A Resolution That Doesn’t Resolve Anything

The fight over New York City’s ability to fire teachers at 24 school slated for turnaround appears to be wrapping up. To summarize, the Bloomberg administration declared the schools “turnaround schools,” which enabled the city to replace half of each school’s staff. The UFT (NYC’s teacher’s union) sued to reverse the dismissals and an arbiter ruled in their favor. The city appealed, and was denied. It now appears the teachers will get their jobs back.

It’s worth noting that the entire fight was essentially contested and resolved without any of the core philosophical disagreements being brougt up. Whether or not a school undergoes a major change depends on only one question. How do the expected costs of altering the school compare to the expected future benefits of having a better school in its place? Within these two questions are a host of other issues. How accurate is the measure being used to label the school a failure? What evidence is there that the new version of the school will be better? Still, any serious discussion of school turnarounds must tie in to the original question of costs vs. benefits.

Unfortunately, nothing related to this fundamental question was at the forefront of the school turnaround debate. Instead of arguing whether or not there was good reason to fire half of each school’s staff, people argued over whether the city could legally do it. A debate about school evaluation and the benefits of making major changes was turned into a complex legal dispute. Eventually a new rationale will be found for replacing teachers, and because no real progress was made, we’ll have the exact same fight all over again.

I don’t blame the UFT for choosing litigation — reasoned argument is rarely an effective political strategy. Still, it would have been nice if the union decided to address some of the philosophically important teacher-related disagreements at the center of the turnaround issue. For example, it’s worth having an honest discussion about whether a school’s new teachers are likely to be better than the teachers they replace. The Bloomberg administration would say yes, while the UFT clearly believes the answer is no. This is a legitimate question and I would love to hear both sides present their case. Will that happen? Of course not. I know I sound like a political caricature of a guy running around yelling “we need to talk about the issues!”, but the failure to articulate key disagreements is a growing problem in the world of education policy.

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