The Kind of Control You Are Attempting…

May 11, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Is there much at stake in the fight over academic standards? Studies from no less than Hanushek and Loveless basically show that the standards movement has largely been pushing on a string. There is some evidence that suggests that states that were doing absolutely nothing on testing before NCLB saw above average math gains, but the fact is most states were testing before NCLB, the gains may have been a one time step increase, and evidence linking the quality of standards and/or tests to academic gains is in short supply.

NCLB’s attempt to test the nation’s kids to 100% proficiency (or as Andy Rotherham insists something more like close to it if you read the fine print, which few outside of Andy did) by a date certain ended in tears waivers.

My impression is that the standards movement basically hangs its hat on the Massachusetts experience. Massachusetts has the highest NAEP scores and thus is a good example to study. Massachusetts however introduced a multifaceted reform strategy in the early 1990s, but scholars seem remarkably incurious about which policy changes helped to drive how much improvement. Of course, like the Florida experience, we can never know what policy changes drove aggregate level improvements, but we have a great deal of micro-level evidence on the impact of individual policies. If any of this exists for Massachusetts, I’ve not seen it discussed. Even if we did have a good sense of this based upon a large body of studies, the question of external validity must be considered. Last time I checked MA was one of four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures and I’d wager draws an unusually high number of teachers from selective universities.

Why has the standards movement been pushing on a string? No it is not just that states set the test cut scores at incredibly low levels, although they did that:

It’s not just that states held a repulsive 35% of schools responsible for the scores of their special education kids scores in 2009-10, although they did just that:

After all of those things and others most states took the further step of obscuring the results behind a set of fuzzy labels, like Texas:

Some states have pulled this off much better than others, and a high quality system of transparency should be every policymakers goal. The idea that the country has meaningful, widespread “accountability” through state testing is a demonstrably simplistic notion. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was conflating minimal skills testing in math and reading with robust accountability. While this is obviously absurd given a moment or two of reflection, it is also deeply ingrained in people’s thinking that you can do things like show a legislative committee a chart like the one immediately above, only to have a member of that committee berate you a mere few minutes later that private schools “lack accountability.”

Er, lack accountability compared to what? I may have missed it but I’m putting the number of people in Texas having been held responsible for the state’s 28% reading proficiency rate over/under at zero unless you want to blame it on the kids themselves, most of whom have been labeled “proficient” on state tests that the Wall Street Stock Picking Chicken might pass on a good day (see Figure 1).

Well yes, but the Common Core will fix all of this. Except of course it won’t. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that states all over the place have been adopting their own tests and cut scores and discussing withdrawing all together.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

The current chaos shares an origin with the wrecking of the NCLB-era state tests. It is the same reason your tax dollars get used to pay farmers not to grow food so that you can pay higher grocery bills.  Agribusiness is organized and politically active, while eaters are disorganized and politically inactive.  Organized/active beats disorganized/inactive 99 times out of a 100.

So in theory, the state sets out grade level academic standards, and then tests children against those standards. Schools thereby follow a coherent flow of content such that you do simple addition before complex addition etc. In theory teachers and schools that fail to teach the standards get held accountable. In theory, there is no unauthorized breeding on Jurassic Park, but…

As long as you are going to have academic standards and tests, you ought to fight not to have horribly deceptive systems. You should rather fight for informative tests and clear labels, but with the full knowledge that the dinosaurs on your island will constantly be breaking out of your fences in any number of ways. They may even convince some people in the leafy suburbs that the substitution of one set of standards and tests for another constitutes oppression, er, somehow…how? I’m not entirely sure but…ah…stick it to THE MAN!

Bureaucratic accountability, in short, will always face severe political limitations, and even under the best of circumstances is no substitute for parents possessing an exit option. Even under the best theoretical systems there will always be kids who would be better off somewhere else for both academic and non-academic reasons. Decentralized accountability works best with transparency to inform choices, but centralized accountability without choice will inevitably face the gravity well of regulatory capture.

The level of control you are attempting is not possible.

 

 


Governor Ducey Calls for Arizona Academic Standards in State Board Address

March 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Consistent with his campaign position, Arizona Governor Ducey called for the creation of Math and Reading standards that are both high and unique to Arizona in a speech to the Arizona Board of Education.

 


Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas Delivers Reality Check (No, really!)

March 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This morning Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, acting within the responsibilities of her office and seeking to protect the best interest of Arizona students imo, released a power point presentation providing a reality check regarding some recent legislation regarding state standards. Here is a copy of the first slide:

AZDoE 1

And here is the second:

AZ DoE 2

 

Zero snark here: I commend Superintendent Douglas for taking this step. None of this means Arizona can’t adopt its own academic standards (I expect that we will do so) but it does mean that some careful thought about how to do it is in order. Yes I agree that the feds should not be taking our money and then giving some of it back in the form of school aid so they can boss us around etc. but Superintendent Douglas is living in the real world rather than a preferred world. I don’t think many would like to be in the situation of having Arizona taxpayers helping to pay for the U.S. DoE budget while dealing ourselves out of any of the funding for AZ schools. This #shadowfaction member applauds the Superintendent for this move!

 

 


Multiple States Ditch My Little Pony Coloring Book Quality Academic Exams

March 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New article on the quality of state tests vis a vis NAEP by Paul Peterson and Matthew Akerman at Education Next. The authors demonstrate a trend towards closer alignment in proficiency rates between state exams and NAEP during the Common Core era, with 20 states narrowing the gap. Several states, including at least Arizona and Florida, will debut new tests in a few weeks.

Of special interest to me in the above chart is the overall averages by year trends. Notice Tennessee’s long string of F grades, followed by A grades in 2011 and 2013. Was it a coincidence that Tennessee saw more NAEP progress than any other state between 2011 and 2013? Perhaps so, perhaps not.

Notice also however Washington D.C., which had even larger aggregate NAEP gains than Tennessee between 2011 and 2013 (and a long history of NAEP progress before 2013). Nothing but C grades thus far, but charter schools have been taking the place over and outscoring the (improving) district. Apparently there is more than one path up the mountain.

Can we attribute the general increase in the rigor of state tests to Common Core? The authors note in a fashion as dry as a martini:

CCSS may be driving these changes. One indication that this may be the case is that the six states that are not implementing CCSS for reading or math all continue to set low proficiency standards. Their grades: Virginia, C+; Nebraska, C; Indiana, C-; Texas, C-; Alaska, D+; and Oklahoma, D.

Regardless of where you stand on the Common Core project, and we’ve beat the horse into hamburger on it here, state tests with the approximate rigor of a My Little Pony coloring book- look Mommy I colored this unicorn blue-I’m PROFICIENT!!!– deserve no one’s support.  

In other words, if you are a Tennessee opponent of Common Core you owe everyone a realistic plan that keeps you at an A on this chart. If you want to go back to the old system, you need to explain why you want to spend tax dollars on a state sponsored weapon of mass deception (years of tests that proclaimed you proficient when you signed your name).

This is the space that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey staked out in his campaign- standards that are high but not common. It will be no small task to pull this off in practice, but it is the best path for an opponent of the Common Core project to follow.

 

 

 

 

 


Get your #Shadowfaction coffee mugs here!

February 19, 2015

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So we’ve had a little drama out here in the cactus patch.

Arizona has a State Board of Education appointed by the Governor and a Superintendent of Public Instruction elected by the voters. Per the Arizona Constitution, the Superintendent is a member of the Board. The previous Governor appointed all of the current members of the board. The board has a small staff, and we are five or so weeks into the terms of the new Governor (Ducey) and Superintendent (Douglas).  Some of the current members of the Board participated in the decision for Arizona to join Common Core. Governor Ducey campaigned on replacing Common Core while keeping high standards. Opposition to the Common Core served as the animating issue of the Douglas campaign.

A few days ago one of Douglas’ subordinates appeared before the two top staffers of the State Board of Education, announced that they were fired, and had an officer escort them out of the Department of Education building (the Arizona Board’s meeting room and staff inhabits the Department of Education building). The Board chair immediately stated that the Superintendent lacked the legal authority to take this action.

Governor Ducey’s team studied the matter over night and in the morning sided with the Board. As it happens, there is a directly on point advisory opinion from the Arizona Attorney General on the subject from 1985. The underlying statutes are clearly murky. Officials routinely follow Attorney General opinions in preference to having office holders sue each other- a sort of intergovernmental arbitration but formally lacking the force of law or a court decision. It would likely take an incredibly erroneous advisory opinion to have a court reach a different conclusion quite frankly because courts are busy with real cases and aren’t likely to want to jump into the quagmire of endless minor disputes. Advisory opinions are the fast solution to this with strong incentives for officeholders to abide by them.

This AG opinion examined the relevant statutes and clearly sides with the Board on the question of who has the authority to hire and fire board staff.

So why are you reading this tedious story? For the fun part, the epic press release from the Superintendent. Her reading of the relevant statutes is very different than the advisory opinion. The press release accuses Governor Ducey of seeking to short change schools “to give his corporate cronies tax cuts.” This is a reference to an ongoing lawsuit by public schools against the state, but that lawsuit is currently in settlement talks, the state is broke, and only modest tax changes have been placed on the agenda this year.

A little further down she states that “Clearly he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state Superintendents who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.” This is an overt reference to my Ducey transition K-12 co-chairs (one works for a prominent charter school outfit and the other is a former Superintendent of Public Instruction who supports Commn Core) and well, anyone who wants to know what any of us think about K-12 policy can either ask us, or gather intelligence through “google.” I mean I guess there is some way to be more transparent on the subject than writing columns, studies, blog posts, books and giving public talks, but I just don’t know what it is yet.

No, no, NO! #shadowFACTION! Not you!

Common Core as a plot to drive more students to charter schools is an innovative theory, but one that fails to withstand a moment of scrutiny. Charter schools are subject to exactly the same testing requirements as district schools. Unless the charter school folks have somehow stolen the answer key this seems fanciful. Did I mention that Governor Ducey does not support Common Core? Yes, that again.

Anyhoo, later down the press release makes a rather strident complaint about the need for lay-persons and African Americans on the board. This is odd in that Governor Ducey has yet to make any appointments to the Board and has been in office for all of five weeks and has pressing matters like a very large budget deficit and other issues with which to contend.

Just to be clear I personally am comfortable with the position Governor Ducey articulated in the campaign on state standards-high but not common.  Arizona has had them in the past but lacked the fortitude to keep them. The state will have academic standards for district and charter schools for the foreseeable future, and Arizona’s old system jumped the shark many years ago. Having said that, the state is scheduled to give a test in a little over two months and has yet to do little things like set the cut scores, a task for (you guessed it) the Board, who could use, well, a staff.

40% of Arizona 4th graders can’t read and less than 19% of the graduating AZ public school Class of 2006 received a BA degree in six years. Listen closely and you just might hear the soft melodies of a violin rising above the crackle of the flames. I’ll be over here in the corner drinking coffee if anyone feels like moving on to a serious conversation on AZ K-12.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Netherlanders over alle, of bijna alle

January 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New Atlantic piece on education in the Netherlands, where teachers call the shots, anyone can open a school, parents have choice, and religion is treated with neutrality rather than viewed as a public menace. Any guesses on what teacher job satisfaction looks like in the Netherlands? How about student test scores? How much do they spend per pupil compared to us?

What is that Mr. DNA OECD? You can answer some of these question? Why yes, please do!

 


Oklahoma Drama Full of Sound and Fury but ends in a whimper

December 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

One bit of 2014 business to address: Oklahoma got their NCLB waiver back after their universities certified their previous standards and tests (which compared relatively well to NAEP) as college and career ready. Note that the story includes the nugget that 40% of Oklahoma college students require remedial education despite those highly thought of standards and tests. Paging Dr. Loveless, Dr. Hanushek! It’s possible that it would have been even worse without good standards and tests but to borrow a line from Sol Stern, good standards and tests are not enough.

On the process issue conditional waivers exceed the authority of the United States Secretary of Education and constitute a piece in a larger mosaic of an attempt to rule by administrative fiat. Unlike the Hotel California, however, you can both check out and leave the CC either without penalty (Oklahoma) after jumping through a hoop. Alternatively states can call Secretary Duncan’s bluff and simply drop their NCLB waiver because the consequences just aren’t that big of a deal (Washington- still no waiver riots on the streets of Seattle). It might at some point occur to someone in Washington or some future waiver-dropping state to file suit over conditional waivers.

It appears that the Secretary has been bluffing with a weak waiver hand, smiling to himself as states all-too-eagerly fold. States wishing to leave the CC however should give some thought as to what they would like to get out of their state testing system rather than adopting a “shoot-ready-aim” approach. My Little Pony connect-a-dot tests may not merit the approval of state university systems, and unlike Oklahoma not all states have decent systems to fall back on. The exit door however is clearly open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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