More Abracadabra

July 31, 2014

conceptual image of an alarm clock showing that you are too late

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Further to Jay’s point about the magical thinking behind Common Core: In his response to that Politico story, Mike Petrilli seems to concede the point that whatever the origins of Common Core, the Feds are determined to colonize and control it – and there is really not much that can be done about that at this point:

In my view, the federalism concern is the one that carries the most urgency, since it’s driving almost all of the backlash on the right…But frankly, it’s also the hardest one to fix. We can’t go back and undo Race to the Top; we can’t take away the millions of federal dollars that have already flowed to PARCC and Smarter Balanced. And, as has become painfully clear, Arne Duncan and his minions—not to mention the White House—seem all but uncontrollable in their passion to make Common Core resemble their creation even when it wasn’t.

Far from predicting these efforts will diminish, Petrilli thinks the Feds are only going to work harder to take over Common Core:

Secretary Duncan…may be about to make matters worse. Will the Department now revoke Oklahoma’s ESEA waiver because the state no longer has “college- and career-ready standards”—even though this requirement is never mentioned in ESEA and is probably illegal if not unconstitutional?…By punishing Oklahoma (or any other jurisdiction) for repudiating the Common Core, they would cement the view—and the reality—that the federal government is driving this train.

Another looming disaster is the Department’s plans to “peer review” the new assessments under development—PARCC and Smarter Balanced but also the other exams that some states plan to use to assess student performance in relation to the Common Core.

So what is to be done? Petrilli makes it clear there is only one option: appeal to Arne Duncan’s “good sense.” Other than that, there’s nothing to be done. But thankfully, Duncan’s good sense will save us. (Apparently Arne Duncan is now Captain Hammer.)

In other words, it’s far too late at this point for CC to end up as anything other than a wholly controlled tool of the Feds.

Oh, if only someone had warned them that once federal power has been used to promote CC, the federal connection is irreversible!

Talk about a day late and a dollar short.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

July 30, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

That Politico story on CC’s new PR strategy is prompting gales of laughter among CC opponents. They seem to think the new strategy will be to have Bill Gates go on camera to shed tears and plead that “it’s for The Children!” But I don’t think that’s what the CC backers mean by “emotion.”

Here’s a shorter version of the article:

  1. CC supporters admit they were wrong to focus their strategy on bland, vague pronouncements coupled with accusations that their opponents were crazy or dishonest.
  2. So instead they’re going to focus on whipping up a frenzy of mob anger and directing it against their enemies.

Seriously, read the article. “Step one” of the new strategy is literally “get Americans angry.”

Guess what? They already are.

CC Secrecy and Bringing Back the Culture War

July 10, 2014


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


(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


(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.”


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