White working class and Democrats

Drum’s somewhat take on the talk on wage stagnation and the Democrats’ problem in winning working class white Democrats.  I don’t think he’s totally right, but I definitely think he’s onto something:

why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn’t for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.

It’s pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But it’s there. And although it’s bound up with plenty of other grievances—many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic1—at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

And like Tomasky emphasizes, the key here is not reality, but perceptions.  Democrats need to changes these perceptions.  That, of course, is the hard part.

Don’t know much about GMO’s

Among largely ignored election-related news was the fact that a couple of state initiatives to require GMO labeling failed.  Very nice (pre-election) piece in Wonkblog from Chris Mooney that looks at public opinion on GMO labeling and the fact that the strong support for it in public opinion polls is actually pretty meaningless:

So why does GMO labeling keep losing in actual ballot initiatives — even in pretty lefty places like California, Washington, and now possibly Oregon? …

But there’s another possible explanation — namely, that when people tell pollsters they favor GMO labeling, they don’t really know what they’re saying [emphasis mine]. Because overall public knowledge about GMOs is very low, many GMO polls give “a measure of what people will say they want to label when they have no idea what that means,” explains Yale public opinion researcher Dan Kahan…

The data supporting this interpretation — that Americans don’t actually know a lot about genetically modified foods, and so polls suggesting they support their labeling should be taken with a major grain of salt — are fairly compelling. One 2013 survey conducted by researchers at Rutgers University found that 54 percent of Americans say they know “very little or nothing at all” about genetically modified foods, and 25 percent have never even heard of them. Only 26 percent of Americans, meanwhile, were actually aware that GMO labeling is not currently required.

“It’s really clear that people don’t know very much about the subject,” says Rutgers’ William Hallman, lead researcher on the poll. “And when people don’t know much abut a subject, how you ask them a question about it largely determines the answer you get back.”

Indeed, Hallman’s survey also found that when you ask people in the abstract, “What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already there?”, most say they don’t want any more information on the label — and only 7 percent voluntarily come up with GMOs as an answer. So while over 90 percent of Americans may say GMO labeling is a good thing when you actually ask them directly about it, the vast majority of people are not going around thinking that idea independently of being prompted.

So, GMO labeling may sound good as a question to specific close-ended survey question, but it is (fortunately) clearly not something voters are clamoring for as public policy.

Photo of the day

Lots of great shots in the Telegraph’s Animal photos of the week, but I still like the first one the best:

A little gopher attempts to wriggle free from the beak of a hungry great blue heron in Point Reyes, California

A little gopher attempts to wriggle free from the beak of a hungry great blue heron in Point Reyes, CaliforniaPicture: Daniel Dietrich/HotSpot Media

Map of the day

From the amazing maps twitter feed:

Actually, if you pay attention to politics not at all surprising, but still an arresting visual.  Still, I want to know more about the white men in the northeast and northwest and what exactly make them different.

Chart of the day

Nice annotated and interactive chart at the Economist looking at inequality over the past 100 years.  Regardless of the solution, there is no doubt that what this chart shows is a problem and that we really need to find political solutions to the problem.


I’ve got this teaching policy thing figured out

So, in the past month I’ve read Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars and a ton of articles about both.  Not to mention, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World this summer.  Plus, I had the awesome opportunity to pick Goldstein’s brain in person during her terrific visit to campus on Monday (evidence below):



Anyway, so none of this is original to me, but after digesting all this information, it seems pretty clear to me what we need to do (and much of this I’ve written before).

1) Treat teachers like professionals.  Yes, pay them more, that’s a given.  But it’s a lot more than that.  Give them meaningful opportunities for career advancement.  A teacher in year 25 should not be doing the exact same things as a teacher in year 2.  Teachers should have mentorship and curriculum development responsibilities as well as other ways to advance professionally and use their greater experience in skills in constructive ways.  All of these things will help attract better teachers and help keep better teachers.

2) Enough with the damn tests and over-reliance on the value-added metrics.  We way over-test our students.  So much better if students actually spent more of that time learning.  And evaluating teachers by students’ test scores is a hugely blunt instrument.  It has value at the extremes of the range when looked at over multiple years.  But that’s about it.  Furthermore, the data should be used to recognize which teachers need more development and how we can help them.  After we’ve actually tried to help them become better teachers and it hasn’t worked, then we can fire them.  The way it works now, the system is full of perverse incentives.

3) Teaching is a skill.  Work on developing it.  The major message of Elizabeth Green’s book was that great teachers are made not born.  And we’re pretty well at the point where we know what it is that makes them.  We just need to scale it up.  Alas, a huge part of this means teachers spending time learning from each other.

4) Give teachers more time.  If we want them to develop more skill they need time to observe other teachers and time to work with other teachers.  And therefore less time in front of students and less time grading.  Japan does a great job of this.  They got the idea from us where we never really implemented it.

5) Okay, this is key to points 3 and 4 above– teaching is collaborative.  Don’t expect teachers to work as if their classroom is an island and don’t evaluate them (i.e., student test scores) like it is.

6) Make it easier to fire truly bad teachers.  Try to make them better first, but it is pretty clear that in some cases, union protections go too far.  This breeds an unhealthy distrust of teachers that works against truly meaningful reform (I’m looking at you Campbell Brown).

7) National standards, damnit.  None of the systems that out-perform us have such a radically decentralized system of education policy. None of them.  Algebra is algebra is algebra whether you are in Mississippi or Minnesota.  Please don’t pretend otherwise.  There are, of course, elements of education that should have local control, but honestly what students learn and when they learn it shouldn’t be.

8) Those standards should be high standards.  Students learn better and learn more when you challenge them, not make an artificially low bar so that places like Mississipi and Alabama can make it look like they are doing a good job on education.   Students should learn fewer things but learn them more deeply with an emphasis on critical thinking (hmmm, if only there were a set of standards adopted by most states that did that).

9) Recognize that we should do all we can within education policy, but a huge part of the existing problems fall outside of education policy.  Yes, I’m talking about poverty.  A huge study by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff estimated that teacher quality is responsible for only about 7% of the achievement gap.  The implication– the vast majority of the gap is created by factors that exist outside education policy.  This is an education post, not an inequality and poverty post, but one is foolish to ignore the impact of the latter on the former.  On the other hand, just because poverty and inequality are huge problems does not mean we should not do all we can to improve schools and teachers.

10) Last point, and this is a meta-one.  In many ways education policy reminds me of health care.  There’s advanced democracies doing it far better than us all around the world and somehow we pretend they don’t exist.  We get obsessed with teacher evaluations and rank and stack while none of the best performing countries do this and ignore the greater professionalization and better teacher training we see all around the world and just say “well the US is different.”  Yeah, we are different in how stupid we are in willfully ignoring the best lessons from other countries.  If we basically copied what they do with teachers in Finland and Japan it surely wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a hell of a lot better (for teachers and students) than what we are doing now.

I’ve surely forgot something important, but hey, that’s 10 points.

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