Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why is anyone surprised?

People like to talk about "unintended consequences" when things don't work out quite the way they thought they should. What often doesn't get mentioned is that those "unintended consequences" are remarkably predictable. Two happened to catch my eye Saturday.

First, on C-SPAN one of the guests was an economist. He got into a lot of technical stuff about why the economy is so sluggish, but then he said, in essence, one reason unemployment numbers are looking grim and growth is stalled is because so many government (local, state, federal) workers are losing their jobs. This is the entirely predictable consequence of the whole "must shrink government" movement. If policy makers respond to a budget crisis by instituting more tax cuts (i.e., shrink revenue) and then try to reduce costs by furloughing teachers, firemen, janitors, the guys who used to cut the weeds along the highways, whoever, of course unemployment numbers are going to climb and growth will stall. What drives the US economy is consumption -- and government workers are, just like everyone else, consumers. Fire them, and it may feel good briefly, but you've also just removed consumers from the economy. No private sector employer is going to start hiring if company sales are going down, not up. Nonetheless, in DC and elsewhere, all the politicians continue to blather on about austerity, deficit reduction, and making cuts in programs like Social Security and Medicare, which is akin to drilling holes in the lifeboats on the Titanic. We're already sinking, and they're too blinded by ideology to see that they're making it worse.

The other totally predictable consequence is here in Atlanta, the big Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. It is the entirely predictable consequence of a program that was designed in a way that makes it impossible to ever succeed: No Child Left Behind. NCLB set goals that are absolutely, totally impossible to ever achieve in the real world, the most glaringly obvious being that by 2014 100% of children enrolled in school will be performing at grade level. It's not quite like planning in live in Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average, but it comes close.

Why was this goal impossible? Because, without even getting into issues like social disparities, different levels of resources between districts, competence of teachers, and everything else that gets trotted out in this debate, take the time to think about it for a minute. Remember your own elementary school experience? Or high school? Remember how there was always one kid, who no matter how patiently the teacher worked with him or how much money his parents spent on tutors or Sylvan Learning Centers or whatever, just did not get it? The kid who wasn't so obviously learning disabled as to be treated as such (except by his or her peers, who were really good at coming up with insults), but who was, or so it seemed at the time, just plain dense? The kid who would consistently push on the door labeled pull? That kid is always going to be there, and he or she is never going to be performing at grade level. Ergo, the program was designed to fail.

Unfortunately, even though any rational person who thinks it through logically (and, yes, I know there are probably less than a dozen people like that in the country, let alone functioning as policy-makers) is going to recognize the emphasis that NCLB put on schools to improve their test scores would have some unplesasant consequences, the Atlanta scandal is being talked about as though it's an aberration.

It's not. Cheating scandals similar to the current Atlanta mess have been found in multiple other districts around the country, from Los Angeles to New York. If you set up a requirement that is impossible to meet honestly, you know that people are going to figure out a way to game the system, to cheat, in order to survive. School districts will do things that push marginal students out, play games with enrollments so marginal students aren't part of the student body on test day (a principal in DeKalb County gamed the system by expelling 4th graders so they wouldn't be in school when the CRCT [Georgia's standardized tests] was given and then re-enrolled the following week), and, if the stakes are high enough (their jobs are on the line), get out the erasers and change answers. Because, as one teacher was quoted as saying, "I had to change their answers. Those kids were stupid."

Naturally, no one is talking about ditching the whole mess, at least not locally. If anything, student test scores are going to be weighted even more heavily in teacher evaluations and school funding in coming years. What are the odds that the students are going to get any brighter?


  1. and government workers are, just like everyone else, consumers.

    While this is true just how much can the rest of us afford to provide those jobs for such folks?

    After all, they do generally get good wages and benefits, better than what a lot of folks that help support them get.

  2. The notion that government workers make more money than the average worker is one of those Republican talking points that's been disproved many times but is still floating around. If you do an occupation by occupation comparison, it comes out pretty quickly that it's not true. Doctors working for the VA, for example,make a lot less money than doctors in private practice. On a local level, the guys driving the snowplows generally make less money than a heavy equipment operator in the construction industry -- and the heavy equipment operator doesn't have to go out at 4 a.m. in a blizzard to make sure the county roads are kept open.


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