Is the education reform debate ideological?

Matt Yglesias has a take on yesterday’s post on the ideological nature of the education reform debates.  He’s right that the teacher compensation debate is far from ideological, in that there’s nothing inherently liberal or conservative about performance based compensation.  He thinks the more ideological debate is the one over the burden schools should bear for eradicating inequality:

“There’s a view that any education system will inevitably be burdened with massively unequal    outcomes, and that the whole business of talking about changing schools is a waste of time. Time that should be spent on redistributing income through taxes and direct labor market interventions. Conversely you have people who are firmly committed to the idea that higher taxes are evil, but who don’t want to be passive in the face of growing inequality so they insist that if only we could shake-up schools the issue would go away.”

First, I think it’s important to note that inequality of educational attainment certainly is related to economic inequality.  Folks can argue about the direction of causality, but there’s pretty good evidence that family socioeconomic status (SES) is a decent predictor of a child’s educational attainment.  That said, certain school-based factors have a large impact on academic growth, to the point of eradicating those SES-correlated baseline differences over time.  (Side note: The biggest factor is teacher effectiveness.  Whether or not to base pay on that effectiveness is a fine debate to have.  Even the private sector struggles to base pay on merit.  Some teachers are more effective than others, irrespective of how one wants to distribute compensation in the system.)

Second, while Matt argues that the reform debates have “almost no ideological content whatsoever,” the debates over market-based reform – particularly those over vouchers – have a clear ideological bent.  On the right you have reformers who want consumer (family) choice to allocate revenues to schools, and argue that the consequent allocation will drive higher accountability and quality (per Andy’s matrix).  It’s a hypothesis with huge indebtedness to Milton Friedman and that sometimes extends to discussions about charter schools.  The left’s answer to this is that you need a centralized authority with political accountability to protect the public good.  This is remarkably similar to the debate that takes place in healthcare and it’s pretty ideological in nature.

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3 Responses to Is the education reform debate ideological?

  1. krissy says:

    They have been talking about implementing these performance based teaching standards in Texas and I am not sure that it will be fair for students or teachers. Naturally students in affluent areas who have access to tutors and their parents for after school help, as well as their parent’s advanced education, will do better then students in low income areas who cannot afford extra resources, whose parents did not complete their education, or who do not speak the language, or who are not available because they are at work. I think a new teacher who ends up in the low income area will have a harder time keeping the grades up and keeping their job, which will only worsen the teacher attrition problem.

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