CC Secrecy and Bringing Back the Culture War

July 10, 2014

psychic-octopus-culture-war

Paul the psychic octopus sez: “Toldja so!”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s not just the enemies list, with innocent people who don’t toe the CC line being ruthlessly destroyed. Another clear sign of CC’s illegitimacy – and (as a result of its illegitimacy) the inevitability of its failure – is its secrecy.

Stanley Kurtz writes in The Corner that a complete model AP history exam, showing what the exams will cover now that they’re part of the CC monolith, has been distributed to AP history teachers nationwide, but they can’t disclose it on pain of “severe penalties.”

Kurtz asserts that the CC monolith is a deliberately crafted illegal conspiracy to seize control of history classes nationwide and force them to teach left-wing, socialist agitprop.

His rhetoric is inflammatory and conspiratorial, but thereby hangs a tale.

Some comments:

  1. With AP exams being distributed secretly to AP teachers as part of the CC monolith, is anyone still prepared to claim that CC is only monopolizing standards and is not also monopolizing curriculum? Could someone please wake me up when we get past that?
  2. CC backers have no complaint coming that Kurtz’s rhetoric is inflammatory and conspiratorial. If you operate by pure power – secrecy and bribery and threats and enemies lists, and sneering at anyone who asks you to explain and justify what you’re doing – people are entitled to assume you’re up to no good. And they will. You have no one to blame but yourself.
  3. Nationalizing education reignites the culture war in the worst, nastiest possible way? You may be surprised, but Paul the psychic octopus isn’t.

Williamson’s Razor

May 22, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Common Core should read this outstanding article by Kevin Williamson on what we can learn about large-scale reform efforts from the VA scandal.

First, Williamson makes the point that reform efforts are often counterproductive even when everyone wants the same outcome:

Democrats did not want the hospitals that care for our veterans to be catastrophically mismanaged while administrators set about systematically destroying the evidence of their incompetence, and Republicans did not want that, either. Independents are firmly opposed to negligently killing veterans. It doesn’t poll well. Everybody is so opposed to that outcome that we created a cabinet-level secretariat to prevent it and installed as its boss Eric Shinseki, a highly regarded former Army general. We spent very large sums of money, billions of dollars, to prevent this outcome, almost trebling VA spending from 2000 to 2013 even as the total number of veterans declined by several million.

Nobody wanted these veterans dead, but dead they are. How is it possible that the government of the United States of America — arguably the most powerful organization of any sort in the history of the human race, in possession of a navy, a nuclear arsenal, and a vast police apparatus — cannot ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees? Never mind providing veterans with world-class medical care — the federal government cannot even prevent bureaucratic homicide. All of the political will is behind having a decent VA, and there is nothing to be gained politically from having a horrific one. How can it be that, with everybody free to vote as he pleases and to propose such policies as please him, we end up with what nobody wants?

Efforts to reform the VA were not laid low by people who wanted veterans to die. Applications of this principle to the rhetoric of CC supporters should be obvious.

The larger point of the piece, however, is that reformers can’t reform unless they have a mental model of how the universe works, but the universe is far more complex than any model the human mind is capable of constructing. The more centralized control your reform requires, the more the real complexity of the universe will defeat your reforms. Conversely, the more your reforms move toward decentralization, the more success they’re likely to have because you’re working with complexity instead of against it.

Let’s call it Williamson’s Razor, the political analogue of Ockham’s Razor. Just as Ockham would have us adopt the hypothesis that fits the facts with the fewest assumptions, Williamson would have us support the reform that alleviates the problem with the least centralized control.

That’s why school choice succeeds at raising standards where centralized efforts to raise standards fail. Choice first, standards second.


George Will Stole My Money as a Movie Star!!!!!!!

May 7, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

JPGB inside joke backfill here and here.


Common Core and the Back Door

May 6, 2014

Sneaking in back door

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before things get out of hand, which they will when this hits the rounds, let me say something about this horrifying story.

The Rialto public school district asked eighth graders to write an essay about whether the Holocaust really happened. Students were pointed to several informational documents to help them, including one that argued the Holocaust was a “hoax” invented by nefarious Jewish groups to raise money. The assignment will be changed.

Interim Superintendent Mohammad Islam said he was going to talk to administrators to “assure that any references to the Holocaust ‘not occurring’ will be stricken on any current or future Argumentative Research assignments,” according to KTLA-5.

But this is not just an anti-Semitism story. Common Core has, of course, been invoked. The L.A. chapter of the ADL seems to have originated the CC connection:

ADL does not have any evidence that the assignment was given as part of a larger, insidious, agenda.  Rather, the district seems to have given the assignment with an intent, although misguided, to meet Common Core standards relating to critical learning skills.

Uh-huh. However that may be, media reports are already picking up the CC connection from ADL and re-broadcasting it.

Now of course it’s nonsense to attribute this kind of thing to the Common Core as such. This is a locally generated scandal, and no doubt Mr. Islam will not rest until he gets to the bottom of it and makes sure those responsible are held to account.

At the same time, I have never had much sympathy for CC supporters who beat their breasts and wail every time a local scandal (poor exam questions, bad pedagogy, etc.) is labeled a “Common Core” scandal and laid at the feet of CC.

Folks, from the moment you set yourself up as the dictator of the system, you officially own everything that happens in the system. This is not a new phenomenon. This is simply what you get when you announce that you have set a single standard for a huge, sprawling, decentralized system with literally millions of decision-makers, very few of whom have much incentive to do what you want, but very many of whom have some pet project they’d like to push through using your name to do it.

When you undertake a huge reform effort, you have only three options:

  1. Loose: Allow systems to adopt Reform X if they really want to. You get fewer systems adopting it, but those that adopt it will really adopt it.
  2. Tight: Force, bribe and cajole systems to adopt Reform X, then take over the daily responsibility of running those systems to enforce the reform.
  3. Tight-Loose: Force, bribe and cajole systems to say they’re adopting Reform X, but don’t take over their daily operations.

What we have with CC is case #3. And the unavoidable reality of case #3 is that everyone at every point in the system will suddenly start doing whatever they wanted to do but were previously forbidden or unable to do, and will call it Reform X. I feel embarrassed that I have to point out these obvious realities.

Common Core did not invent most of the awfulness being done in the name of Common Core, but it opened the back door for all the awfulness to slip in. Simplest solution: close the door.

HT Jim Geraghty


The Already Existing Chaos in Student Testing

April 11, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt complains about “coming chaos in student testing” because opponents of Common Core don’t agree on what should replace it. As I’ve been arguing in the comment thread, the American political system is designed to allow messy, chaotic coalitions to form quickly among people who don’t agree about much but want to oppose something that they all dislike, even if they don’t agree about why they dislike it or what should replace it.

You want to know why that’s happening in the case of Common Core testing? Stuff like this:

I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.

Imagine how that sounds to parents. Jim Geraghty comments in his email blast:

We live in a world where Ed Snowden’s revealed all of our biggest national-security secrets, but parents in New York State can’t know what’s on the tests the kids are taking. What, are they trying to design a system with as little accountability as possible?

Yes, they are.

You would not have this huge anti-CC coalition drawing together people who agree about nothing else if CC were not being done in such a way as to generate huge opposition from a very diverse set of constituencies. And the CC coalition has proven that it is not willing to bend even an inch to accommodate those concerns.

As long as the CC coalition behaves the way it does, no one has any right to complain about the coalition that has formed against it. They are right to work together to oppose CC without waiting for consensus to emerge on an alternative.

I will keep on saying it and saying it: The core issue is trust. Nothing else matters. The system has lost the trust of parents, not because the parents are paranoid but because the system actually does not deserve their trust. Nothing else is going to go right until the system earns back the parents’ trust.

And the only plausible path to restoring trust is school choice without a common standard.

Update: More analysis of testing concerns from Rick Hess: “Four years after these testing consortia launched, I still can’t get answers to practical questions about whether the results will provide the kind of valid, reliable data needed to support transparency, accountability, and informed competition.”


Who’s “We,” Fordham-Sabe?

January 20, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he had a sitcom, Bill Cosby used to have a series of Lone Ranger jokes in one of his old stand-up acts. In one part of the routine, the Ranger tells Tonto something like, “They outnumber us ten to one, so we’re going to ride down the hill full speed, we’re going to cut across right through their sights, then we’re going to engage them hand to hand. Any questions?”

“Just one, Kemo Sabe.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’s ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

That’s also the right answer to Fordham’s insistence that choice students must take state tests because, as Jay summarizes it, “we’ve got to do something!” That’s an accurate summary of the presupposition coming out of Fordham – you aren’t in favor of reform unless you think that you are the one to dictate what a good education looks like.

Yes, “we” have to do something to invent better ways of educating students. But who’s “we”? Having government standards to measure the government’s school system can be good, even if Common Core is not. However, even when government standards are good, and even when they’re applied only to the government system, they are not the way to reinvent education, because government – by its very nature – is not well designed to 1) innovate effectively, 2) persuade people that the innovations are effective, or 3) build institutions where the institutional culture accepts the innovations as good.

What government does do well is to create the structures of social transaction within which effective innovators and entrepreneurs can operate. The key strategy for education reform should not be to devise the innovations we need but to create structures that enable innovators and entrepreneurs to do so. The more we get caught up in devising the innovations ourselves, the further we move away from creating the conditions necessary for those who really can devise the innovations to do so.

Choice programs today are very poorly designed to support entrepreneurs. They ought to provide universal choice, a generous allotment of funds (though less than what we spend on the behemoth of government schooling) and freedom to innovate with minimal interference. Entrepreneurs need three things to succeed: clients, capital and control. You need a customer base of people who want your service because it makes their lives better. You need those customers to be willing and able to pay you; that’s what sustains the organization that delivers the service. And you need to be free to provide the service according to your own entrepreneurial vision and the needs of your clients, not according to standards devised by politicians and bureaucrats.

See the study I did for Friedman on The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice for much, much more, including data on the impact choice programs are having (or, more frequently, are not having) on the composition of the private school sector.


“A Sturdy Portion of the Public Is Not”

January 16, 2014

octopus

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

George Will certainly knows how to turn a phrase:

The rise of opposition to the Common Core illustrates three healthy aspects of today’s politics. First, new communication skills and technologies enable energized minorities to force new topics onto the political agenda. Second, this uprising of local communities against state capitals, the nation’s capital and various muscular organizations demonstrates that although the public agenda is malleable, a sturdy portion of the public is not.

Third, political dishonesty has swift, radiating and condign consequences. Opposition to the Common Core is surging because Washington, hoping to mollify opponents, is saying, in effect: “If you like your local control of education, you can keep it. Period.” To which a burgeoning movement is responding: “No. Period.”

Hey, that last part is pretty clever. I wonder where he got it. Hmmmm . . . must have been from Jason! :)


It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.


Can Mike Petrilli Get a “Hell Yeah”?

November 15, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike is now auditioning to be the Stone Cold Steve Austin of education reform; since the Mr. T slot is already taken by George Clowes, I suppose that’s not a bad move. I’ll leave it to others to explain to Mike that there are other positions besides favoring no change and favoring centrally controlled change (backfill on that here and here, for starters). What I want to stress is that I am the sole author of “if you like your curriculum, you can keep your curriculum,” and Jason Bedrick can have it when he pries it from my cold, dead fingers.


“You shall not deny the Blogger.”

November 8, 2013

Strongbad using technology

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

T.S. Eliot and I would like to welcome a new blog, launched by my colleagues at the Friedman Foundation. They’ve decided to start out with something relatively simple and uncontroversial: the foundation’s stance on Common Core. Robert “The Barbarian” Enlow lays it out:

School choice is a far more effective way to improve educational outcomes than centralized standards imposed from above. A main concern with Common Core is that it could restrict entrepreneurship in education, so that parents will have fewer and less diverse choices. By contrast, universal school choice can provide a more vibrant system of schooling so that parents will have numerous and more varied high-quality options.

Check the blog next Wednesday for Friedman’s new report on how private schools use standardized tests in response to parental demand: “More Than Scores: An Analysis of Why and How Parents Choose Private Schools.” As Robert comments:

Do we need to ensure our children are competitive in a global economy? Definitely. Do we need to test our children to help parents understand their proficiency and growth? Most parents think so, and that’s why virtually all private schools use privately developed, voluntary standardized tests.

And keep your eyes on the blog for regular updates on the latest data, developments and derring-do. Embarrassing childhood photos are a free bonus.


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