Why Education Reform Is Hard

A key problem facing education policy makers is that the conversation about reform has taken on the worst qualities of the American political system. One of these qualities is the tendency to begin arguing about policy specifics without resolving or even acknowledging the nuanced philosophical and ethical issues underlying the disagreement. (I’ve touched on this here and here). You can now see this dynamic playing out in the consequences stemming from New York City’s recent decision to eliminate the less rigorous “local” diploma for non-special education students. Special education advocates are unhappy about the differentiation, but rather than raise standards for special education students, they want the lower standards to remain for everybody.

Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.

Last month, a group of advocates officially asked the state to extend the local diploma option for all students rather than set students with special needs apart.

“By having a diploma that’s a disabilities-only diploma … it’s a stigmatizing act, singling out kids with disabilities,” said Stephen Boese, the executive director of the state’s Learning Disabilities Association. “Down the line one wonders if there will be a diminution of the diploma.”

What you see here are two generic goals of any education system coming into direct conflict with one another. On one hand, there is the goal of continuously raising standards and maximizing achievement. This is the reasoning behind doing away with “local” diplomas. On the other hand, there is the desire to not create separate classes of students. This is the concern expressed by special education advocates.

I think we’re going to see this kind of conflict play out more and more as alternate models of schooling and credentialing become more popular. For example, at some point it might become relatively more common for the very best and brightest to graduate high school at 15 or 16. If this were to happen, graduating school at 18 would signal you’re not one of the elite, and a nuclear arms race would ensue where everybody tried to have their kids graduate as early as possible. This would be a bad thing because 17 or 18 is the “right” graduation age for the majority students.

On the other hand, if somebody graduates high school two years early, they can graduate college and medical school two years early, become a practicing doctor two years early, and add two prime “being-a-doctor” years to their life. At the margin, the supply of medical care in America will increase, and the price of medical care will decrease. These are good things for everybody.

The philosophical question in the above scenario is similar to the one facing New York City with regard to graduation requirements. Do the benefits of a system that will lead to higher achievement outweigh the costs of making it easier to create separate classes of students? But we’re never going the people debate the policy on those terms. This is the core question, we’re unlikely to ever see it formally articulated and discussed. Instead people will continue to push for their preferred policy without addressing the deeper question of what kind of tradeoffs we’re willing to allow in our education system.
Aguiar, N.R., Stoess, C.J., & Taylor, M. (2012). The Development of Children’s Ability to Fill the Gaps in Their Knowledge by Consulting Experts Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01782.x

One Response to Why Education Reform Is Hard

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

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