The Trouble With Ed Reform Skepticism

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"The Trouble With Ed Reform Skepticism"

(cc photo by kevindooley)

Kevin Drum is an education reform skeptic:

More importantly, though, I’ve simply become less convinced about the value of all the ed reforms that periodically capture the hearts of the Beltway chattering classes. I’m generally in favor of things like charter schools and disciplinary reforms that make it slightly easier to fire bad teachers, but even if they’re worthwhile on their own merits there’s not an awful lot of evidence that these things actually improve the overall quality of the educational system. It’s not that there’s no evidence to support these kinds of reforms, just that the evidence is thin and contradictory every time I look at it. Test scores haven’t dropped over the past 30 years. Other countries largely haven’t leapfrogged us during the same period. High-stakes testing doesn’t appear to have a big impact. Charter schools aren’t unquestionably superior to equivalent public schools. Merit pay might work but it might not. The presence or absence of teachers unions doesn’t seem to have much effect on educational outcomes. For more on this, try reading Joanne Barken’s contrarian take on the ed reform community in the winter issue of Dissent.

I think this is overstated, but the deeper issue for teacher’s unions is that pushing this kind of line is ultimately self-defeating. Say it’s true that we don’t know how to make schools better. That could be for two reasons. One is that it’s an epistemological problem—we have no idea what makes a school effective. Another is that it’s impossible—learning outcomes are all about parenting and schools are irrelevant. Either conclusion makes the sense for less investment in education and more decentralization of the system. If we had really convincing research that teachers who wear green hats produce better learning outcomes, then unions would swiftly reach an agreement to incentive the wearing of green hats and there’d be no problem. But that’s not the case.

So Scott Walker and his odious partisan gambit aside, you’re still left with a strong case for reform. I think the evidence is pretty clear that school quality does matter and that there are measurable differences in teacher performance. That’s why I think it makes sense to invest in good schools through charter school “smart caps” (see Erin Dillon) and invest in good teachers by paying generous salaries and getting rid of the teachers who don’t perform (see Robin Chait). But the kind of “it’s all about poverty” edu-nihilism that’s often the most convincing argument for skepticism about the merits of reform simply makes the case for across the board disinvestment in educating children. If that’s what you think, that’s what you think, but obviously it’s not a position that teacher’s unions are going to like either.

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