Sun Tzu and the Art of Education Reform

May 12, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay recently wrote two excellent posts about policy overreach and the pace of reform. Little Ramona even took time off from whipping her AFT intern pool with a cat o’nine tails to get them to write fake Diane Ravitch tweets faster to write an admiring post regarding Jay’s advice:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’

Jay’s post got me to thinking about my favorite warrior-sage, Sun-Tzu. What might he think about this?

On the one hand, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against long wars:

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In other words win and win fast.  Sun Tzu advises against one of those hours long Rocky vs. Apollo type slug-fests where even the victor goes to the hospital.  He advises something more along the lines of:

Alas the education reform movement finds itself caught in an Ali rope a dope fight rather than an Iron Mike early conquest.  Neither George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, Ho Chi Mihn nor Martin Luther King Jr. had the opportunity for a quick and easy knockout either so you are in good company.  Jay’s point about seeking total victory leading to total defeat finds echoes in Sun Tzu as well:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

As an example of the above, I think it is safe to say that Sun Tzu would have little admiration for the quality of the effort put forward by American abolitionists.  From John Brown to Sherman’s March to Reconstruction these well-meaning people with a just cause seemed overly fond of the full frontal assault.  None of this excuses the actions of southerners at all. Note  however that it would have been rather extraordinary if the justices on the United States Supreme Court had failed to notice that the federal efforts in the south had almost completely backfired by the time of the contemptible Plessy case. Abolish slavery, hello sharecropping!  Amend the Constitution, say hello to Jim Crow. Deeply resentful southern racists eventually took  over the United States House and people in the north grew weary of their occupation of the south much faster, which is what one should expect given that everything they were doing more or less backfired.

Plessy was deeply horrible on many levels, but it essentially ratified the facts on the ground-facts that with sickening irony that abolitionists had helped to create.  Abolitionists did not achieve supreme excellence- they not only did not break the enemy’s resistance without fighting, they failed to break it with hundreds of thousands dead.  Their lack of supreme excellence, along with a great deal of idiocy on the part of southerners, helped usher in an additional century of Southern dark age.  We of course will never know how much of this tragedy could have been avoided, but we do know what actually happened and it was awful.  Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany to protect Poland’s freedom only to see Poland put under the Soviet boot, but at least this only lasted half a century.  In the aftermath of America’s bloodiest war America’s slaves were transformed into sharecroppers without the right to vote and with little decent schooling.  We are still grappling with this sordid legacy today.

As Jay said, seeking total immediate victory often leads to abject failure.

All this is all the more tragic given that American abolitionists could have learned a great deal from the earlier triumph of Wilbur Wilberforce in England in abolishing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.  Notice the crucial elements of success: undaunted effort, indirect means, an eventual embrace of patient incremental policies after the failure of multiple frontal assaults, no bloody war ultimately accomplishing little to nothing.

It’s no mystery why a reactionary like Diane Ravitch would find solace in Jay’s Rx- she is quite happy with the status-quo, and has a lot of K-12 workers hanging on her every word as she tells them what they desperately want to believe. This does not however mean that reformers should ignore Jay’s advice-he’s on to something important regardless of whether Ravitch or other reactionaries hope to make use of it. In fact, reactionaries themselves should fear reformers taking this advice to heart. If they do, defenders of today’s failed status quo will face far more effective opponents.  Jay is yelling reformers a warning from their blind spot.

Last year I spent a lot of time in Texas working on education reform. During the session I got an email from someone whose opinion I highly respect and who told me some things I really, really, really did not want to believe.  The email said in part:

Matt, Some of the efforts to improve ‘choice’ were heavy handed and arrogant. Vouchers always have had common enemies from both the left  and right, from rural and suburban, from minorities who would be the  beneficiaries.

Expectations were too high and ignored several factors—the  finance lawsuit being a major factor, delaying any real reform efforts  until it’s settled.

Some leading ‘reformers’ collected a variety of practices  purported to be effective in other states and proposed those for  Texas without doing the necessary base building for real support.  Even the A through F idea was  never  really sold well.  The battle fought last session over the over-engineered  accountability system was won by proponents but  they ultimately lost the war, exacerbating the growing  anti-testing sentiment.

The business community was split on ‘accountability’ for good  reason. There has been an over emphasis on ‘college ready’ and not  enough focus on ‘job ready’ with the latter having been subsumed by the former.  The resulting curricular pathways will show that for some segment  of employers simply raising standards is no longer enough and some new  designs are needed.

A big part of me wanted to fire off an angry email explaining that illiterate Texas kids didn’t have another day to wait, etc. Instead I let it sit for a day.  The next day I had to confess to myself:

Damn it all to hell he’s right on every single point.

Sadder and wiser I wrote back:

You are totally correct that there are going to be plenty of servings of humble pie to eat at the end of this session. I also fear that we reformers have gotten into the habit of viewing reforms as military conquests over bad guys to the detriment of efforts to inform and persuade. Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where to you ultimately get without it?

Well it is mid 2014 now and the answer from the Texas example is pretty clear- nowhere.  Private choice failed, the commissioner did not implement A-F school grading after having the legislature forbid him to do so, the legislature has left the state’s accountability system as a complete train-wreck.  Sign me up for a double serving of humble pie.  Even the raising of the charter school cap represented only a symbolic victory as there were already ways around the cap and charter holders can open multiple campuses under preexisting Texas law.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that Texas school kids don’t have another damn day to wait for better schools. I must accept however the fact that failed attempts at reform don’t do them any good.  If there is going to be major changes in Texas K-12 education reformers are going to have to convince far more than 76 members of the Texas House, 16 members of the Texas Senate and one governor that they are good ideas. In fact, Texas reformers might be better off thinking of those 93 people as the last on the list to persuade rather than the first. Mere legislative majorities resemble words written into the sand of a beach without broader consensus and support.

If reformers want faster change, we must embrace the need to persuade a broader universe of people on the justice of our cause and the effectiveness of the means by which we hope to achieve them. If mere legislative majorities tempt you into thinking you can proceed without such consensus, think again.  Parental choice supporters should therefore embrace the burden of building a broad consensus while recognizing the danger overreach.  Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where do you ultimately get without it?

Stomp on the gas reformers, but do take a look at the traffic conditions.  Your car won’t do you much good if it gets you and more importantly your passengers killed.

 


Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day

April 23, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Diane Ravitch fully endorses a line of thinking by our own Jay P. Greene.  Money quote:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

‘Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’


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.


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