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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press David Brooks Has Never Heard of the Economics Profession

David Brooks Has Never Heard of the Economics Profession

Friday, 04 June 2010 04:27

Probably not the medical profession either. In discussing school reform today he applauded the fact that the Obama administration was making it easier to fire teachers, telling readers: "in every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results." How many economists suffered any career consequences after failing to foresee the largest economic crisis in 70 years? You can't mess up more than Chairman Bernanke and company. Yet, they all still have high-paying jobs -- they probably didn't even miss a scheduled promotion.

The same obviously applies to many of those Wall Street high-rollers who would have sank their companies had it not been for the bailout from the nanny state. (I will refrain from commenting on reporters and columnists.) So, insofar as teachers are not evaluated based on their performance, they are clearly not alone.

It is also worth noting that it is not as easy to measure teacher quality as Brooks and many others seem to believe. Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein found that "good" 5th grade teachers improved the scores of their students in 4th grade. The issue here is obviously one of selection. Parents who are very involved in their kids education make sure that their kids are taught by a teacher who is considered to be good. This means that part of the explanation for their better student test scores is that they are getting better students.


Comments (14)Add Comment
written by izzatzo, June 04, 2010 7:29
"in every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results."

Producing "results" with accumulated concentrated wealth and market power causes the total economic pie to be smaller for everyone, the same way Brooks would claim that unions and incompetent teachers cause the same effect.

Many of these "results" are sheer economic rents that drive the incentive not to produce more real output, but misallocate resources and redistribute income further up the income and wealth chain. The select few who benefit most are shielded from market forces way more than any school teacher or union member.

Because they're "private", they're held up as bastions of rugged individualism where people "earn what they're worth", when in fact, if the same individuals were required to compete on a level playing outside this power structure to add real value to the economy, many of them would be standing in a welfare line somewhere.

Traditional welfare entitlements received only at the bottom of the food chain ended long ago, when concentrated wealth and corporate market power created its own welfare entitlement program at the top of the food chain.

Many of the "best and brightest" at top of the power structure should be very glad that they're not paid what they're worth.
A bigger issue than teachers!
written by Bruce Post, June 04, 2010 8:07
Having run a large teachers union, but in a state where teacher unions have little legal clout, I know that there are teachers who don't measure up but in end remain in the profession. Yet, what about Congress? Despite all the talk about anti-incumbency, congressional incumbents rule, despite metrics indicating that our great challenges and threats go unaddressed and unresolved.

My greater concern: We live in a culture where authority and responsibility (a.k.a. accountability) are largely divorced from each other. Those in authority somehow escape responsibility for their actions or inactions; conversely, those who have no or little authority are held responsible for the conduct of those in power. In those circumstances, we too often get lay-offs for workers and golden parachutes for the bosses. So, maybe David Brooks should direct his elegant ire at his peer class, but alas, as the old saying goes: "kiss up, kick down!"

written by John Emerson, June 04, 2010 8:51
Obama's "Race to the Top" program has denied funds to Minnesota because it doesn't satisfy their teacher-firing criteria. The problem with this is that (not to brag) Minnesota IS the top, unless it's Iowa or Wisconsin. Minnesota does have a pretty strong teacher's union, it apparently isn't very easy to fire teachers (I wouldn't know) Minnesota teachers are paid pretty well, and, this is supposed to be the most important thing, the system works.

What I know of the local school here and of my niece's school fifty miles away is consistent with Minnesota's good reputation in this regard.

It's pretty clear that this is pure union-busting and that the intention is to cut teacher pay and give administration better leverage against teachers. (Once the teachers have been squashed, the anti-teacher mob will attack the administrators too, because public spending is the real target.)

This is just exhibit 9999 on the breakdown of the American politics system and the corruption of the American media. I do not see people standing up and defending Minnesota teachers, and just the other day I heard an average, not reactionary citizen repeating the "fire some teachers" meme.

The accumulation of such exhibits makes it hard to have any hope for America. The courts, the two parties, and the media are totally gone, and there are no significant popular forces fighting against them.
written by PeonInChief, June 04, 2010 11:01
This is just one aspect-although a dangerous one for teachers--of the factory system applied to schools. Children are widgets and we do quality control (testing) to see if they're parroting back what they should be.
geology prof
written by NeilS, June 04, 2010 11:15
How are results measured for columnists?

Does the NYT know how much more ad space htey have gained from the addition of Brooks to the roster?

Has he added or subtracted from the brand?

Brooks is naive to think that results are so easily measured. In fact I suspect that baseball and direct sales are the only professions where "...people are measured by whether they produce results."
100% agree, geology prof
written by Kyle Chadwick, June 04, 2010 1:41
What geology prof said. And even people who are indeed "paid for results" are paid (or penalized) in large part for random events they don't control -- like being assigned receptive or unreceptive sales accounts. It's so easy for professionals to fool themselves into thinking they're driving the machine!
written by dilbert dogbert, June 04, 2010 3:08
When the elites screw up big time they always use the "Hey Look Over There" tactic. Teacher and teachers unions are always a good whipping boy/girl.
Teacher student selection
written by patient renter, June 04, 2010 3:54
The more important aspect of selection in teaching is where teachers select the brightest native English speaking students from good homes to be in their classroom. This is is to be expected if a teacher's employment depends on the performance of their students, but it sets up a perverse system of fighting among teachers that has nothing to do with educating students.
written by diesel, June 04, 2010 4:36
I invite David Brooks and all the other self-proclaimed experts to spend a year or three teaching in the public schools--and not the one of their choice, but rather, the one in which they, as first year teachers, could get hired.

Class size 30. Classes per day 6. In what other profession would a manager of 180 people be paid $35,000 starting salary? Lesson plans for every class every day. You are expected to show up 1/2 to 1 hour before and stay as much after the school day is over for the kids. You must take a fifth year Masters to retain your accreditation. Etc, etc.

Many good posts above making true points. Inappropriate and inadequate standard to apply measurable-behavioral results to teaching. Philosophic naivety going back to the simple mindedness of the 19th century logical positivists and their insistence on narrowly defined quantifiable empirical basis of all knowledge. Long ago debunked in philosophy. Still the tool of choice wielded by the ignorant or agenda minded.
written by diesel, June 04, 2010 4:54
Here's the connection. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, would be reformers applied the principles of logical positivism to education. These were the efficiency experts who used time and motion studies to analyze factory work in order to improve productivity. Measurable, quantifiable outcomes, stop watch in hand, you get the idea.

They held that schools are like factories, except the product is a student. Vague, nebulous mushy goals like "making better human beings" or "creating more caring citizens" are unquantifiable and so out. Measurable results count--hence the insistence on testing and evaluating teachers according to student test performance.

Not entirely unworthy goals, but hopelessly inaccurate as far as encompassing the role of teachers in managing a classroom and influencing students. This movement recurs in the history of education reform and probably will to the end of time--always proposed by non teachers.
written by Kim, June 05, 2010 1:27
I'm glad teachers can be fired, but I think we should be really careful about it, too. It is very true that consientious parents will get their kids into the classroom of a teacher who has a good reputation. I have three children in public school, two in high school and one in middle school, so I have had experiences with lots of different teachers. The great majority of them have been very good or great, I'm glad to say. However, we have had two bad teachers and one horrible teacher. The horrible teacher was a bully, and she taught 3rd grade. We went around and around with the principal, and nothing could be done. We'd have a talk with the teacher, but only small, insignificant changes in her behavior would change. Finally, that summer, I found an article about teachers who bully. I sent a long letter to the district superintendant, and included a copy of the article. It was too late for my son by then, but I'm a firm believer that there needs to be a way to fire bad teachers. No child should have to be in a classroom with a bully teacher.
well rounded consumer is an oxymoron
written by frankenduf, June 05, 2010 1:40
yo diesel- right on with ur historical ref- truth is, these issues were hashed out by plato and aristotle on their thorough analysis of creating excellence in students through a liberal arts hierarchy approach to learning- philosophy was the queen field, incorporating the lesser fields of math, science, rhetoric, and politics- as you point out, this comprehensive approach to educating our youth was turned on its head- now, the vulgar instinct is that a liberal arts education is bs, as is philosophy!?- so we reap what we sow, and we trade in functional citizens with myopic consumers
Rewarding failure
written by FoonTheElder, June 07, 2010 1:00
Big corporate America handsomely rewards its top management whether they succeed or fail. It's no wonder we have more and more failures when it is so richly rewarded.
Another Piece to Privatize Public Education
written by FoonTheElder, June 07, 2010 1:05
Much of today's media regarding teachers is there to encourage privatization of the teaching profession and elimination of public teacher unions. It is a group of billionaires and our Sec'y of Education who are at the forefront of this move.

The recent 'crisis' is just a follow up of No Child Left Behind, which provided that every student had to be above average. The whole purpose was to break up public schools and put them in private hands, as it is impossible to have everyone above average.


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Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.