Cheating scandals undercut theories of reform success

Yglesias has an odd post today asking: what do widespread cheating scandals within schools captured by the Education Reform Crowd prove? He dedicates most of the post to attacking the idea that cheating scandals provide support for using non-test-based teacher compensation systems, e.g. those based on seniority and degree attainment. I am not sure who has ever argued that these cheating scandals provide any positive support for other kinds of teacher compensation systems. Yglesias does not link to any, so I assume he is simply trying to piece together some point that he thinks the critics of the Education Reform Crowd might be making.

As far as I can tell, the import of cheating scandals is that they undercut popular and famous stories of alleged education reform success. I remember amusingly watching Waiting For Superman, an education reform documentary, a few days after the USA Today ran its investigative report on widespread test cheating within the DC public school system. I say amusingly because a decent chunk of the movie was about the wonders Michelle Rhee — the Education Reform leader that was in charge of the DC schools at the time — brought to the DC public schools. The cheating scandal proved that these gains were not real.

I think Yglesias’ problem here might be that he has already accepted the argument that these reforms are doing something meaningful. Critics are still skeptical of this point. So when score gains widely used to prove that the Education Reform Crowd is right turn out to be bogus, that’s important. This is the same reason why the critics will bring up attrition rates, pre-screening students, and other similar gimmicks that help inflate stats in a way that has nothing to do with actual educational gains. It is not that it provides positive support for some other model. It is that it undercuts the Education Reformers’ claims that they are making any substantial improvements.