His latest (emphasis his; boldface mine):
Erik Loomis stands up for teachers by asserting that their professional skills are irrelevant to poor children:
If we really want to reform schools, we need to fight poverty. Schools can’t do anything if kids are unprepared, malnourished, with parents who are too poor and desperate to worry about their kids education, with cockroaches in the house. Without centering poverty as the real reason for educational problems, any attempt to reform schools is politicized and anti-teacher bullshit.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. But if this is seriously what you believe, then you ought to support a policy of layoffs and larger class sizes in low-poverty districts, across-the-board pay cuts for teachers, and re-purposing of the funds into a larger EITC or Child Tax Credit. I think that’s a terrible idea. I think that well-run schools are a worthy investment of public resources and that some teachers are capable of doing a great deal to help children overcome disadvantaged circumstances. What’s more, I think one of the main mechanisms through which income as such does impact student learning is that low-income families have difficulty buying into well-managed schools staffed by great teachers.
I’ve dealt before with Yglesias’ inability to comprehend that school performance is something that is primarily teacher and administrator-driven and that can be chosen like a consumer good, so no need to rehash those points again. At least now, he’s being explicit about it.
But no one is saying teachers are irrelevant (except Yglesias, who puts forth a straw man). Most studies show a small teacher effect (although there are serious, non-trivial statistical issues with many of those studies, especially value-added testing. Apparently, philosophy supersedes rigorous method. Or something).
But the brutal reality is that poverty is a massive determinant of educational performance. While moving students into wealthier schools lowers the gap, it doesn’t eliminate it. But this is the ridiculous part:
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. But if this is seriously what you believe, then you ought to support a policy of layoffs and larger class sizes in low-poverty districts, across-the-board pay cuts for teachers, and re-purposing of the funds into a larger EITC or Child Tax Credit.
Um, no. It’s hard to teach anyone, rich or poor, if you have forty kids in a class (with four or five classes a day) with inadequate resources and facilities (never mind chronic absenteeism). If Yglesias has ever taught, he might know that. There are thresholds, below which failure will occur. But outcomes are largely determined outside of the classroom. That matters when you try to evaluate performance (again, leaving aside the significant methodological issues)*.
Utterly refractory to evidence. The guy’s not even thirty, and, on education, he’s already a has-been.
Better pundits please.
Related post: See Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
*And when you’re dealing with poor children who are dramatically below grade level, you have to think about alternative curricula and pedagogy–something reformers never even mention. That too requires resources.
Er, Mike, I think you are missing a “not” or two in your first sentence after the bolded quote (at least, I hope so).