How Not to Have An Adult Debate About Education Reform: Part II

One overlooked obstacle facing education reform is that policy compromise has come in spite of deep philosophical disagreements that continue to lie untouched beneath the surface. For example, the debate about specific value-added systems often skirts the simple and central issue of whether or not value-added scores are a legitimate way to rate teachers.

Another instance where this arises is in the debate surrounding school closings and turnarounds. Every year at this time hearings and protests are held as New York City parents and students fight their school’s fate. Although much of the debate rightly focuses on whether or not there is evidence the school is making progress, a larger issue is ignored. No school is bad for every kid, and so when a school closes down, the social and academic transitions that follow are bound to hurt some kids. Generally this is made up for by the fact that future students (as well as some current students) will gain access to better schools.

School closure decisions are essentially a debate over what present cost we are willing to endure in order to obtain a future benefit. Yet society never talks about the issue in terms of the ideal sizes of those costs and benefits. Part of it is wise politics — it’s difficult to levy a cost on a real students in order to help unknown future students — and part of it is that it’s difficult to accurately estimate the costs and benefits (although the level of parent outrage could be a measure of the costs). But part of it is also the persistent failure to confront philosophical issues at the core of policy disagreements.

If asked, some people would surely say that if even one kid is hurt, we shouldn’t close a school. Others would say that even if every kid is hurt it’s still worth closing the school because the potential long term gains are too great. Most people will fall somewhere in between the extremes. Education stakeholders will never completely agree on the school closure issue, but we won’t see where the disagreement truly lies until people start talking in terms of costs and benefits.

2 Responses to How Not to Have An Adult Debate About Education Reform: Part II

  1. Pingback: Education Policy Taxonomy | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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