Are We Allowed to Be Neither Naive Nor Cynical?

July 31, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have a question. Am I permitted to be neither naïve nor cynical about the Tony Bennett emails? Or is there some sort of law that dictates I must be one or the other? Indiana StateImpact places me with the Bennett supporters while Matt seems to think I’m attacking Bennett (I’m not sure how else to interpret “haters gonna hate”). I don’t intend to be either.

I find it difficult to buy the new house line, and I will continue to find it difficult until someone asks Bennett the obvious question: “If this was a glitch in the system, as we are now being told, why did you seek to change the grade only for this one school?” Rick Hess didn’t ask him that question. Matt seems uninterested in asking it, and seems to think I’m a “hater” for asking it. Until that question is answered, I don’t see why I’m a “hater” for pointing out uncomfortable realities.

Is it really so scandalous, does it really make me a “hater,” to acknowledge the obvious fact that politicians are responsive to their donors? When government sets educational standards and has to do what Bennett himself calls a “face validity” test, it is going to know which schools are run by major donors and it is going to be sensitive to that fact. Good grief, are we this naïve?

What we have now is not “the rest of the story” but a failure to seek the rest of the story. Or am I somehow missing something?

On the other hand, Ze’ev and others seem to think I’m saying all standards are arbitrary and there’s no such thing as a rational public consensus. I’m not; I’m just trying to be realistic about what I called “the sausage-making nature of the process” when those standards are being cooked up behind closed doors by a government bureaucracy and its political allies, as opposed to standards that emerge organically from the give and take of a thriving marketplace of options. Technology standards emerge in the context of a system dominated by consumer choice. Educational standards should emerge in the same way.

Tony Bennett Is Having a Bad Week

July 29, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

What’s the best way to top off a really Walt-on-Lost level bad week for Common Core? How about a scandal in which emails show one of its most prominent supporters having manipulated his state’s “high standards” system to ensure that a particular school (one founded by a major donor) scored high? Just as that same state becomes the latest to move toward dropping out of a CC testing consortium?

I’d like to take Andy’s bafflement about CC supporters not anticipating pushback on the costs of implementation and double it in this case, if not triple it: why on earth did they discuss this so transparently in their government email accounts, which made it inevitable that the whole ugly show would eventually come out?

I feel sympathetic to Tony Bennett here. Any kind of evaluation system must involve qualitative as well as quantitative testing. That is, you not only have to make sure the numbers are accurately collected, crunched and reported, you have to make sure that what the system is calling “good” really is good. Of course you could in theory test your system by comparing it to the results of other systems, but if that’s all you do, the whole thing is circular. Ultimately you have no choice but to pick some examples of cases that you presuppose to be very good or very bad (or in the middle, for that matter) based on some kind of opinion - maybe yours, maybe your organization’s, maybe a consensus of experts, maybe a popular majority – and see if your system ranked those cases in accordance with the presupposed opinion. It is logically impossible to remove this element of judgment. You just can’t fully test a system for evaluating schools without at some point picking out some super-schools and asking “did these score well?”

Of course, everything hinges on what basis you use for selecting those cases – in other words, whose opinion of which cases are “good” you presuppose, and why. In the real world, if the standards are being set by government, that is always going to be a political process in which one or another set of powerful constituencies are privileged. The Bennett emails reveal the sausage-making nature of the process. What I want to emphasize is that this is not because Bennett is in some way specially corrupt but that this is what any such process must always look like. It is, again, logically impossible to avoid this type of qualitative reality check, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that any set of political actors would carry out that reality check in any way other than something like what the Bennett emails reveal.

The lesson here is not “Bennett is corrupt” but “all educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”

Common Core Is Having a Bad Week

July 26, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

When Locke first meets Walt, he says something about Walt getting back to his mother soon, and Walt tells him that his mother died two weeks ago. Locke looks around at the deserted island where they’ve all just crash-landed and says, “you’re having a bad month.”

Common Core is having a bad week. Pop some popcorn and enjoy watching the excruciating downfall of civilization with your host, Andy Smarick. Line for the ages: Smarick links back to an old post of his where he predicted this would happen and then says, “I can’t help but wonder: If some dude blogging from a coffee shop could see this coming, why in the world didn’t Common Core’s and common assessments’ powerful, well-staffed, and deep-pocketed backers get ahead of this?” He should check out the latest medical literature on PLDD.

In the meantime, the argument that Common Core is bad for school choice seems to be getting some traction, to judge by the increased level of desperate insistence (unconnected to logic or evidence) that Common Core is really great for school choice. Hope you’ve got more popcorn, because master magician Jason Bedrick is here to cut those arguments in two. Unfortunately for CC supporters, he hasn’t learned the part of the trick where they go back together.

You still have more popcorn, and you’re tired of knock-down, drag-out knife fights for the fate of the world on the edges of slowly crumbling cliffs? Don’t worry – we have the lightsabers you’re looking for.

Oops, Sorry, Turns Out Common Core is Anti-Choice

June 28, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, folks, I have to recant my recantation from yesterday. Turns out Common Core really does destroy parental options.

At Heritage, Brittany Corona points out that the SAT, ACT and GED are all competing to see who is most “aligned” to Common Core. As the College Board begins a major overhaul of the SAT, prompted by the ACT recently surpassing it as the most-used college exam, the Board is bragging that “in its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment that has been developed for college admission and placement.” The revisions will seek even stronger “alignment” between the SAT and Common Core. No doubt the SAT feels like it has to play catch-up because the ACT has been boasting for some time that it “pledges to work with other stakeholders to develop strategies and solutions that maximize the coverage of the Common Core State Standards to meet the needs of states, districts, schools, and students.” Meanwhile, the GED cites “the shift to the Common Core standards [that] is happening nationwide” as one reason it has to make major changes to its test.

Corona points out that private schools and homeschoolers are impacted by these changes. Private schools are already under pressure from short-sighted and/or cowardly system leaders to adopt (or pretend to adopt) Common Core, so that they won’t be stigmatized as dissenters from the One Best Way. If college entrance exams are Common-Core-ized, it will be virtually impossible for private schools and homeschoolers to maintain any kind of alternative to the One Best Way. As for the GED, Corona points out that homeschoolers often use it for external validation of their education.

Now, just like everything else associated with Common Core, there is less here than meets the eye. That’s because the claims that these tests are, or will be, “aligned” to Common Core are all meaningless BS (just like so many other claims associated with Common Core). As Jay has pointed out, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that anybody is ever really going to align anything to Common Core in a meaningful way. You can see that just from what the College Board people are saying. “In its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment.” What the heck does that even mean? What can that mean? The federal government’s contractors haven’t finished developing their official federal-government-designed assessments “aligned” to Common Core. We don’t even have the standards themselves yet! These people are simply talking out of their bodily orifices (just like…).

Moreover, as Corona points out, the deadening hand of dictatorial control by cynical elites is a constant wellspring of opportunity for entrepreneurial innovators: “Thankfully, tests like the SAT and ACT can be changed or replaced, even though they have begun a transition to Common Core. If a significant number of states pull out of Common Core, these exams can be modified, or there could be an opening in the market for other college entrance exams to take root.”

But although Common Core is unlikely to do the kind of extensive damage to parental control and educational diversity that the bragging of the College Board, ACT and GED would imply, nonetheless it is increasingly clear that Common Core represents the technocratic spirit of the One Best Way, to which all families should (in principle) bow the knee and conform. The inability of the technocrats to achieve their dream of forcing all parents into the One Best Way should not blind us to the fact that this is, in fact, their dream. Or that is what is implied by their behavior, at any rate.

My apologies for the wrong turn yesterday, folks. I was right the first time – Common Core is bad for school choice.

HT Bill Evers and Breitbart

I Recant! Common Core for All!

June 27, 2013

Greg loves CC cropped

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just like Jay did a little more than a year ago, I am recanting my opposition to Common Core. I’m all for it! Never mind everything we said about how there’s no one best way to teach children, and even if there were, we don’t know what it is yet; never mind everything we said about how unions would inevitably get control of the standards or how they would reignite the culture wars; never mind everything we said about how the standards are already being set too low, how they’re being put together by people with conflicts of interest, how they’re being illegally pushed from Washington.

Never mind all that. I’m all for Common Core. Why? Because Common Core is good for school choice!

Yes, I just wrote a big post about why Common Core is bad for school choice. I take it all back. Every word of it.

As Matt has just pointed out, 2013 is turning out to be the third big year in a row for school choice. Now here’s the thing. Back when 2011 was a big year for school choice, you heard about it everywhere. I mean every-frikkin-where. And don’t get me wrong, that was sweet. But 2012 and 2013 have been good years for choice, and for some reason, nobody’s noticing.

What gives? Well, for years we’ve been saying that “vouchers make the world safe for charters.” Whenever vouchers get on a roll, the unions have to train all fire on vouchers – leaving charters to slip through with less opposition. Meanwhile, mushy-middle politicians, academics and journalists can triangulate by opposing vouchers but supporting charters. It was Jay’s idea originally, but I wrote about it at some length in the Freedom and School Choice book a while back.

It would appear that just as vouchers make the world safe for charters, Common Core makes the world safe for vouchers. Everyone is so busy running around fighting over Common Core – especially the unions – that voucher supporters seem to have a freer hand. A while back, Jay wrote that one reason Common Core is a problem is “because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies….Common Core is consuming the lion’s share of reform oxygen and resources.” But it’s also consuming the anti-reform oxygen and resources!

And when money and muscle cancel out, there’s nothing left to determine the outcome but the merits – a debate we’ve already won.

So lock the government collar around my neck and break out the Gates Foundation checkbook, because starting now I’m all for Common Core.

PS Yes, that is St. Milton watching over me in the background.

FEE Proves My Point

June 3, 2013

High Standards Poker

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Foundation for Excellence in Education has recently been blasting out a series of emails denouncing “myths” about Common Core. Guess it’s not so inevitable after all!

Ironically, the email that just came over the transom proves the point I was making Friday. Then, I wrote that Common Core is bad for school choice where single-state movements for high standards were not because the drive to create common standards across many states implies a one-size-fits-all mentality that’s hostile to parental control. I wrote:

Consistently, CC advocates have used adjectives like “national” and “common” as if they were synonyms for “better.”

And sure enough, here comes FEE cheerleading for Common Core with an email under the subject heading:

Support for High Academic Standards Builds Across the Nation

You see the presupposition behind this? Support for national standards is identical with support for high standards; those who oppose nationalization are for low standards.

Remember, kids: Diversity is weakness!

As I wrote this week, there are two worldviews at war here – one that wants to see more diversity in education because children have unique needs, parents know best, and parents can be trusted more than experts and bureaucrats; and one that wants to see less diversity because there’s one best way, we know what it is, we can get the bureaucracy to do it and we won’t be corrupted.

Common Core Hurts School Choice

May 31, 2013


(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.

The End of the Beginning for Common Core

May 30, 2013

The folks at Pioneer have landed another blow against Common Core in the mainstream Conservative press.  This time Jim Stergios and Jamie Gass have a lengthy piece in the Weekly Standard detailing the start of troubles for Common Core, both substantively and politically.  This follows on a piece by Gass and Charles Chieppo in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.  A central part of the strategy for Common Core was to create the impression that it was inevitable, so everybody might as well get on board.  That aura of inevitability has been shattered.

My reasons for opposing Common Core are slightly different from those articulated by the folks at Pioneer, but we agree on the political analysis of its fate.  To become something meaningful Common Core requires more centralization of power than is possible under our current political system.  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).

There is something either disingenuous or shockingly naive about the Fordham Institute’s horror at discovering federal involvement in the push for Common Core.  And it is equally disingenuous or naive for conservative curriculum backers of Common Core to suddenly discover that the new regime may be more progressive nonsense rather than their fantasy of the triumph of E.D. Hirsch.  We warned folks that federal coercion was central to the success of Common Core.  And we warned folks that national standards would ultimately advance the preferences of entrenched education special interests rather than those of reformers.

Rather than heeding these warnings or hedging their bets, these “conservative” backers of Common Core have doubled down in their support.  Checker in his customary high-handed style has tried to dismiss critics as crazy so that their legitimate objections need not be taken seriously.  The opponents just consist of “tea party activists, a couple of influential talk-radio hosts and bloggers, some disgruntled academics, several conservative think-tanks, and a couple of mysterious but deep-pocketed funders.”

Well, there’s no mystery about the deep-pocketed funder behind Common Core as the Gates Foundation continues to hand the Fordham Institute large bags of cash.  And to help solve the mystery of who is funding the opponents, I confess that I personally paid for the web site.  But because my pockets are not quite as deep as the Gates Foundation, I just let the registration for that web site run out.

Here’s a pro-tip for Checker and Common Core’s deep-pocketed backers… As opposition to Common Core grows in state legislatures and schools around the country, don’t dismiss those critics as crazies from your perch in DC.  The federal takeover of education has not yet been completed, so local and state politicians and educators still control the fate of Common Core.  Right now it appears they have no stomach to implement Common Core in any meaningful way.  Some may pause it.  Some may repeal it.  And some may leave it on the books but promptly ignore it just like a host of previous reform fads.  You can’t win these people over and successfully implement Common Core with a strategy that funds DC think-tanks to denounce the folks in the hinterland as a bunch of hicks and boobs who believe in crazy black helicopter conspiracies.

And here’s another pro-tip… If you don’t want people to believe in crazy black helicopter conspiracies, you shouldn’t fly around in black helicopters.  Local and state politicians and educators might have reason to suspect federal power grabs as the federal government grabs power to expand Common Core.  Saying that this was unnecessary and unfortunate and that states continue to control education does not change the reality of what is happening.

Reality exists outside of DC receptions and the words we use.  And the reality is that the backlash against national standards is real and gaining momentum.  It is inevitable that the Common Core bus will drive over a political cliff, just as previous failed efforts to nationalize education standards have.  Because true conservatives believe in personal responsibility, let’s hope we all remember who was driving the bus and cheering it forward.

The Common Core Culture War Intensifies

May 14, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s Journal, Sol Stern and Joel Klein attempt to sell conservatives on national standards by 1) misleading them about the federal government’s role, both in ramming the standards through and in continuing to shape them going forward, and 2) portraying the national standards as a patriotic way to patriotically patriotize our vulnerable young patriots, who are now at the mercy of the eeeeeeeeeeeevil progressives and their social justice agenda.

Now, what do you think the major Democratic party effort to support national standards thinks of that?

Paul the psychic octopus looks more right every month - national standards are built on an anti-school-choice, one-size-fits-all worldview and are therefore a one-way ticket to the worst kind of culture war.

Update: I wonder what Stern and Klein would say about Heather Mac Donald’s warning that the national “science” standards endorse an unscientific and anti-human environmental agenda?

DFER and the Miniature Machiavellis

April 29, 2013

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has done much to advance progress in education, but I am disappointed to report that in a recent series of events DFER has acted as if they have no shame.  I literally mean NO SHAME in the sense that they are not ashamed of doing something that is wrong, that they know to be wrong, and that they persist in doing anyhow.

I am referring to the series of blog posts and mass emails in which DFER Indiana is attempting to support Common Core by demonstrating that some of the opponents of Common Core hold positions on non-educational issues, like abortion, that DFER’s target audience might find objectionable.  These posts make no effort to defend Common Core substantively.  In fact, they contain virtually nothing about education policy.  The essence of their argument is that you should support Common Core because you really wouldn’t like some of the people who oppose Common Core.

When I wrote a post last week mocking DFER Indiana director, Larry Grau, for making this type of argument I assumed that he had acted without the knowledge and support of the national DFER organization.  So I contacted a long-time friend at DFER national to alert him to Grau’s actions and to see if he could convey to Grau the foolishness of this type of non-substantive, ad hominem attack.

I was shocked to discover that DFER National was not only aware of Grau’s campaign, but was fully supportive of it.  Sure it is wrong, I was told, but this is the sort of thing that works.  Stating the case and arguing the merits doesn’t carry the day, I was told, you need to engage in this type of manipulative trick.  Relying on logical arguments, evidence, and research is just naive.  The only regret DFER National expressed is that Grau’s attack didn’t gain enough attention.  My DFER contact wanted more critiques of Grau to get more people talking about it.

I’ve never seen so much cynicism so candidly expressed.

I wish I could say that this cynical embrace of shallow, non-substantive, and ad hominem attacks is unique to DFER, but it is actually wide-spread in the education policy world.  Advancing one’s political agenda with a callous indifference for the truth is the operating principle of most organized interest groups, including the teacher unions.  But you can also see it when the Gates Foundation makes non-falsifiable claims and spins their own research.  You can see it when Diane Ravitch repeatedly and falsely claims no academic benefits of choice in Milwaukee or DC.  You can see it in the obsession among attention-starved education policy advocates with Twitter.  You can see it when folks abuse language with weasel words, passive voice, and mindless jargon for supposed marketing advantages.

In fact, I have heard several Foundations candidly express disinterest in funding education research because they would rather invest those dollars in more advocacy.  Systematic analysis of 990 tax forms shows that Foundations actually are shifting more and more money toward advocacy.  I’ve been forced to endure sessions with marketing consultants at ed reform conferences where these charlatan Svengalis tell us that it is all about “messaging.”

It isn’t all about “messaging.”  Ultimately, it’s about understanding the truth as best as we can perceive it.  We need honest and high-quality research to improve our understanding of the truth about effective policy.  Yes, we need to communicate our understanding of the truth clearly and concisely, but it does no one any good to make stuff up, distort the truth, or cynically distract people from substantive arguments with ad hominem and “guilt by association.”

These Miniature Machiavellis may think they can twist the truth tactically to achieve a  greater policy objective, but they have no appreciation for how long-term policy change actually happens.  Real and enduring change happens because people come to a new consensus about facts and evidence.  This is achieved with substantive arguments and quality research, not by manipulative tactics.

The advance of Civil Rights occurred because of eloquent and substantive arguments by people like Martin Luther King, Jr about human dignity and equality.  It was helped by social science research about how separate could not be equal, which informed the Court’s reversal in Brown v. Board of Education.

Even the progress that’s been made in expanding choice in education has been achieved to a large degree because of a growing consensus among researchers that choice is generally effective and desirable, which has then influenced elite opinion to the point where both party’s platforms embrace the notion of parental choice.  This research took place over the last two decades before the rise of “The Twidiocracy.”  It took patience.  It took discipline on the part of funders and the earlier generation of advocates to stay focused on the search for solid evidence.

It is not too late for education reform to return its focus to substantive arguments and quality research.  The first step is for funders to scale back significantly on their giving to advocacy groups.  Most of these groups are completely ineffective anyway, consuming virtually all of their resources to engage in manipulative tactics noticed only by other advocacy groups inside some tiny and inconsequential bubble.  Second, Foundations need to increase funding for quality research.  Yes, research has sometimes over-promised, under-delivered, and cost too much.  But we can work on controlling inefficiencies there while advancing the search for truth.  Of course, the effective marketing of research findings and substantive arguments is important, but at the core there has to be a grounding in truth.  Messaging without truth is the same as having no real message.

In sum, Foundations need to step back from the focus on prevailing in the next session’s legislative battle and start taking a longer term view of what it really takes to win.  That requires the courage and patience not to expect quarterly or annual metrics of progress, which only encourage the shallow and near-sighted tactics of the Miniature Machiavellis.   If Foundations only wished to reproduce the scheming and superficiality of 18th century French courtiers, then they have succeeded.  If they wish to produce real educational progress, then they need to change course.


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