Sunday, October 10, 2010

Education Reform

I want to very quickly return to first principles. When Mark and I began discussing tenure reform, it was in the context of a "crisis" in education. This terminology continues to this day.

However, the real impact of recent news is that proposed reforms don’t have the potential to make immediate and dramatic improvements in education outcomes. Why does this matter?

Because if there is an incipient crisis and known strategies can directly address them then it would be grossly unethical not to try and address this in the fastest way possible. However, if there is not an immediate crisis the correct way forward is one that addresses all of the stakeholders and not radical top-down driven reform. In other words, Baltimore and not Washington, DC.

In the long run educational reform may be inevitable and positive. One of our well versed commentators (Stuart Buck) opined about the evidence:

It's consistent with any number of stories, including increased quality of teaching, better curriculum, finding a better fit for each individual students (some do better in a smaller school, for example), and the factors that you mention.

In my view, this suggests that we are going to experiment with news modes of education. After all, many people who I respect are strongly advocating for experimenting further with education reform (Jon Chait, Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias, Alex Tabarrok come immediately to mind).

So why are there concerns about the process by which educational reform is occurring? Because, the discussion began with a question of where to allocate resources. Seyward Darby was arguing that we needed to accept teacher layoffs as part of the price if educational reform:

The president's beef is with a provision to prevent teacher layoffs, which Democrats tacked onto the bill along with several other domestic priorities. To pay for the measure, the House agreed to cut money from some of the president's key education reform initiatives. Obama isn't happy about it. Nor should he be.

Now, if there is a real and immediate crisis in education than, of course, dramatic measures can make sense. But is this really the time to spark a round of teacher layoffs in order to make slow improvements in who decides to apply for teaching jobs? Maybe, but it seems naive to think that we should fuel the testing of educational reform with layoffs at this precise moment. Readers of Felix Salmon may remember this week's jobs report:

Meanwhile, as the school year begins, we have this:

Employment in local government decreased by 76,000 in September with job losses in both education and noneducation.

As states and municipalities around the nation start running out of money, they’re going to fire people; this is only the beginning. And if October is any indication, the job losses in the local government sector are going to be at least as big as the job gains in the private sector.

So the real issue is whether this is the time for radical teacher employment restructuring -- should we lay off teachers to test educational reform? We do have a duty to the future but we also have a duty to the current students as well. The conversation would be different if the net resources for education were increasing but claiming that education is a priority in the midst of layoffs due to lack of funding seems disingenuous.

My interest in this subject grew from two arguments in the blogosphere. One, that the crisis in educational was so bad that the state should massively break contracts without cause. Notice that in cases like AIG and TARP, we were willing to spend a lot of money as a society to preserve financial contracts. Two, that reform has likely to be so important that teacher lay-offs in the midst of a recession were an acceptable sacrifice as the students would be better off.

If we don't accept that there is an immediate crisis then we can still move forward. But then it becomes an American-style bottom-up reform and not a Soviet-style top down reform. I like the Baltimore example -- specific communities negotiating ways to respond to the crisis and continuing to try ways to create a better future for their children. The result of a thousand experiments with engaged communities could very well result in a far better educational system in the long run.

And I think that is a good outcome.

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