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

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(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

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(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.


Common Core’s Finland Du Jour, or, Who Asked the Bishops?

October 21, 2013

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As long as we’re talking about the “Finalnd Du Jour” problem, Eric (or possibly Erik?) Hanushek has a good little piece in U.S. News arguing against Common Core, pointing out (among other arguments) that it’s being widely defended using FDJ thinking: “Proponents of national standards point to Massachusetts: strong standards and top results. But California, a second state noted for its high learning standards, balances Massachusetts: strong standards and bottom results.” Hanushek’s piece emphasizes how little a difference standards usually make to education: “Just setting a different goal – even if backed by intensive professional development, new textbooks, etc. – has not historically had much influence as we look across state outcomes.”

Meanwhile, in Crisis magazine, Anne Hendershott notes the widespread upending of curricula in Catholic schools being undertaken in the name of CC and asks, when did Catholic superintendents get the authority to make these far-reaching changes without consulting the bishops? So far there’s no reason to think CC will be any more effective at improving education than the Obamacare exchanges are at getting people enrolled in subsidized heath plans, but it would appear CC has been very effective in undermining religious liberty. Or what else do you call it when church-affiliated schools are more responsive to federal diktats than to their own clergy?


Common Core Made J.D. Tuccille’s Son Cry

October 3, 2013

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Do. Not. Miss. This awesome article over at Reason on how Common Core is already destroying options for parents.

My son’s charter school focuses on rigorous academics. Even so, as third grade kicked in this year, so did a lot of tears during homework time. Tony’s teacher explained to us that the kids are having a rough time, especially with math, because they didn’t just jump up to third-grade lessons and expectations as usual, but are now expected to meet Common Core standards. We may have picked a charter, but it’s publicly funded, and so the new standards apply.

Don’t agree with the CC PLDDs about what kids should learn and when? TFB.

“Pre-algebra?” my wife, a pediatrician who deals with children and tracks their physical and mental growth every single day, asked. “I’m not sure third-graders are developmentally ready for this. Their brains may not be able to handle it yet.”

But ready or not, my son is held to those tear-inducing standards—the identical standards that bind his friends at the International Baccalaureate school, and the Montessori charters in town, and the district schools, and the Waldorf charter down the road. Forget educational emphases, or philosophical differences over the pace at which different children should learn. The benchmarks will be met, or else.

Private schools are under the gun to conform as well, because the college entrance exams are strutting around bragging that they’re mega-super-CC-aligned and are going to become even more so.

CC is doing for school choice what Henry Ford did for automobile color choice.


Jeb Bush Drops School Choice – I Wonder Why

August 19, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jeb Bush’s big speech about education reform has made it onto NRO this morning. He does not include school choice as one of the four key components of education reform. I can’t imagine why Jeb would no longer view school choice as having been an important part of the Florida formula for success. Oh, wait, yes I totally can.

I am for standards. But choice must succeed before standards can succeed. By dropping school choice from his list of must-have reforms, Jeb is undermining the necessary path to success for standards.

Granted, he does turn aside at one point, under his section on digital learning, to tangentially mention school choice. But then, weirdly, he immediately feels the need to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform.” Why is he suddenly going back to the subject of accountability when he’s already discussed that in a previous section? It’s a total non sequitur for him to bring it back up here – unless, that is, he shares my view that school choice is ultimately at odds with the technocratic, “trust us, we’re experts” spirit of Common Core.

He also asserts CC won’t hurt school choice – but his own defensive rush to demand that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” after merely mentioning school choice undermines confidence in that assertion.

If anyone wants to contest my read of this speech I would request their responses to two questions: Why isn’t school choice one of Jeb’s four must-have reforms? And why does he suddenly rush to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” right after working in an anodyne mention of school choice?

One last point: We who prioritize school choice did not pick this fight. It was the CC crowd who came out with guns blazing, demanding that all schools must be judged on their yardstick (not parents’ yardsticks) and spitting on anyone who questioned their orthodoxy. We did not pick this fight. But we will not roll over just because the CC folks have all the money and power. A decade ago, the unions had all the money and power. We survived them, and we’ll survive Common Core as well, because we’re right.


Choice First, Standards Second

August 1, 2013

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.


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