Common Core Hurts School Choice

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In his post yesterday, Jay mentioned that the imperatives behind Common Core are hostile to school choice:

Pushing it forward requires frightening reductions in parental control over education and expansions of federal power.  These are not the unnecessary by-products of a misguided Obama Administration over-reach.  Constraining parental choice and increasing federal power were entirely necessary to advance Common Core.  And they were perfectly foreseeable (we certainly foresaw these dangers here at JPGB).

But back in the day, Jay and I were both supporters of Jeb Bush’s A+ program, which combined standards and choice. So why is Common Core anti-choice where Florida’s standards were choice-friendly?

The answer lies in the imperative to expand standards. As Jay and I have both pointed out, the whole CC project is centrally built on the assumption that there is a positive relationship between the geographic scope of standards and their academic quality. Consistently, CC advocates have used adjectives like “national” and “common” as if they were synonyms for “better.”

Why would we expect standards to be better if they are set at a higher geographic level? The implicit educational worldview behind this is a technocratic scientific progressivism: there is one best way to educate children, and an elite class of technocrats can be trusted to know what it is and get the bureaucracy to carry it out successfully (and without corruption). Consequently, we should want more uniformity across schools. If parents have diverse opinions about what is best for their children and wish to choose diverse schools, we must not permit ourselves to think that this may be because 1) there is no “one best way” because every child is unique; 2) the technocrats’ knowledge of the one best way is fallible; 3) the technocrats’ ability to get the bureaucracy to do its will is severely limited; or 4) power corrupts, and the technocrats and the bureaucracy alike are not to be trusted with monopoly power. Diverse parental desires are to be interpreted as a sign that parents can’t be trusted.

By contrast, A+ did not seek to expand standards; it only sought to impose them on one school system. The implicit logic of A+ ran as follows: if the state is going to run a school system, it ought to set standards for what that system should be doing. However, we have no illusions that the standards we are setting for our own system represent the “one best way,” so parents ought to be free to choose whether our school or some other school is best for their child. With this logic, as Jay used to say, standards and choice are like chocolate and peanut butter – two great tastes that taste great together.

(Of course, it is a comparatively recent development that all the public schools in a state are effectively one school system. Over the past half century or so, America has dramatically shifted from having many thousands of local school systems to having just fifty state systems. And that has been a bad development because it has reduced choice and thereby reduced pressure for improvement. But that’s a discussion for another day; it doesn’t change the fact that the logic behind A+ was non-expansionary.)

Now, it is logically possible for a person to favor both CC and school choice. But the arguments in favor of CC that you have to construct in order to get to that result are the intellectual equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s like that court case a few years ago over teaching intelligent design in public schools, where the expert called to testify in favor of ID said that you don’t need to believe in God to believe in ID. That is true, at the level of logical possibilities; you can construct an argument that simultaneously affirms ID and atheism. But there is no one who actually believes that, because the intellectual contortions necessary to get there are absurd. In fact, ID is intuitively theistic even though it does not logically require theism. That fact is not an argument against its truth (unless you begin by begging the question and assuming atheism is true) but it is relevant to the consideration of how students encounter ID in public schools.

In the same way, CC is intuitively anti-choice even though it does not logically require opposition to choice.

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32 Responses to Common Core Hurts School Choice

  1. Right on, Brother Greg!

  2. Matthew Ladner says:

    I agree that tensions exist between choice and standards based reform, but I think you have overstated your case here. There is no need for CC supporters to supose that geographic breadth equates to high quality standards. It seems much more likely to me that they have simply read the NCES studies documenting the poor quality of most state standards and tests.

    In my opinion, their efforts would have been much better served to have created a c3/c4/527 outfit dedicated to ridiculing the living hell out of states with tests that the Wall Street stock picking chicken could pass. My guess is that this path would ultimately prove more effective and would have been jolly good fun to boot.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Sure, they want to raise standards. But why is a single national standard the preferred solution to that problem? Why do they rest so comfortably (i.e. unreflectively) on the assumption that “national” is a synonym for “better”?

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        I’m not sure that they do. Or to be more precise it’s not clear what percentage of them do- there have always been people yearning for a French style system where the minister of education can check his watch and know what every 5th grader was learning (ick).

        It is not necessary however to suppose that “national” or “common” is better to support CC. You can simply assume that CC is better than most state tests and standards. Since a great many of them are demonstrably awful, that part is easy.

      • If people had just wanted to encourage states and localities to raise standards they could have done as you suggested and just formed a movement that did just that. But there is a reason why this is called Common Core and not something like High Standards. If a large portion if CC supporters really didn’t care about the Common part of it, they would have encouraged the development of multiple models of rigorous standards, not just one. And they would have forcefully opposed efforts to get all states to adopt the same standards, rather than just expressing post hoc regrets about the unwise actions of others.

  3. Ayn Marie says:

    CC means a nationally, common set of standards with ties to policy and economic controls/limitations that, by their very nature, will limit choices.

    With all its probable good intentions, was the A+ program in Florida, a stepping stone to CC? After all, it is no secret that Mr. Bush is solidly behind the CC efforts throughout the nation.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      All 50 states have state standards and tests.

    • Greg Forster says:

      A+ not only had good intentions, it had a good effect. Florida experienced dramatic gains. If you gave me the chance, I wouldn’t sacrifice all that just on the theory that it would prevent Jeb from pushing CC.

      The same chemical can be medicine when used in one compound and poison when used in another compound. People may go wrong by thinking that this one chemical is all you need to get the benefit, and that it will continue to be beneficial regardless of the compound you mix it in; but the fact that it’s poisonous in one compound doesn’t mean it isn’t beneficial in the other.

      Perhaps what really did provide a stepping stone to CC was the outrageous Florida court decision striking the vouchers from A+. Jeb may have given up on choice and decided to go for technocracy instead – if you can’t beat the dictators, join them. That’s all speculation, of course.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Greg you’ve exaggerated natural tensions between accountability and choice. I have my three children in two different charter schools here in Arizona. The only things that I can think of that these schools have in common is that they are both on Jay’s world-beater list, they are both charter schools, they both conduct instruction in English, and they both “follow” Arizona academic standards and give the AIMS test.

        I might be able to find two private schools that were more different than these two charters, but it would be a struggle. I can’t say that I am terribly concerned about AZ getting rid of the rotten AIMS test etc.

        When they do, one school will still be a performing arts school that rocks the academics, and the other will still be a great books/uniforms/strict discipline school.

        Reform agendas compete with each other, and tensions flare up, etc. but in the end the accountability and the choice agendas can and do coexist. Otherwise we choiceniks would have long ago marginalized ourselves by fighting things like Arizona charter schools taking the AIMS test.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Actually, the whole point of my post is that school choice coexists and even flourishes (“two great tastes that taste great together”) alongside accountability systems as long as technocratic scientific progressivism isn’t in the driver’s seat. CC is drenched in technocracy.

      • Ayn Marie says:

        Florida’s FCAT scores in the lower grades generally improved in reading and math….but in high school, as students moved toward the end of their high school careers, 10th grade reading scores barely moved from 2001 to 2011, although during those years they moved up and down (as noted on the FLDOE website).
        In 2001, only 37% of Florida’s 10th graders were considered proficient in reading, and in 2011, 39% were considered proficient in reading. But, miracle of miracles, in 2012, after a state committee crafted new cut/pass scores for the “new and improved” test first administered in 2011, the percentage of proficient students increased some 28% (from 39% to 50%).

        Finally, from a Washington state classroom teacher’s perspective, regarding new standards, an interesting take:
        “I expect that with the arrival of a new set of standards and new state end-of-course exams, we will fight anew the battles of curriculum and methodology and continue to ignore the need for attendance, interest and competency on the part of the learner.”
        http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2013/jun/01/george-k-brown-ideas-for-more-effective-math/

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Greg- it could be that CC is “drenched in scientific progressivism” whereas Florida’s state standards are not. But just how would we know this to be the case?

        Ayn-The dropout rate in Florida fell almost in half since the late 1990s, meaning that a great many kids who would have dropped out and not been present for high-school FCATs in the past were in fact there- and scores nevertheless improved. AP passing rates have tripled, college attendance is up, etc.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Matt, that was the whole point of my post – CC is expansionary (national = better) where A+ was not. My post was arguing that you can’t easily square the view that states need common standards with the values of parental empowerment and valuing a diversity of approaches that lie behind school choice.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Greg-

        The various districts in Florida could have made precisely the same sort of arguments you are making now when Florida’s standards were being drawn up. To some degree, each of the now hundreds of charter schools in Florida were made somewhat less unique (thus the real tension between standards and choice) but nevertheless hundereds of new charter schools opened and parental choice expanded. No Ragnarok of competing world visions to see here- both reforms advanced.

        By your logic if Georgia were to adopt the Florida academic standards, they would become “drenched in scientific progressivism” and thus suddenly quite wicked even if Georgia decided to adopt them on their own and were free to drop them whenever they like.

        I’ve argued in the past that I would be happiest to see my home state adopt the MA standards wholesale. They are highly esteemed by the experts and seem to have worked out pretty well for MA. It wouldn’t matter to me a whit that they were being used in some other state. Would it for you?

      • Greg Forster says:

        I did nod toward this in my original post, where I noted that we used to have thousands of local systems and now we have 50 systems, and that’s bad. But by the time A+ was enacted in 1999 that ship had long since sailed – especially in Florida! – so I think you can’t really describe A+ as expansionary in the way CC really is.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Greg-

        From what I can tell the Sunshine State Standards were adopted in 1995, which is not so long ago in the grand scheme of things. I think that you and I agree that these proved useful when coupled with other reforms enacted in Florida. I don’t think that either of us are inclined to bemoan the “loss” of the Manatee, Dade or County standards circa 1994 as some sort of lost Golden Age given the NAEP scores for Florida back then.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I am inclined to bemoan the loss (no scare quotes) of local accountability of school systems. But that went away long before 1995 due to unionization (allowing colonization of school boards) and increased state financing of schools. By the time A+ came on the scene the damage was done; and once states own the systems I think there is no harm in acknowledging the fact and having states set standards.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        The regulatory capture of school districts was a catastrophe, but it gets us far afield. Let’s get back to the question I posed earlier.

        I can’t think of any damage it would do to school choice here in Arizona for the state to adopt the MA standards and tests. We already have standards and tests, and they jumped the shark years ago. I don’t think that it would make MA standards any less worthy or useful if they were also used in MA, and whatever “homogenization loss” has already been suffered by Arizona drawing up their own, less useful, standards and tests years ago.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I completely agree – and nothing in my post suggests otherwise. The MA standards are not joined at the hip to a huge technocratic movement that’s using rhetoric implicitly hostile to choice.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Okay so Arizona drops AZ Learns, adopts CC, we have the same number of charter schools, we continue to open new ones, none of the other choice policies have a testing requirement.

        Hopefully the AZ district schools do a little better because of CC, maybe they don’t. In any event the Arizona State Board of Education remains free to call a meeting tomorrow and do something different with the state’s standards.

        This seems pretty close to a school choice non-event given that the charter schools already had to follow AZ Learns and that the AIMS test long outlived any usefulness.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    I don’t deny that people see a value in common assessments. This is the great value of NAEP. Once there was a huge bipartisan majority in favor of mandating state testing in return for federal dollars, it inevitably followed that there would be some sort of effort to improve the laughably poor quality of that state testing.

    CC isn’t how I would have gone about it, but no one asked for my opinion.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Don’t feel bad, Matt. They didn’t ask my opinion either. Here on JPGB we’ll always care what you think. (Just remember us when you come into your kingdom.)

  5. Sandra Stotsky says:

    Idiotic reading/writing assessments based on idiotic educational views have to be bad for kids. Here’s my letter in Ed Week today.
    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/05/22/32letter-2.h32.html
    I’ve spoken to several reporters in the past two days who believe the standards could be wonderful, but the implementation (and the implementers) are the problem. That’s how Marxism is viewed today, too.

  6. Joy Pullmann says:

    Did the A+ vouchers component require participating private schools to administer state tests based on A+ standards?

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      There were/are a variety of choice programs in Florida with varying testing requirements. I know charters take FCAT, there is no testing requirement in the McKay program, and an academic study of tax credit kids national norm reference scores and more recently a reporting requirement .

      I’m not certain about the failing schools program but it may have included an FCAT requirement before being killed by the FSC in 2006.

    • Greg Forster says:

      If I remember correctly, A+ had no testing requirement.

  7. Becky says:

    Late to the party, but… why not let the fifty states be laboratories for democracy? I’m just not getting it. Not trying to be sarcastic. Just pro-free-market.

    Suppose Mississippi has worse educational outcomes than Massachusetts. Okay. Mississippi can keep doing what it is doing and suffer the consequences, if that’s what makes Mississippians happy. And meanwhile Massachusetts can eat Mississippi’s lunch.

    Or, stepping back a ways, is this like banning soft drinks because “hey fat kid, we are all paying for your poor health choices”?

    A ban that is driven more by cost concerns than by compassion?

    Federally speaking, does Massachusetts pay for Mississippi’s poor educational choices?

    Links appreciated.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      I generally agree with your point of view, but MS was not forced into CC and can leave if they wish. Moreover, while they ultimately may decide to do something entirely different with their tests than CC, they really ought to be doing something different than what they are doing now.

  8. […] among the school choice segment of the movement of a conservative and libertarian mode, including Greg Forster of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation and Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s […]

  9. […] math standards, largely because of two misguided notions. The first? That Common Core will somehow restrict the expansion of school choice. The second; Because they believe that choice is the only solution for transforming American public […]

  10. […] are designed to deliver much of that.”  This is debatable; Common Core is more likely to be harmful to school choice.  It just feels like the authors are trying too hard to show their support by including this […]

  11. […] In other words, parents and schools are not “embracing” the standards because they think they’re good, but rather because the standards are becoming the only viable path for their children to go to a good college. “If college entrance exams are Common-Core-ized,” explained Greg Forster, “it will be virtually impossible for private schools and homeschoolers to maintain any kind of alternative to the One Best Way.” That wouldn’t be a problem if there were a One Best Way in education, but there isn’t. […]

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