What Is the Education Reform Debate About?

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In left-of-center education policy, there’s a split between a self-styled “reform” camp that likes charter schools and standardized tests, and another camp that doesn’t like the reformers and doesn’t (I think) have a name for itself. Kevin Carey offered the view recently that he doesn’t like this being characterized as a dispute in which the reformers favor “free market” measures. Andy Rotherham followed up with a chart and a two-dimensional scheme. Justin Cohen has a contribution of his own. For my part, I think the education reform debate actually has almost no ideological content whatsoever.

Take, for example, the hot issue of teacher compensation. The traditionalist view is that teachers should get paid more for having more years of experience and also for having more degrees. The reform view is that teachers should get paid more for having demonstrated efficacy in raising student test scores. This is an important debate, but I think it’s really not an ideological debate at all. I think the only reason it’s taken on an ideological air is that unions have a view on the matter and people do have ideological opinions about unions in general. But if we found a place where for decades teachers had been paid based on demonstrated efficacy in raising student test scores, then veteran teachers and union leaders would probably be people who liked that system and didn’t want to change to a degree-based system. Because unions are controversial, this would take on a certain left-right ideological atmosphere but it’s all very contingent.

What I think is a more ideological debate is the related, but different, argument about how much weight should the education system be asked to bear. There’s a view that any education system will inevitably be burdened with massively unequal outcomes, and that the whole business of talking about changing schools is a waste of time. Time that should be spent on redistributing income through taxes and direct labor market interventions. Conversely you have people who are firmly committed to the idea that higher taxes are evil, but who don’t want to be passive in the face of growing inequality so they insist that if only we could shake-up schools the issue would go away.