The Rebels in the Hills Throw the Capital into Disarray

August 17, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Libya? Well yes at the moment but also NCLB as the Department has decided to allow states to retroactively “reset” their proficiency goals.

Over at Eduwonk, Andy grouses that if you have your attorneys study the fine print, it is actually 92 percent proficiency, and not 2014. He may be right, but the state departments of education either don’t agree or don’t realize it. The AMO charts I have seen all end with 100 percent proficiency in 2014.

McNeil and Klein write:

By letting a state retroactively revise its proficiency targets so that schools do better under the law, the department is setting a precedent that it’s willing to use any loophole or technicality to, depending on your perspective, help states out or avoid making tough decisions against states. This, too, despite vows in June that the Education Department would “enforce” the law.

After a similar faceoff with Idaho chief Tom Luna, the department also let that state keep its proficiency targets level, too, because Idaho hadn’t taken advantage of the three-years-in-a-row allowance.

Department officials say they want to give states breathing room until the details of the package come out next month. But one question I have is: If states can just go back and redo their proficiency targets so schools keep making AYP, why apply for a waiver, especially if you have to adopt reforms prescribed by the Obama administration?

Why indeed? State officials seem likely to draw the conclusion that the Department is profoundly reluctant to employ their only real weapon (withdraw of federal funds) in pursuit of a goal which Secretary Duncan has (correctly) described as utopian. A great loophole hunt may be silly, but it beats having states simply drop their cut scores or openly defy federal law while still taking federal money.

Let’s see what happens next…


Testing, Cheating, Culture and Corruption

July 21, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt draws our attention to some of the broader issues raised by the APS scandal. Cheating is not just about cheating.

Here’s another one of those broader issues I think we should take note of. To call this “cheating” is really inadequate. This was a whole institutional culture in which cheating had become not just acceptable, but normal. This was way beyond teachers subtly indicating the correct answers (such as through tone of voice) or deliberately seating bad students next to good ones (so they could copy). Those things happened, but much more happened.

Teachers had “cheating parties” in which they sat around erasing and remarking student answer sheets. There was one guy whose job was to open test booklets, copy the contents, reseal them (using a lighter to melt the plastic back into place) and then distribute the contents to everybody. This was a huge, pervasive, known-to-everybody cheating system.

And cheating was not just normal but mandatory. Hark ye, my bretheren, unto the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

Cheat – or else!

What’s going on here? This is not just the undifferentiated “corruption of human nature.” This is a very specific dynamic of institutional culture. This is a system whose organizational culture responded to NCLB by systematically embracing cheating at all levels, even to the extent of viewing non-cheaters (i.e. honest teachers) as threats to the integrity of the system.

We should think carefully about how that kind of thing happens. There is one hypothesis that sticks out to me as clearly plausible: This happened because the testing requirements of NCLB were percieved as evil, tyrannical and a threat to the integrity of education. Personnel at all levels actually viewed cheating as morally virtuous because it was necessary to protect an essential good (education) from being undermined by vicious oppressors with evil agendas. And given widespread teacher cynicism about the value of standardized tests as a metric of learning, in their perception nothing valuable was lost in the process.

This is about more than cheating. This is a wakeup call to our thinking about how reform works.

I have always been in favor of the aspect of NCLB that uses tests to create transparency. Remember, before NCLB you didn’t even have all states participating in NAEP. Anyone want to go back to that? No? Well, then, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, it is now pretty clear that NCLB does not work as an accountability tool. Might the systemic, institutional extent of the cheating in APS help explain why? Teachers and administrators don’t percieve the tests as legitimate – they see them as inaccurate metrics being imposed by evil oppressors as tools of exploitation – and thus don’t respond to them in positive ways. (On net, that is. Bad responses cancel out good ones.)

Contrast that with the use of testing for accountability in two other contexts. Jeb Bush’s A+ accountabiliy testing system in Florida did produce positive results. Could that be because Florida had spent years at the bottom of the national listings for education and was sick of it, and had spent years trying to improve through the tried and true ideas of the unions and was sick of failing, and was thus more open to new directions? In the context of this openness, Jeb Bush’s leadership, and his partnership with the right stakeholders, framed the reforms in a way that caused them to be experienced as legitimate at the school level.

Even more impressive, consider the use of testing in innovative charter schools like KIPP. Remember that David Brooks column blasting Ravitch? Brooks identifies what he calls “a core tension,” namely: “Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.”

However, in schools where the entire institutional culture has been reinvented from the ground up around personal relationships between teacher and student that are centered around leadership, mentorship and accountability, testing isn’t experienced as mechanistic at all. Where the students really see the teachers caring about them, and vice versa, standardized testing is accepted as a tool that empowers this relationship:

The schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are mostlikely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change…

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

I think this means it’s essential that the use of tests for accountability purposes must be implemented only in contexts of institutional culture where they will be experienced as legitimate – and the degree to which the tests are used must be controlled by the degree to which the institutional culture permits this experiential legitimacy.

In some cases (as with Jeb in Florida) that could be accomplished statewide. In others it can’t. Sometimes it will have to be districts, or a network of charter schools. In many contexts it won’t work at any level. It certainly won’t work nationally, since the institutional context of the federal role in education could never permit this kind of thing to develop in a way that would be seen as legitimate.

How, then, do we drive accountability? Choice and competition, obviously. And guess what? Once schools face the disruptive threat of choice, they will be more likely to start using tests for accountability voluntarily - because they want to survive and they’ll be ready to reconsider their options.

You know, it strikes me that this principle might have application to other issues besides accountability testing. In general, the higher you go up the ladder of power – from school to district, from district to state, and from state to national – the less likely you will really be implementing your reform, and the more likely you will just be playing power games, and be seen to be playing power games, and thus cause those below you on the ladder to respond by playing power games of their own. As in Atlanta.


Heading to the Heart of Cygnus, Headlong into Mystery…

July 7, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Week reports that a growing number of states have signaled their intention to ignore the 2014 deadline. USDoE threatens action against these states, and is hoping to leverage the 2014 deadline to spur Congress to act on reauthorization. Congress seems disinterested. Tennessee and others have announced that they will seek waivers, which Secretary Duncan is willing to grant in return for reform, but which Chairman Kline seems to oppose. Duncan wants a reauthorization, but it isn’t in the cards.

Where is all this heading?

Actually, a full-blown train-wreck is not inevitable there is still time to reauthorize ESEA, even if they wait until after the election. Seeing states engage in what could either be described as civil disobedience or lawlessness does send a clear signal that Congress and the administration need to deal with the 2014 event horizon, and that the Safe Harbor loophole is insufficient.

Closer…..move a little closer….a little more….GOTCHA!

Reauthorization beats waivers, and waivers beat the status-quo, which runs the risk of a great cut score dummy down. Washington would be awfully dull without some brinkmanship every now and then, so let’s see how they work this out. Something that would allow states with a system to nudge improvement out of their schools (which NCLB is doing very little of) to run their own testing systems still seems like a sensible idea to me.


Strawman Alert!

April 20, 2011

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I went to read the Fordham Report on ESEA reauthorization. I didn’t even make it past the preface without finding a gigantic strawman argument:

The local controllers.

These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

I’ll let the Cato Institute speak for itself, but as the coauthor of a piece on NCLB with Gene Hickok for the Heritage Foundation, I must say that this characterization of Heritage is sloppy. Gene and I noted some very real problems with the formulation of NCLB, and recommended a process by which states could negotiate with the federal Department of Education to have a single unified system of school accountability. No burning down the Federal Department of Education, no abandonment of accountability and transparency, nor any fever dreams of federally driven vouchers for all.

NCLB led to a net increase in transparency, and put a bright spotlight on achievement gaps- both very admirable outcomes. NCLB’s formula however contains dozens of ways for districts and schools to fail AYP and back loaded proficiency requirements will be changed, or else AYP with either lose all credibility, or else will lead states to dummy down their tests to absurd levels. The only reasonable assumption to make is that those that crafted the original law intended to reboot the provisions well before 2014. The Safe Harbor provision is not going to save the day, lawmakers must change the law.

Gene and I suggested a reboot that would allow states to have a single system of school accountability (many have a state system and AYP, which often contradict each other). States proposing a reasonable system- something AYP will no longer be in 2014 absent changes-could have a single system for ranking schools. I’m fine with the Federal Department of Education being tough-minded about approving alternatives. No federalist bone in my body would ever compel me to approve a cruel joke of a testing system (I’m looking straight at you Mississippi) and I’m not certain that the Obama administration has a federalist bone in any case. They did however win the election, and they may win the next one as well.

Call me crazy (it’s been too long since anyone has) but I think the federal government allowing parents the clarity of a single system of accountability is good thing if the state is proposing something that provides transparency and will nudge improvement out of the system. Not “perfection” by some arbitrary deadline, but sustained improvement. This strikes me as an especially good idea when the federal system is set to implode.


T. Willard Fair: Save NCLB Private Tutoring

November 11, 2010

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

T. Willard Fair, Chairman of the Florida State Board of Education calls for Congress to maintain the private tutoring provision of NCLB in the Miami Herald. Fair writes:

With scores of funding opportunities for schools and districts targeting myriad programs, this is one of the few federal programs that go directly to individual parents to help provide specific and targeted academic assistance. Selecting from a list of screened providers from across the spectrum, from community groups and other nonprofit groups to companies that provide these tutoring opportunities to more-affluent families, under this program parents can take control of their children’s education to help them get the tools they need to succeed.

Florida has led the nation in creating a system to hold these providers accountable and ensure results.

And parents have been choosing. In Florida alone, nearly 80,000 low income students took part in this tutoring program during the 2008/09 school year.

Given Florida’s leadership in K-12 reform, I am not surprised to see that they managed to make something of the private tutoring NCLB program, and I agree the program should be maintained. Some serious thought should be given however as to how the program could be made easier for parents to access. The tutoring program unwisely relies upon school districts for implementation with predictably disappointing results in most places.

Why not emulate Florida’s accountability system, and cut districts out as the middle man? There has to be a better model than expecting McDonalds to hand out vouchers to buy milk shakes from Wendy’s or Burger King.


Why are we having this fight again?

June 16, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Could the adoption of common core standards lead to substantial academic gains, even if somehow developed and kept at a high level in some imaginary Federal Reserve type fortress of political solitude and kept safe from the great national dummy down?

I ran NAEP numbers for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and calculated the total gains on the main NAEP exams (4th and 8th grade Reading and Math) for the period that all states have been taking NAEP (2003-2009). In order to minimize educational and socio-economic differences, I compared the scores of non-special program (ELL, IEP) children eligible for a free or reduced price lunch.

I then ranked those 50 states, and the table below presents the Top 10, along with the total grades by year for the strength of state proficiency standards as measured by Paul Peterson. Peterson judges state assessments by comparing scores on the state exam to those on NAEP.

To my eyes, it looks as though either nothing or next to nothing is going on here. The top three performers (FL, DC and PA) have unremarkable standards vis a vis NAEP.  Russ Whitehurst has written that some commercially available curriculum packages have shown good results in random assignment studies.

Jolly good- I suggest states adopt them rather than this politically naive common core standards effort.

NAEP Gains in 4h and 8th Grade Math and Reading for FRL, Non-IEP, Non-ELL students, 2003-09 for the Top 10 states (FL=1, NY = 10) compared to State Standards Grades by Peterson and Lastron-Adanon
2003 2005 2007 2009
FL C C C+ C

DC

C C
PA C C C C
MA A A A A
VT B- B B+
Hawaii B B+ B+ A
Md C+ C C D+
NV C C C
NJ C C C B
NY C C C+ D

NAEP Gains in 4th and 8th Grade Math and Reading for FRL, Non-IEP, Non-ELL students, 2003-09 for the Top 10 states (FL=1, NY = 10) compared to State Standards Grades by Peterson and Lastron-Adanon
2003 2005 2007 2009
FL C C C+ C

DC

C C
PA C C C C
MA A A A A
VT B- B B+
Hawaii B B+ B+ A
Md C+ C C D+
NV C C C
NJ C C C B
NY C C C+ D

Obama Seeks Big NCLB Changes

February 1, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So says Sam Dillon in today’s New York Times. Apparently the administration says it is going to get rid of the things that drive  school boards and teacher unions crazy, but maintain a strong system of accountability. So, we’ll see about that, but color me skeptical. The 2007 sop involved throwing ELL kids under the “porfolio assessment” bus.

On the positive side, the administration is going to propose getting rid of the 2014 100% proficiency standard that will otherwise push states to dummy down their state standards.


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