EPI News

On Labor Day, widespread challenges for teachers, workers

This Labor Day, there are multiple signs that America’s workers are losing ground. Almost 15 million workers are unemployed, nearly a quarter of whom have been seeking work for more than a year. The Labor Department’s new unemployment report due on Friday is expected to show little or no private-sector job growth. EPI recently published two reports highlighting the struggles of the country’s workers to earn decent wages, be evaluated fairly, and have job security.

Unemployment hurts more than just the unemployed
For Labor Day EPI focuses on the collapse in wage growth for typical workers, a serious trend that often gets overshadowed by the magnitude of the unemployment crisis.  The first in a series of reports leading up to the launch of a new State of Working America volume and revamped Web site in January 2011,  Recession Hits Workers’ Paychecks, shows that workers who have managed to keep their jobs or find new  jobs during the economic downturn have suffered from a “broad-based collapse of wage growth.”

The Briefing Paper, by EPI President Lawrence Mishel and Economist Heidi Shierholz, finds that wages are growing at less than half the rate at which they expanded immediately prior to the recession. The deceleration occurred across almost all major occupational groups, and was more pronounced for men than for women. “And with unemployment expected to remain elevated for many years to come, we do not expect the suppression of wage growth to ease anytime soon,” the authors stated.

This latest trend of slower wage growth compounds a longstanding problem of wages growing much more slowly than productivity. During the last business expansion, which ran from 2002 until the start of the recession in late 2007, productivity grew but hourly compensation for high school and college-educated workers fell.

Test failure
On August 29, EPI published a detailed analysis of the increasingly popular practice of using student test scores to measure teacher performance. It concluded that the accuracy of such analyses was “highly problematic.” The paper, Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers, was co-authored by a group of distinguished education scholars and policy makers including four former presidents of the American Educational Research Association, a former assistant secretary of education, EPI Research Associate Richard Rothstein, and others. They all agreed that research showed student test scores cannot fully account for a wide range of factors such as the student’s background, over which teachers have no influence.

To cite just one way such factors may influence test results, students across the board tend to lose about one month in reading achievement over the summer, but lower-income students lose significantly more, the paper found. Importantly, the paper concluded that test results were an unreliable measure of teacher performance even when using a method of value-added modeling, or VAM, designed to obtain a more sophisticated analysis of the test scores.

The paper’s publication comes as more schools are using test scores to evaluate teachers, determine their pay, and in some cases, terminate them. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently applied value-added modeling to test results to evaluate teachers and published the results in The Los Angeles Times. In Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee has said she would consider making these value-added assessments public as well. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for all school districts to make such results public.

The paper stressed that policies of firing teachers when their student test scores do not meet targeted levels will serve as disincentives to working with some of the neediest students and in struggling school districts. It also dispelled the popular notion that private-sector employees are subject to a similar sort of quantitative performance review. To the contrary, it stressed that private-sector workers are usually evaluated with a broader set of criteria.

EPI in the news
EPI’s paper on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers was quoted widely, by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and others. The New York Times said that when the value-added modeling method is applied to analyzing test score results, “many factors can lead to inaccuracies.” The San Francisco Chronicle and the Orange County Register quoted EPI’s recent Economic Snapshot highlighting the comparative rapid growth in low-paying professions. The Baltimore Sun quoted Heidi Shierholz in a story about the challenges unemployed workers face finding jobs. “There’s this enormous backlog of unemployed workers, and while we’re adding jobs now, it’s just not enough,” Shierholz said.