When It Comes to Education Policy, We’re All Young-Earth Creationists

The new CREDO report (pdf) on New Jersey charter schools paints a fairly rosy picture, particularly with regard to Newark, and right on cue the findings have elicited the expected cheerleading from charter proponents and nitpicking from charter critics. It’s an exercise we go through every time a noteworthy report is released, whether it’s an evaluation of the SIG program or a paper on merit pay. Proponents focus on the good things, critics focus on the bad things, and nobody makes much of an effort to re-think their assumption or weigh new evidence.  All that matters is the spin.

It all reminds me of something I once read about preparing to engage in a debate with somebody who is not exactly open to the scientific method (e.g. a hardcore young-earth creationist.) It was advised that before you begin, ask them what hypothetical piece of evidence would cause them to change their mind and admit you are right. If they can’t name anything, turn around and walk away because you’re not about to have an actual debate.

All sides of the education reform debate are getting dangerously close to failing this test. Could Diane Ravitch ever admit that charter schools are benign? What if, relative to district schools, every charter school in New York City enrolled more English language leaners, more special education students, and more students receiving free lunch, and posted better test scores? Even then it’s hard to believe she would change course. Charter proponents are less duplicitous in their efforts to move the goalposts, but it’s hard to imagine them acting any differently. What if ten years from now charters are producing fewer college ready seniors and fewer college graduates? Will Eva Moskowitz and Richard Barth close up shop? Not likely.

This doesn’t make education any different from standard political disputes involving taxation and environmental regulation, but you would expect unquestioned close-mindedness in other policy areas because the disagreements have spanned decades and they tend to be the focus of excruciatingly public re-election battles. The hope was always that education policy could avoid those pitfalls, but that now seems increasingly unlikely.

Doomsday pessimism aside, I do think it would be helpful for figureheads to make public proclamations about what are and are not acceptable outcomes. One reason education reform has become so polarized is that there is a lack of trust. Many traditionalists believe that charters are a vehicle for a nefarious corporate takeover, and therefore no educational outcome, no matter how severely negative, would ever slow charter growth. Similarly, many believe that regardless of charter school performance, unions will forever oppose them because charters are a threat to union power. If somebody like Mayor Bloomberg or Randi Weingarten made a public statement that named some semi-concrete circumstances that would merit future growth, at the very least it would make the conversation marginally more constructive and less spin-tastic.

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