The Determined Pessimism of Rick and Mike

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My friends Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess have been either (a) cautioning people about becoming overly optimistic about Waiting for Superman  and our ability to improve K-12 outcomes or (b) ridiculing the idea completely.

Hmmmm…

Let me begin by saying that I am no starry-eyed naif when it comes to the possible impact of the film. I wrote the other day that I am starting to entertain the idea that it might be a big deal. Union reactionaries do find themselves increasingly isolated in K-12 policy discussions, and many of their catspaws will be turned out of office in November.

Let me say in advance however that the unions are not going anywhere. They still control hundreds of millions of dollars, legions of organized activists and all the lobbyists that they care to employ. I’m not claiming that a tipping point has been achieved and it is all downhill from here for them, merely that they are in for what could prove to be a sizeable rough patch.

Where I seem to differ with Mike and Rick is with their seeming determined pessimism regarding the realm of the possible for improvement. Rick and I appeared on a panel together at the State Policy Network a couple of weeks ago, and discussed the same issue.

Readers of this blog find themselves subjected to my battering away with Florida’s NAEP scores on a regular basis. I won’t bother going into the litany because you already know it, so let’s take a couple of other examples where real reform agendas have been instituted, and what has been going on with their NAEP scores.

I pick a couple because, well, only a few exist. You have to be in a position to roll the establishment to do these things, and keep them rolled. Very few have pulled that off. However, the results are encouraging.

I am encouraged that New York City now outscores some statewide averages on NAEP, despite a student body that is 84 percent minority and 85% FRL eligible. NYC kids scored 217 on 4th grade reading in 2009, only 206 in 2002. That’s a meaningful difference, and should embolden Chancellor Klein.

Likewise, DCPS is still an academic blight, but has made substantial progress since the mid 1990s. When my coauthors and I tracked the learning gains of general education low-income students for the 50 states and DC from 2003 to 2009 in all four main NAEP subjects, Florida came in with the biggest gains and DC came in with the second largest gains. Coincidence? I doubt it- both Florida and DC have engaged in far-reaching reforms.

MA is justifiably proud of having the nation’s highest NAEP scores accompanying their standards-led reforms. It has been mentioned before that the usual suspects fiercely opposed their adoption.

Notice that there is no one path up the mountain here-but there are some common threads to the reforms: testing, accountability, choice. So maybe I’m like Ronald Reagan and I just think that there has got to be a pony somewhere in all that manure. It seems to me, however, that there is a pattern here: in the limited number of instances when jurisdictions take control of policy away from the reactionaries, keep it away from them for a sustained period, and implement reforms that they hate, NAEP scores make substantial improvement.

My own experience in interacting with lawmakers, candidates and philanthropists around the country is that they almost all like substantial improvement in NAEP scores. It doesn’t matter whether they are on the right or left or center. The funny thing is that everyone but those directly benefiting from the status-quo seem to not only want improvement, many of them are willing to fight for it.

So have we “cracked the code.” Yes, as a matter of fact, I think a few places have done so. Yes with fantastic difficulty and always imperiled sustainability. The success of reformers is limited and fragile, but very real. If the third largest state in the union doesn’t represent “results at scale” then what pray tell does? 

We have learned a great deal over the past 20 years. Our decisions are being guided less by theory and more by experience. Less and less this is less about “Assume a can opener” and more and more about “You know, they did something like that in X, let’s see what we can learn about the results.”

If throwing money at schools, lowering class sizes, expanding preschool, open classrooms, whole language or <fill in the blank here> had produced these types of results, this blog would not exist. There would be no need for an education reform cottage industry, and no one would donate to it. They failed. It’s too bad, because I would much rather be spending my life an executive at Rhino Records putting together compliation CD’s of punk rock bands covering all of Dean Martin’s greatest hits. The cover would have a guy in a tux holding up a martini above a violent mosh pit.

A’int Love a Kick in the Head? Oi….let me demonstrate! But I digress…

Our ideas have barely been tried, and very rarely in sustained concert with each other. Unless someone is able to demonstrate the Florida NAEP, the DCPS NAEP, and the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP for NYC and Miami have all been cooked, the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that unions hate policies that succeed in substantially improving the education of children.

There have been and will continue to be misteps. There will be gains and losses along the way. This is a war, and war is hell. The unions are not going away, but neither are we nor the evidence of our successes. As Dino’s pally Frank used to say, the best is yet to come.

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7 Responses to The Determined Pessimism of Rick and Mike

  1. Patrick says:

    Unions will go away, but it will be a long, long time. The UAW would have been toast by now if it wasn’t for the bailouts, but I’m not sure they’ll get a second hand out. Sometime after school districts are decentralized with charter schools, virtual schools, voucher and tuition-tax credit schools, the unions won’t have the monopoly support behind them anymore and they won’t last much longer after that.

  2. GGW says:

    Great post.

  3. “…(U)nions …control hundreds of millions of dollars” seriously understates the resources available to the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel for its defense. Unions effectively control the bulk of US taxpayers’ $500 billion+ K-12 dedicated revenue stream. The power to direct that revenue stream translates into political muscle.

  4. [...] average in reading of all students in 31 states.In New York City, Chancellor Klein’s reforms have resulted in similar progress, with the city now outpacing several statewide reading averages. Rhee’s bold reforms in the [...]

  5. [...] New York City, Chancellor Klein’s reforms have resulted in similar progress, with the city now outpacing several statewide reading averages. Rhee’s bold reforms in the [...]

  6. Xenu says:

    I read those posts by Rick and Mike. First of all, kudos to Rick for being hilarious.

    My second observation, however, is less nice. They actually came across sounding jealous that the reform party was outgrowing them and gaining a life of its own. It seemed that they had just realized that hip documentary film-makers and the Oprahs of the world had more influence than academics and policy wonks.

    It reminded me of hearing some die-hard fan of a rock band talk about how they were into the band way before the band got big and sold-out.

  7. matthewladner says:

    Xenu-

    I was an undergraduate between 1986 and 1990. I can’t tell you how many North Dallas suburbanite kids just could not stand REM reaching a mass audience.

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