Friday After-Action Report

by Reihan Salam

This has been a rather strange week. I spent the first half of it in Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea, and the second half of it in Miami, where I saw a friend and mentor and spend most of my time talking to the heads of various civil society organizations. I learned a lot, in both legs of the trip, but I missed a lot of events here at home. My plan is to catch up, with the able assistance of a blizzard that is now barreling towards New York city.

One of the outcomes of this week’s various conversations is that I’m thinking more about the lack of reliable, high-quality, publicly-accessible data in the public sector. This is an area that conservatives in particular ought to care about, and it represents a good way of approaching debates about public investment. Before we spend a substantial amount on X, let’s at the very least ensure that we have good data system collections in place. In some cases, this will require a substantial upfront investment, but an investment that will likely yield dividends, in the form of improved performance and greater democratic accountability.

The data obsession isn’t always healthy. As Rick Hess has explained, our current approach to teacher evaluation might actually stymie the development of more effective instructional models, including blended learning approaches that rely heavily on tailoring lesson plans to the needs and skill levels of individual students. But this isn’t a case against data collection. Rather, it is a case against building rigid compensation systems around rigid evaluation systems. The chief problem with the way collective bargaining is deployed in K-12 education is that it has encouraged excessive rigidity. Yet advocates of school reform have, for a number of reasons, chosen to fight one centralized approach to school governance with another centralized approach, usually on the grounds that the new centralized approach is less counterproductive and insane. That may well be true, but before we entrench another centralized approach, we should make the case for having school districts relinquish power over individual schools and school networks.