The New York Times has a story today about the revolt of New Mexico teachers against new metrics-based evaluation standards. The story is remarkable only for how unremarkable it is. The last decade or so has been characterized by intense battles over education metrics, both for students and for teachers. Teachers have rebelled endlessly against the attempt to rate and evaluate them based on the testing results of their students. They have painted reformers as corporatists trying to privatize the education system. Reformers have used teachers’ intransigence to paint them as hopeless, incompetent dead-enders trying to protect their pensions at the expense of your children. Reformers are simply seeking to bring some of the rigors of the marketplace to education by using the tools of competition and incentives.
Neither side is really quite right; unsurprisingly, the vitriol causes them to see their opponents as malicious instead of simply operating under a different approach to the world.
Karl Polanyi told the story of this battle long ago. In The Great Transformation, he writes about the way that people have a contradictory relationship to markets. On the one hand, markets are splendid tools for distributing resources and ensuring the most “efficient” outcome, with the greatest prosperity for all. On the other, for markets to work properly there need to be real penalties for failure – in the extreme case, “only the penalty of starvation…was deemed capable of creating a functional labor market”. And so the lower classes fought bitterly against the introduction of free labor markets and sought the protection of social welfare programs. The pendulum has swung back and forth, with capital pushing for freer markets that create prosperity, and labor using their newfound prosperity to organize against those markets.
Education has long been a field distinguished for its reliance on custom and tradition rather than the market. It’s one of the few fields like that in the modern age. This does not mean, as reformers automatically infer, that it draws those who could not compete in the open market. Rather, it has drawn those who have consciously rejected competing in the open market. In exchange for very limited financial rewards and a fairly thankless day job, teachers receive social respect, autonomy over their classroom, and security unknown to those who do face starvation on the open market.
Even if we assume that every teacher is a brilliant professional, how would we expect them to greet the market breaching their stronghold of traditional economics?