Hess and McShane: Oppose CC if You Want but Please Grow Up

April 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Heh, what they said.  Money quote:

Common Core critics must keep in mind that policy debates are won by proposing better solutions. The Core standards were adopted with a big federal boost and little public debate, but adopted they were. Teachers and school leaders have been implementing the standards since 2010, and opponents can’t wish this away any more than Obamacare critics can wish away the new landscape produced by the Affordable Care Act.


The Texas K-12 Testing Debacle

April 14, 2014


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Texas once had a system of testing and accountability that was the envy of the nation. Texas boasted the highest Hispanic scores on NAEP in the nation not so long ago for instance. The Texas system served as the basis for the No Child Left Behind Act that required testing in grades 3-8 and once in high-school in return for federal education dollars.

Hanuskek 4

The Texas system grew long in the tooth over time.  Other states developed better standards and better testing systems and embraced more parental choice while Texas seemed to rest on its laurels. The Houston Chronicle revealed statistical hocus pocus that greatly inflated the number of highly rated schools committed by the Texas Education Agency. Gnomes in the basement of your state education agency can wreak havoc with any centralized system. Still, a system that gets you into the upper-left quadrant of the above chart (relatively low spending increase per pupil, relatively high gains on NAEP) was probably doing something right, especially if you are absorbing a Wyoming public school system sized cohort of additional students every year.

A toxic mixture of reformer overreach, devious alphabet soup group plotting and populist uprising has left this once proud system as a complete train-wreck.  I will attempt to summarize this wreck in a single chart:

Texas 1

So only a large minority of Texas students can do grade level work on NAEP in any given subject, 91% of schools got a “met standard” label under the new “pass/fail” accountability system currently used during this brave new world of accountability chaos.  This is an accountability system the reminds me of:

These labels are supposed to be transitional, but there will doubtlessly be efforts to codify them into statute during the 2015 legislative session.  I could go on at some length about what a mess that the high-school end of course exam system has become, but I will spare you.  Go and read the Dallas Morning News series linked to in the previous post if you’d like a detailed blow-by-blow on who all is to blame on this, but my own take is that there is plenty of blame to go around on both the reformer and alphabet soup side.  The parents involved had genuine grievances regarding the testing system, but also must share in the blame for what is now a bad joke of a system.

Texans need to engage in a vigorous debate over what it is that they desire out of their system of academic testing and transparency. If the answer is “nothing really we just want to go through the motions of having such a system” then the legislature can codify pass/fail and further dummy down the high-school testing system. Trophies for everyone, a long era of academic stagnation awaits.

If not, then reformers might need to persuade parental activists to exercise greater responsibility to go along with their influence.   Hopefully the Texas reform tribe has grown sadder and wiser as well.

The Coming Chaos in Student Testing

April 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

From a New York Times story on Mayor de Blasio reversing more of Mayor Bloomberg’s policies:

Teachers and parents had been lobbying for a change in the promotion policy since last year, when the state adopted new exams aligned with more rigorous academic standards known as the Common Core. Test scores across the state plummeted; in New York City, 26 percent of students in grades three through eight passed the English exam, while 30 percent passed in math.

Responding to the outcry, the State Legislature this month mandated that school districts take into account multiple measures in deciding which students to promote, and it barred schools from including test scores on student report cards.

Finally got rid of those test scores on student report cards. Whew- what a relief!  I read somewhere that the Republican candidate for Governor in New York has joined the testing opt-out movement, which is also charming.

Meanwhile in Indiana, well, go read about it for yourself.  Given that the federal government requires student testing in Grades 3-8 and once in high-school as a condition to receive federal funds, it might be a really good idea for Common Core opponents to give some thought to what it is they favor in addition to what they oppose.  A constructive vote of no confidence is a much better idea than what is starting to look like:

Here in Arizona, Governor Brewer requested $13m for a new assessment tied to the standards that the State Board adopted in 2010.  The legislature appropriated $8m.  What happens next?  Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

It might be easy to attribute this to Common Core, but you take a look at fiercely independent but still chaotic Texas and then you realize that it’s not so simple. I highly recommend reading the Dallas Morning News series How the Texas Testing Bubble Popped.  The series has three parts (I, II and III) and is well worth reading.  Towards the end of part III the DMN series says:

While test opponents elsewhere are looking to Texas for clues about how to pop the testing bubble back home, it’s not a model that will be easy to replicate.

The battle over testing in Texas pulled together an incredibly broad-based and narrowly focused coalition that managed to avoid the political battles that afflict many other issues.

School superintendents started tilling the field in 2006.

What had seemed unified business support for the tests publicly fractured, giving some legislative leaders political cover to join the rebellion.

TAMSA brought in mostly white, suburban moms from high-achieving schools who were politically and geographically diverse. 

Mind you that Texas had a 30 year bipartisan elite consensus on testing that gave birth to No Child Left Behind. The elite consensus got steamrolled in 2013. I had something close to a second or third row seat to the debacle. Governor Perry threatened to veto HB 5, but wound up having a signing ceremony despite the fact that the legislature had acceded to few if any of his demands. Governor Perry already had a special session called that could have addressed the topic. Texas is however a democracy, and the demos appeared to be speaking loud and clear regarding the end of course exams system.  We all have times where we want the trustee model to triumph over the delegate role, but you get some of both in life.

So when you factor out the unique Texas strangeness out of the Lone Star State accountability collapse (which may have only started rather than finished btw) it looks to me that the future of testing in the United States is going to be a battle for the hearts and minds of suburban parents.  The Dallas Morning News opines that what happened in Texas is unique and complicated. Perhaps so, but it may be the case that it is simple: when the Alphabet Soup crowd successfully recruit suburban parents to wreck shop on state testing systems, well it kind of reminds you of Hudson’s post-crash tactical assessment from the American film classic Aliens:

So where is this all headed?  I have no clue.  Circa 1980, public schools largely stood as transparency free zones where real estate agents based their highly sought after expert opinions on public school quality on the percentage of kids they saw running around on the playground that were white. This was the school system that I grew up in. Personally I’d prefer not to go back, just in case you were wondering, but it is not going to be up to me.



Kingsland News and a Quick Thought Experiment

April 4, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I read this morning that Neerav Kingsland is stepping down as CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and will be taking on a new role of helping to spread the Recovery School District model.  New Orleans’ loss is the nation’s gain- RSD is an incredibly exciting model which ought to be emulated widely.

The basic idea of the RSD is that school buildings are a crucial educational asset and that we ought to be getting them into the hands of people who will run quality based choice schools.  When done well, as in New Orleans, you are constantly chopping off the left end of the bell curve in terms of academic outcomes.  Charter operators get a certain agreed to period to operate, their outcomes are assessed, and if they don’t do well their charter is not renewed and the RSD puts out an RFP so other CMO can compete for the right to educate the students and use the school building.

Accountability is no illusion here- if you stink, you are gone baby gone.  I mean its not Kathy Visser accountability where parents can hire and fire their own teachers, tutors and therapists but in terms of accountability for providers it is probably the next best thing. The attraction of the RSD model is obvious, at least for the period where the RSD is run by people who are going to do the tough and emotionally draining work of shutting down low performing schools.

Now as a little thought experiment, ask yourself the following question: if the New Orleans RSD were using, say, Stanford 10 rather than the Louisiana state test to measure achievement and academic progress in order to perform their functions, would there be any less accountability in the system?

I don’t think so either.  And when you are dealing with private schools, national norm reference tests are already widely administered and have a much lighter touch on the curricular choices of schools.


There Just Might Be Hope for this Marriage After All

April 1, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Sensible clarification from Checker and Mike on transparency in choice programs.

It is however April Fools Day…hmmm…

Stand down Mr. Worf, but remain vigilant.

Say It All Together Now Class: TESTING ≠ ACCOUNTABILITY

March 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”

This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling.  Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”

Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:

the quality or state of being accountable; especially :  an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed.  So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results.  Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.”  Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one  is ever held responsible.

So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public.  Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public.  There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them.  If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later.  I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.

Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.

Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently.  She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.

Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.

I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach.  Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.

Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan.  She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan.  With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.

That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results.   Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.

The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now.  Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out.  My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.

The Disaggregation Era of K-12

February 10, 2014

Pay attention 007, and do try to keep up!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike McShane hosted an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, and I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with Mike, Andy Smarick and Kara Kerwin.  During the discussion, Andy confessed that what he found the “disaggregation” of K-12 unsettling. This came up in the context of a discussion of Arizona’s ESA program and students like Jordan Visser:

“How do you assign a teacher of record?” I recall Andy asking.  For Jordan, such a question is already antiquated. Should his tutor be classified as the teacher of record? Or the physical therapists? Mr. or Mrs. Visser?  What if Jordan is taking a MOOC from Stanford is a few years? Should the state of Arizona attempt to hold Stanford “accountable” for what Jordan learns?

Personally I choose “none of the above.”

The trend towards disaggregation in K-12 predates Arizona’s still tiny ESA program.  The ESA program can in fact simply be viewed as the best vehicle for managing a customization trend as a quasi-market mechanism that gets us as close as possible to realizing the benefits of markets while preserving the public funding of K-12. The disaggregation trend however has been moving out into the bloodstream for decades. Consider the following program data from Florida:

Florida disagregation

This is a snapshot of traditional “school choice as you knew it at the end of the 20th Century.”  Most but not all of these choices are mutually exclusive such that they are something any one student does to the exclusion of others. You don’t expect to find many students for instance enrolled in a private school full-time and doing full-time virtual instruction, for instance. Most of these options are either/or propositions you are either sitting in this type of seat, or that type of seat. Major avenues of part-time education, such as dual college enrollment and virtual education, are not included, so we are just getting warmed up.

Let’s take virtual education on next:

FLVS Credits

The Florida Virtual School is not the only supplier of accredited virtual courses in Florida, so the 148,000 or so courses they provided in 2011-12 underestimates the strength of the trend. Nevertheless FLVS long ago begged the question: if a child takes an online Mandarin course from an approved online provider, just what, if anything, does this have to do with the results on the host schools’ accountability scores?

“I’ll take ‘Absolutely Nothing at All’ for a Thousand, Trebek!

Needless to say, FLVS found it necessary to develop alternative methods for measuring student achievement related directly to course content.  High-school students have been taking classes at community colleges for decades with what appears to be an entirely understandable disinterest in sorting through just how much responsibility, if any, the Community College holds for what happens on the high-school students minimal skills accountability exam.

So what happens when we mix dual enrollment with virtual education?


Since we live in an age of wonders, we have over a thousand Massive Open Online Courses provided by some of the finest universities in the world available for free. Oh and the number of courses keeps growing. Did I mention that it has already been worked out for MOOC students to take third-party proctored final exams and receive college credit for them? Yes, right, that too.  Has anyone thought through the fact that the $89 cost for a third-party end of course exam may prove incredibly attractive for both families but also to schools who don’t enjoy having a portion of their budget sent off to an online provider?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves Trebek! I’ll take ‘Months that begin with Oct’ for five hundred…

So, let us imagine a 15-year-old taking a Calculus class from, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He or she successfully completes a third-party end of course exam, he or she either is or in the near future will be eligible for college credit from a large number of universities around the world. Obviously provision for this student to receive high-school calculus credit will need to be made as well if we are to maintain any semblance of sanity.  Should authorities in Arizona disallow this because MIT’s Calculus course doesn’t precisely fit the state of Arizona’s state standards?

I’ll take “Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!” for a thousand Alex.

In short, the disaggregation genie is out of the bottle, and the trend looks set to accelerate in the coming years. As our system of education evolves it will be necessary to update our thinking regarding transparency and accountability: they are already out of date and will be increasingly so moving forward.  It would be absurd to require Jordan Visser to take the AIMS test. The AIMS has nearly played itself out for the 19th Century factory model school system in Jordan’s home state and has nothing to do with Jordan.  Regarding the ESA program, the public’s interest in transparency would be better served by collecting national norm reference exam data and having them analyzed by a qualified academic researcher.  Regarding the broader education system, Texas has already moved to replace minimal skills tests with subject specific end of course exams at the high school level. If a student takes a Physics class, shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not they learned any “Physics”?

Creative destruction usually kills outdated ideas before outdated organizations. Our notions about how to provide transparency in a changing K-12 world have been running behind schedule.


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