Education policy should focus on education policy

The New York Times ran an article about education a couple weeks ago that I have been meaning to comment on. In the article, Motoko Rich discusses the battles surrounding lengthening the school year. Extending the school year, advocates claim, will increase educational achievement. According to the Times article, the studies on its efficacy are mixed.

I have no informed views on whether this will improve educational achievement, but I noticed in the article a discussion about how this might help close the achievement gap. The link between longer school days and closing the achievement gap seems wrong. More than that, I am now starting to realize a general trend that probably needs to stop: education policy people talking about solving inequality problems.

First, let’s talk about why this wont close the achievement gap. Even assuming that extending the school day improves educational performance, there is no reason why it would improve educational performance among poor students more than educational performance among rich students. If we add 20 days to the school year across the board, its benefits will presumably accrue across the board. If we start out doing it in poor school districts and prove it works, wealthy school districts will certainly follow suit. So at best, lengthening the school year will improve educational achievement of both poor and rich students while preserving their relative performance positions.

The only way something can close the achievement gap is if it helps poor students without helping rich students. Anything that helps both — while good — does nothing for their relative inequality. Of course, anything that does help poor kids more than rich kids will almost certainly fail to close the gap too for a very simple reason: the rich will outmaneuver, the rich will outmaneuver, and the rich will outmaneuver.

What strikes me however is the very bizarre way in which discussions of education policy always comment on inequality as well. Education policy experts do not necessarily have any background knowledge about poverty or inequality; yet, they are regularly asked to comment on them. The reason why is not mysterious: with nearly 1 in 4 American children living in poverty, American educators are daily confronted with the horror story created by American levels of inequality and poverty.

Nonetheless, education policy really should be about education policy. That is, it should be aimed at finding and proliferating the best methods for teaching children. Inequality issues are a totally separate matter that require a totally different set of expertise and knowledge. Inequality and education intersect occasionally, but not nearly as much as our social mythology suggests. If lengthening the school year improves education, then it should be done; solving inequality is irrelevant.