Value Tensions in Education Reform

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Jennifer Berkshire (@edushyster) and Kristen Buras did an interview piece over at Huffington Post.

Both myself and the term relinquishment are mentioned, neither in a favorable light.

Towards the end to the interview, this exchange takes place:

Berkshire: …Isn’t there anything that you think is better about the new system?

Buras: No, not really. There is very little evidence that things have improved.

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There is a lot of evidence that things have improved, though there is still a long way to go.

I won’t rehash the student achievement arguments here.

I’ll just note what I’ve said before. Ignoring these results comes with the same risks as ignoring other scientific findings: those who are most vulnerable to bad policy will suffer the most. In this case, as in most cases, those most vulnerable are those living in poverty.

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Buras makes other points that are unrelated to the value of student achievement. These values, such as racial equity, community, and democracy, are also important.

Buras notes that the racial composition of teachers in New Orleans is now less African-American; that strict neighborhood zoned enrollment has been eliminated; that communities have not always been consulted in terms of facilities and program models; and that local democratic institutions, such as the Orleans Parish School Board, have had their power reduced.

This is all true.

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If, like Buras, you believe that there have been no gains in student achievement data, then evaluating the New Orleans reforms is an easy exercise: you will deem the effort a failure.

If, like me, you believe there have been significant gains in student achievement, then the question is more complicated.

On the question of the composition of the teaching force, I believe that, in aggregate, the teaching force in New Orleans before the storm was not strong enough. That being said, I think for both community and sustainability reasons, the long-term goal should be to develop strong local pipelines of diverse teachers.

On the question of zoned enrollment, I’ve written previously that fully zoned enrollment is an inequitable practice. I believe the current model in New Orleans is more just than the previous model.

On the question of community engagement, I agree that, at times, the Recovery School District has gone against the wished of community representatives. It is unclear to me that these representatives always spoke for families, but I do think they represent the opinions of a subset of the public. In cases of stark disagreement, I have been in favor of valuing the government’s gauge of predicted student achievement over vocal dissenting voices. I’m probably most conflicted on this value tension.

On the question of local, publicly elected education governance, I do not place major value on school board authority. Pragmatically speaking, I view local choice as a much more effective democratic power than local voting. Choice allows a family to allocate public tax dollars to educational institutions that work. Voting does not. Additionally, the constitutional duty to provide a sound public education is most often an enumerated responsibility of state government. I do not view the exercising of this authority as antidemocratic; rather, I think the opposite is true: abdicating this responsibility is a violation of a public duty.

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Any time public institutions are overhauled, values will collide.

The best we can do is articulate the tensions in these values, openly declare our reasons for weighing certain values over others, and try to be honest brokers of the data that might justify these conclusions.

In New Orleans, I believe the weak state of public education before Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the significant achievement gains post-Katrina, have justified putting student achievement as the primary value of the reform efforts.

Each will have to come to her own conclusion.

One thought on “Value Tensions in Education Reform

  1. Pingback: School Choice Protects Against the Tyranny of Local Majorities | relinquishment

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