In Search of a Better Education Policy Taxonomy
March 5, 2013 16 Comments
One small but not insignificant problem plaguing education policy is that we lack language that’s capable of handling the nuance of the issues. There is basically one word — “reform” — to describe every hypothetical policy that deviates from the standard union line (“not reform.”) This lack of idiomatic creativity is a problem in national politics too, but at least there is some meaningful variety there. Libertarian, Conservative, Democrat, Evangelical, Technocrat, and Tea-Partier are all words with connotations that reveal a unique set of policy preferences.
Education policy has nothing except the vacuous term, “reformer.” As a result, if somebody decides not to engage with all the gory details of a person’s policy positions, there are no shortcuts for geting the gist of what that person believes. This leads to a lot of mood affiliation and faulty heuristics because without the clarifying abilities of descriptive terms, people’s biases and emotions lead them to attribute to others whatever beliefs they feel like the other people have. An improved taxonomy won’t solve every problem, but it may make it easier to understand what people really think. For example, it may turn out that somebody now labelled a “reformer” is a big supporter of technology but has no opinion on school choice or teacher compensation.
Below is my initial effort to create a better taxonomy of education policy positions. These are by no means meant to be definitive. My main hope is that it will encourage others to begin using their own concrete descriptors, and that at some point a wider variety of terms will organically sprout up. I apologize in advance if I misrepresent anybody’s position. Admittedly, this is a rough draft based on impressions that were too hastily formed. And yes, the names are terrible. It’s the distinctions that matter.
Their platform is best described as the views of local unions (e.g. the CTA). The group tends to include many generic safe-seat Democrats (e.g. Barbara Mikulski), and their left flank is held down by Diane Ravitch and people who used the phrase “corpreform.” In general, the Labor Traditionalist beef with the status quo is that teachers deserve more money, better working conditions, and freedom from quantitative measures of accountability. They are opposed to more charter schools, and they tend to be skeptical of any stakeholders who aren’t teachers or parents.
Their general position is that of the Obama administration, and the group includes the Gates Foundation, centrist wonks like Andrew Rotherham, upstart Democratic politicians like Michael Bennet, and less controversial “reform” organizations like 50 CAN, SFER, and E4E. Committed Reconstructionists believe the evidence for charter schools, value-added models, and computer-based instruction is strong enough to continue the expansion of all three initiatives. They firmly believe in an objective system of accountability, but at the same time they believe teachers are an important part of the process and should have input. They also stop short of endorsing more radical changes like vouchers and unregulated cyber schools.
To the right of Labor Traditionalists but to the left of the Committed Reconstructionists, the views of Skeptical Reconstructionists are best embodied by the Shanker Institute’s Matthew Di Carlo. Unlike Labor Traditionalists, Skeptical Reconstructionists are not philosophically opposed to charter schools or value-added scores, and they are more likely to believe the status quo is untenable. However, unlike Committed Reconstructionists, they have a desire to move more slowly and a stronger belief in the possibility that we could end up a situation far worse than the status quo. Skeptical Reconstructionists don’t believe there’s a reason to stop current reforms, but they want to improve them and see more evidence before they’re willing to commit to scaling up. In other words, they want to pump the breaks rather than jam them or release them. Skeptical Reconstructionists are relatively rare — I think the Labor Traditionalists and Committed Reconstructionists tend to do a good job capturing people in their vicinity — but it’s an important group because it will likely include many of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates. The primary will push candidates to the left of Obama, but many of them will want to maintain an image of progressivity and change.
Epitomized by Jeb Bush and most Conservative governors, this group is essentially the Committed Reconstructionists on steroids. They want a faster expansion of charter schools and value-added teacher evaluations. They also support vouchers and strict accountability (e.g. school closures) based on relatively primitive an untested metrics, they tend to see unions as an obstacle rather than a partner, and they have more of a rhetorical focus on the “money should follow the student” view of school funding.
Led by academics Rick Hess and Jay Greene, this group often appears similar to the Red-Meat Reformers, but their positions are all based around doing away with centralized rules and regulations. The result is that unlike Red-Meat Reformers, De-Regulators are firmly against the statewide mandates that form the backbone of things like Common Core and value-added teacher evaluations. This is basically the tea-party equivalent in education policy. And I mean that in a strictly ideological way that has has nothing to do with the intellectual merit of their ideas. The De-Regulators simply want the government (but not its money) out of their schools.
Independence Absolutists (Relinquishers)
This group is similar to the De-Regulators, but their focus is in the broader ecosystem of school management. While they will tend to prefer that schools have independence on issues like Common Core and teacher evaluations, their true core belief is that a network of 1,000 independent schools will always be better than 1,000 schools run by a single entity. The result is that relative to the De-Regulators, the don’t focus on budgetary issues and they are more likely to support something like state-mandated teacher evaluation guidelines as long as schools have room to conform to them in their own ways. I would put Andy Smarick and Neerav Kingsland (who coined the term “relinquisher” and could easily be labeled a De-Regulator) in this category.
Led by Tom Vander Ark and the Innosight Institute’s Michael B. Horn, this group believes that schools should be using technology to give students personalized learning experiences and instant feedback. They don’t really care about most of the big-ticket reform issues in of themselves, they’re only interested in them in terms of how they impact the use technology. At the margin this probably makes them pro-charter and anti-union, but there’s no real alignment.
The most radical and least ideological of all groups, they simply believe that nothing resembling our education system in its current form will come close to maximizing our ability to turn youth into productive adults. Razers include those affiliated with the “free school” movement, those who believe high school should essentially be a work-study program, those who want to drastically alter curricular boundaries (e.g. dedicate a large part of the day to teaching decision making and emotional management.)
This is perhaps the most vague group, but it essentially consists of a hodgepodge of people who don’t quite fit into the Labor Traditionalists because they have a much stronger belief that the status quo is untenable. Labor Reconstructionists might support giving parents and communities significantly more power over how schools are run, to the the degree that they would surely support something like the parent trigger if it were associated with people on their side of the ideological spectrum. In addition, the Labor Reocnstructionists might include certain single issue activists, such people who are adamant about smaller class sizes or who want to do away with standardized testing. I would also put certain sections of charter school parents into this group. They probably hate testing and are politically very liberal, but they love their kids’ charter school and will fight for its existence.
Hopefully these distinctions make it easier to learn about and communicate policy views. For example, I would describe myself as 2/7 Committed Reconstructionist, 2/7 Skeptical Reconstructionist, 1/7 Independence Absolutist, 1/7 Techno-futurist, and 1/7 Razer. I think that’s a lot more informative than saying I support most generic “reform” ideas, but remain skeptical of their effectiveness and think we should consider more drastic changes to the design of schools. In the latter situation you could believe almost anything about me depending on how you size me up. In the former situation I think it’s relatively clear where I stand.
Ok, this my feeble first effort at a new taxonomy. How could it be improved? Who’s going to take the reigns and create a better one? Education policy wonks are counting on you.
More Thoughtful decided to run with Elizabeth’s comment and create a good taxonomy of some of the deeper philosophical dimensions on which there’s disagreement. (Update: He objects to my of the term “philosophical dimensions.”)
I also want to clarify that this taxonomy was mostly meant to improve a specific kind of superficial debate. For example, if somebody is writing an article and is going to dedicate 1-3 words to characterize somebody they’ve just introduced, we can do a lot better than “reformer.” I agree with others that in an ideal world our debates will focus mostly on the philosophical issues that lie underneath policy disputes. I think it would be great if politicians, union leaders, and bigwigs at non-profits spent a little less time on specific policies and more time debating things like present costs/benefits vs. future costs/benefits (something I touch on here), serving individual students vs. serving the public, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes, and equality of opportunity with the entire student population vs. equality of opportunity within a subgroup of the student population (a core issue in the debate over charter schools, which can equalize opportunity between low-income and wealthy students while doing the opposite among a specific subgroup of low-income students.)
All in all, the fact that the post generated some debate means I’m ready to declare it a success. Thanks to everybody who took the time to give feedback.