Rent Control

I. Back In Midtown Tuesday I was at 50th Street in Manhattan, for a conference. It felt familiar. I had lived on 53rd Street from 1991 to 1996. My one-bedroom apartment cost $450/month; it was rent-controlled. My friend who lived one floor down paid $1,800 for the same apartment -- that was the market rate.

Economists are pretty much unanimous that rent control is a terrible public policy. The idea is well-intentioned. Advocates want to protect the little guy.

But it backfires. Rent control creates some winners (like me) and many losers (higher rents for anyone who isn't well-connected enough to find such an apartment). It's better to "let the chips fall where they may" than to impose this particular "external" policy.

II. Relevance For Teachers?

Teachers grade kids. They set a bar. They make judgments. Sometimes the judgment is: kid didn't hit the bar.

That creates angst for a teacher. Particularly a rookie. Before teaching, where has he passed judgment in his life? Whether to "friend" someone on Facebook? A pass/fail decision may affect whether a kid moves to the next grade. It feels big. It is big.

One would hope a principal would be inclined to "let the chips fall where they may." Sure, sometimes a principal may question a teacher who seems too easy or too hard relative to other teachers. Hopefully that gets sorted out in Q1 or Q2. And assuming the teacher had reasonable communication to kids and parents; that the workload and grading policies were fair and clear, that's it.

In real life, though, not all reasonable individual teacher decisions stand. Principals of all types of schools, from the most elite to the worst hole, face parent pressure. Sometimes they bend.

But there's also certain public policy, like rent control, which is well-intentioned but creates problems. In this case, I'm talking about national efforts to reduce the high school dropout rate.

There are "good" ways to pursue these goals. Better teaching. More tutoring, relationship-building, and other supports. Calmer school environment -- less bullying, fighting, etc. More school options.

Our principal, Jorge, has led 2-year that reduced our departure rate by a third through a number of ways -- some was old-fashioned improvement in parent communication, creating more urgency around using report card data, etc. All good.

But there's are two "bad" ways to pursue the dropout reduction goal:

a) certain "credit recovery" efforts -- these seem to be growing in big district schools -- where sometimes entire yearlong courses are replaced with one-shot assignments like writing a paper, and

b) pressure on teachers to pass kids who haven't learned and haven't tried hard.

Does pressure on teachers to pass kids happen frequently?

Hard to know. Occasionally an article surfaces, like this one.

Kayser told the newspaper that she was urged to assign make-up work, offer extra credit and stop giving zeros for missed assignments.

Teachers said the pressure came from principals, angry parents and sometimes colleagues in order to help students graduate, get scholarship awards or get accepted to elite high schools.

Some teachers in the survey reported that grades they'd given were changed without their knowledge.

"There’s definitely a sense of, 'We’ve gotta move these kids through.' Even though they’re not even close to grade level," english teacher Caitlin Ring told WBEZ in March.

But nobody knows for sure how pervasive this pressure is. My guess is: fairly common for the teachers of juniors and seniors in high-poverty schools, kids nearest to the finish line.

Like rent-control, here's a well-intentioned external policy ("let's set targets to boost the graduation rate") which is sometimes counterproductive.

"No Excuses" charters tend to have very high graduation rates -- in the sense that even the kids who leave the charters tend to get high school diplomas in very high proportions from other public schools -- but face critique for attrition.

The criticism happens no matter how well the departing kids do when they return to district schools. So there is external pressure to limit this departure.

In our school, we try to remember to say the full sentence -- "How can we reduce attrition without social promotion?" The goal is to remind ourselves we want the "good" kinds of holding onto kids, without the "lower the bar" kinds.

But like all long awkward phrases, it is sometimes truncated. The semantics are particularly important for rookie teachers. They don't have the historical knowledge. So they could hear "let's boost our graduation rate" as subtle indication to lower the bar -- if we're not careful.

A solution for all sorts of pressure around dropouts/transfers may be to publish every school's high school grad rate, and also their college grad rate and labor market outcomes.

The latter two would encourage the school to hold to higher standards, and perhaps limit pressure on teachers to change the bar. This allows for teachers and leaders to collaborate on the right mix of goals.