My job as an in-class math tutor at a Title I middle school in Austin has come to an end. Some thoughts a week after I finished, some of which I have written about before:

  • There needs to be a new incentive system. Merit pay or bonuses based on performance have their flaws. But something definitely needs to change. Positive incentives for rewarding hard-working teachers need to be present just as much as sanctions for lazy teachers. How to fully evaluate it? I don’t know. But something needs to be done. The lack of accountability for everyone in the entire system seems outrageous.
  • The “schools” can’t be confused with the “education system.” Policy can be changed regarding teacher incentives, administration decisions, and funding. But the fact is that performance in schools reflects society as a whole, for better or for worse. In the case of my school, low-performance comes from things as broad as low English language proficiency, broken down homes, lack of finances, and overarching discipline problems that start way before the kids get to school. The welfare state solution known as the American public school system is not equipped, and frankly shouldn’t be equipped, to solve all of these problems. As such, I now know that comparing American test scores or performance to other developed countries without our cultural and lingual homogeneity or relatively small welfare state is not fair at all. Korean or Danish results cannot be expected to be replicated.
  • Apathy: it consume everyone, even the most well-intentioned. The state of American schools is so dire that even the most highly motivated person can’t help but be defeated. One amazing teacher can change many kids’ lives forever. But even then it takes 16-hour days and often times the satisfaction won’t be seen for years to come. There are so many problems with the kids that come to low-performing schools, especially in terms of behavior, that one cannot help but feel helpless against all the problems. Suddenly, it’s easy to get in the mindset of “there’s only so much I can do” that one gives up on turning the children into well-functioning members of society. Helplessness blues sets in and it’s easier to pass the kids onto the next grade than give the extra mile for the 1% chance that you make a demonstrable difference. This is tough.
  • While I still think the incentive scheme for teachers, administrators, and staff are pretty shoddy, this experience has made me blame the aforementioned personnel a lot less. From a statistical perspective, America spends so much on education and gets so little out of it. It’s easy to blame this on the monopoly of the public school system and teachers unions. There’s still a lot to be said for the detrimental effect of low school competition and the monopsony of teachers unions, but I now realize that comparing America’s performance to other countries is very much an apples and oranges comparison. The schools’ low performance is a reflection of society as a whole and not just the “system.”

There’s a movement afoot in my home state of Vermont to allow preschool and daycare providers to unionize. Howard Dean claims that the proposed bill “makes for common sense public policy“. According to an article on the proposal, “supporters say the effort will allow them to negotiate better pay and benefits and, at the same time, have a greater say in establishing workforce standards and programs to boost professional development.”

I don’t know enough about this to be justified in having a strong opinion. That said, the idea of having a union of independent childcare providers seems weird to me. The point of unions is to give workers more bargaining power so that gains from firms’ profits are split more fairly. Without unions, the thinking goes, individual workers are unable to get a fair cut of the surplus that corporations in capitalist economies produce.  But in the case of the proposed childcare providers union, as I understand it, it would be a bunch of independent business owners banding together.  This sounds like a monopoly. According to the article I quoted above, “The childcare educators hope to increase pay and benefits for their workforce and have a greater say in rules and regulations that are enacted to govern their profession.”

Unions resemble monopolies in the sense that they allow independent economic actors to band together and set prices for their services above what they would be otherwise. If there’s a good story about bargaining power disparities, then this might make sense, but I don’t see how that’s the case for childcare providers. It’s hard to read the previous quote without taking it to mean that they hope to set artificially high prices for their services and set up barriers to entry to stifle competition.