Vox and Teachers

Vox put out a video citing Raj Chetty’s research to argue that teachers can only make a small difference against the toll of poverty. This is funny because Raj Chetty is famous for arguing in multiple venues that teachers make a huge difference against the toll of poverty.

I think the best way to understand Vox is as “what is the Democratic Party telling itself these days?” The Center for American Progress (where Yglesias used to work) was explicitly designed to do this, but it wasn’t set up to be an effective media organization. Ezra Klein became the most powerful journalist in Washington at the ripe old age of 26 by relentlessly boosting and explaining the Affordable Care Act when no one else would, for which he was given unprecedented access to the upper levels of the Obama Administration, including POTUS himself. So when Vox pushes feminism hard in 2013 and 2014, and police killings hard in 2014 and 2015, and the pervasive toll of racism hard always, it is in part because the Democratic Party sees engaging female voters and African Americans as critical, and setting the terms of public debate as more critical still. This isn’t to say that Nancy Pelosi is calling Yglesias and Klein up every morning to tell them what to eat for breakfast; it is instead that organizations like Vox, the NYTimes, and a few other prestige organizations set the agenda that the rest of the party coheres around.

What does this have to do with teachers? One of the main ways that the Obama Campaign and Administration wooed milquetoast centrists like David Brooks, starting in 2008 and continuing through 2013, was by adopting a hard-line “reformist” approach to education, boosting charter schools, favoring strict, test-based approaches to teacher evaluation, and endorsing and coordinating the adoption of the Common Core and extremely difficult tests. This wasn’t just talk– the Obama Administration has genuinely been more divergent from teachers’ unions in its education policy than the Bush Administration was. But there are multiple reasons for Democrats to drop this approach, especially in an election year.

  1. First of all, there aren’t many centrist Republicans to begin with, and the Democrats can tell that those that are left have next to zero influence within the party, so there’s no leverage to be had by adopting a centrist approach to education.
  2. Secondly, teachers’ unions are an incredibly useful and important part of the Democratic coalition, especially in a presidential election year– teachers aren’t just by far the most numerous college-educated profession, they are extremely politically engaged, show up to vote in overwhelming proportions, and are naturally the types of people who organize other voters as well.
  3. Lastly, the focus on race and identity that has become the central hallmark of Democratic rhetoric (and prestige discourse in general) in recent years is, in the end, in conflict with a belief in education as a cure-all, both because high standards and well-executed programs do not in themselves eradicate racial disparities, and because it would be a big problem for the current Democratic caucus if they did.

And that’s where this video comes from.

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