Paul Krugman just finished speaking to an annual American Federation of Teachers conference in Washington, D.C. Unlike many of his fellow Times columnists–most notably David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, who tend to support standards and accountability reforms–Krugman rarely writes explicitly about education policy. Given his role as a sort of national spokesman for disaffected liberals, I tuned in with interest to hear what Krugman would say in front of an audience of teachers.
The current anti-union, anti-public sector mood is based upon a faulty reading of economic history, Krugman said: the belief that the recession of the 1970s was caused by "excess government and too much labor power" instead of the decline of American manufacturing, the energy crisis, and bad monetary policy.
This faulty belief resulted in the rise of Reaganomic economic theories, which have never ceased to hold sway over our national political debate, Krugman said, despite evidence that they do not lead to increased prosperity.
The reason why public sector workers earn more than the typical American, Krugman added, is because so many public sector workers are teachers, and teachers are more highly-educated than the average American. Even so, teachers continue to earn less than similarly-educated workers in the private sector.
During the Q&A, Krugman said generous teacher pensions are not responsible for state budget crises. "It's hard to see how the pensions get paid without some increase in tax revenues," he explained, but "tax-cut absolutism is holding up allegedly excessive pensions as the source of the crisis and that's not what it's about."
Krugman dodged some of the more detailed questions about education policy, but he did put in a plug for the school systems in Finland and France, noting that they don't tie teacher evaluation or pay to student test scores:
"People want to run education like a business and you can't quite turn every classroom into a profit center. But you start looking to these measurable metrics and it doesn't work that way. It doesn't work that way by and large very well in business. You look at the systems that do really well internationally, like the French system and the Finnish system…they repsect teachers, they pay a lot of attention to education, they provide healthy and nutitrious school lunches…They don't say we're going to have some scorecard that is entirely mechanical. More importantly, [standardized testing] is taking our eye off the ball, which is providing a good education."