Friday, December 12, 2008

First Principles in Education Policy

Matt Yglesias on Alfie Kohn's Beware School Reformers:

I think there are two aspects of education policy debates that have substantial linkage with the basic left-right ideological conflict. One concerns levels of spending. The right generally wants to spend less on social services (such as education) and the left generally wants to spend more. Another concerns centralization. The left generally supports federal action, national standards, and a strong center to prevent slippage whereas the right tends to favor decentralization as a means of weakening state capabilities. Nothing on Kohn’s list is relevant to the issue of spending, where certainly I like a very conventional “left” person would favor high levels of spending. And on the issue of centralization Kohn has, for no real reason I can see, decided that it’s conservative to believe in national standards. In fact it’s the reverse, and a strong belief in school decentralization is something many conservative legislators adhere to. It has, therefore, been a useful thing for left-wing NCLB opponents to latch on to in order to build a coalition with right-wing NCLB opponents. But I think it’s a little sad to see some people confusing their alliances of convenience with their real principles.

Centralization and spending levels aren't principles of progressive (or traditional) education. They are political tactics. For example, one reason we associate progressive politics with centralization is civil rights and school desegregation, when the majority of the country was on the progressive side and forced a minority to do the right thing. Had we lived in a country with a segregationist majority that sought to impose its system on desegregated systems, you'd better believe that progressives would have been crying for decentralization.

For example here's how the hierarchy breaks down from my seat:

  • our neighborhood high school = good
  • our city school department = bad
  • our state Department of Education = pretty good
  • national Department of Education = bad
  • UN education policy = probably not bad

So, at the moment, I'm in favor of a concentration of power at the neigborhood, state and global levels, not so much on the district or national level. This is subject to change, although ultimately, on principle, I favor local, neighborhood-level control.

Likewise, political conservatives do not oppose spending on education on principle. They do not, for example, support hard caps on private school tuition, want to ban fundraising by local PTA's in rich towns, seek to limit the influence of philanthropy, or blink at the Department of Education directing millions to their favored private vendors. What they oppose on principle is raising taxes. The opposite is not true; Democrats do not raise taxes on principle, but, as a clever young blogger once put it:

Progressives say, no, that creating an environment with a public sector that’s robust enough to provide first-rate infrastructure, high-quality education, and a healthy workforce will attract more than enough business opportunities to make up for whatever negative impact is caused by higher tax rates.

When you ask whether or not national standards are progressive or conservative, it is like asking whether or not a national system of laws is progressive or conservative. It depends on what the laws are. And it depends on what the standards are. Progressives oppose national education standards because the likelihood of a national set of progressive education standards leading to nationwide progressive education reform in early 21st century America is very, very small.

And whatever else you might think about Alfie Kohn, he certainly is a man who knows what his principles are.

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