How Not to Have An Adult Debate About Education Reform

For all the progress education reformers have made over the years, there are some warning signs. Most glaringly, the philosophical differences underlying many big policy debates are still being ignored. Both sides continue shouting past each other about a specific issue while the real reason for the policy disagreement remains hidden in the background.

Exhibit A: The pushback against New York City’s value-added scores. Although many people act as though they are objecting to certain aspects of New York’s specific system, their words make it clear that they don’t believe a value added score should ever be part of any teacher rating system. Take this article by New York Times education writer Michael Winerip on how value-added scores don’t show who the good teachers really are:

Ms. Byam’s 7 in math is as invalid a value-added score as such things can get. She regularly takes on extra duties. Several years ago, when teachers were unhappy with the standard math curriculum they formed a committee to find a better method. Ms. Byam represented P.S. 146, and spent two days a month for a year studying new approaches.

Winerip calls Byam’s low value-added scores “invalid.” He knows the score is invalid because Byam stays after school, and that makes her a good teacher. How does he know that makes her a good teacher? He just does. But don’t worry, it’s completely different than the way certain people just know that a high value-added score means you’re a good teacher. Essentially, Winerip’s argument boils down to “your effectiveness measure is arbitrary and faulty, and my proof is that your measure disagrees with my effectiveness measure, which, oh by the way, is just as arbitrary and also faulty.”

This is not the reasoning of somebody ready to make a productive compromise.  Winerip might think he’s leveling a nuanced criticism of a specific aspect of a specific system, but his underlying beliefs are clear: value-added systems do not deserve to have any authority. None of this is to say that value-added systems are the magic bullet that will accurately identify every good teacher. The point is that if we want to make progress people need to understand and address their major philosophical differences before moving on to specific policy disagreements. Until there is real movement from both sides on these large abstract issues, there will be little productive compromise. (See: federal tax policy, 2008-present.)

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