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?

MOOC 1

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.


Whose Tribe Wanted This?

January 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week on NRO Kathleen Porter Magee wrote what reads like a lament for the death of the center-right education reform coalition:

(W)e must resist the centrifugal forces that threaten to pull apart the core policies that together have made the conservative reform movement so successful. Narrowing the scope of this tradition by removing standards and accountability from the theory of change would be a remarkably shortsighted decision, with far-reaching consequences for everyone seeking reform.

I also regret the current controversies, but one has to expect a fight under the tent here and there.  Since actions speak louder than words, I’m guessing it is going to take more than broad expressions of regret to stop this one, even after the current Common Core controversy fades from relevance.

My recollection of how this fight under the tent started would begin with this self-indulgent attack followed by more expression of poor reasoning by the standards tribe like this. Quoting Hirsch:

The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on markets to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools should be teaching. Such guidance would go against the “genius of the market” approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference with curriculum. Stern shows—rightly, I believe—that this is a fundamental failing of the choice movement.

Ironically enough, Dr. Hirsch fails to recognize that a great many schools that have opted in to his benevolent guidance are choice schools of various sorts.  This seems truly odd given that these schools are listed on his own website.  More than a few leading lights of the standards movement, while undoubtedly learned, seem to lack a basic understanding of pluralistic interest group competition. Who drove the classics out of the American public school curriculum in the first place? Why would you expect it to be different in the future?

Here in Arizona the Great Hearts schools have revealed an almost insatiable parental demand for a rigorous classical education- they have 6,000 students, 10,000 students on waiting lists, and every time they open a new school their waiting list grows rather than shrinks.   If you are having trouble understanding why the districts were basically oblivious to this demand before the advent of the dastardly “structural reform” some remedial course work in political science is in order. To the limited (but growing) extent that a classics based approach is proceeding in Arizona districts it is because the combination of parental demand and (**gasp**) charter schools and even more wildly liberal home-schooling movement has created the incentive to move in that direction.

KPM to my knowledge is not responsible for any of this, and this is all in the past. More recent stuff like this however certainly does not help. State testing may be a near total disaster in a great many states, but that’s no reason not to apply it to choice programs. Egads.

The tension between the standards and choice movements boils down to one between centralization and decentralization. It is not impossible to reconcile these urges, but a necessary if not sufficient step on the part of the standards tribe will be to show greater respect for diversity and self-determination. Until such time, remember whose tribe wanted this fight.


Wonks of the World Unite!

January 22, 2014

Ah the undergrad years….ok, yes, that’s me with the lampshade hat. Hook ‘Em Horns!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My email inbox has been filling up since Mike P. let loose with the “comrade” reference.  Bob Bowden interviewed me over differences in dogma between myself and Commissar Petrilli here, wherein I attempt to correct ересь in an effort to restore harmony within the Politburo. Glasnost and perestroika must continue comrades, but with a human face.


Fordham vs. Fordham on Private Choice Transparency

January 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Fordham Institute has a new white paper out on accountability in private choice programs.  The headline will be that Fordham supports requiring students participating in voucher and tax-credit programs to participate in state accountability testing.  Adam Emerson, the author of the study and the new charter school chief in Florida (congrats btw Adam) wrote:

Surely there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that
downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in choice programs of this kind.

The two key words in this sentence: risk and if.

Emerson believes that the risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available to parents can be managed by state officials being smart. Even the most insulated policymakers on the planet (say the Federal Reserve Board, which can more or less print its own budget) make decisions on far more than a technocratic basis. Even to the extent they do stick to their best judgement, they sometimes get things wrong in a spectacular fashion. Democratically elected lawmakers drift in and out of what Edmund Burke described as delegate and trustee roles of representation. The results, far from smart, are sometimes very messy and even counterproductive.

To gain an appreciation of the limited influence of technocrats in K-12 testing policy, I would suggest reading some of the Fordham Institute’s voluminous work making the case of what a complete hash a great many states have made of their testing systems for public schools. Here is a useful quote from the Proficiency Illusion:

Standards-based education reform is in deeper trouble than we knew, both the Washington-driven, No Child Left Behind version and the older versions that most states undertook for themselves in the years since A Nation at Risk (1983) and the Charlottesville education summit (1989). It’s in trouble for multiple reasons. Foremost among these: on the whole, states do a bad job of setting (and maintaining) the standards that matter most—those that define student proficiency for purposes of NCLB and states’ own results-based accountability systems.

Something far more than the I.Q. of policymakers seems to be at work here. The theme goes on in another brilliant Fordham report, the Accountability Illusion (emphasis added by yours truly):

As currently implemented, NCLB is not a discriminating system. A tremendous amount of money and energy has been spent to create the impression that there is accountability, and there are large numbers of schools throughout the United States that are in some phase of sanctions. But the accountability is not coherent. We found states where most schools failed to make AYP and others where nearly every school made it. We found demonstrably good schools that failed to make AYP far too often, and some pretty mediocre ones that slide by in some states.Thus what seems like accountability is an illusion. Good schools get sanctioned, bad schools get off, and ultimately students get shafted, since maintaining this illusion has a cost. When good schools get sanctioned, resources are wasted and we risk causing quick-fix, panic driven, counterproductive change in schools that may ultimately hurt students. When bad schools get off, their students are denied opportunities (what we unfortunately now call “sanctions”) that might lead to a better education, including the chance to attend a different school, or receive supplemental services, or simply obtain assurance that the workings of a perennially dysfunctional school will be addressed and corrected.

If those policymakers had been “smart” then thing may not have turned out this way. Many of the state testing systems that Fordham is now anxious to impose on private choice students have been previously described as costly frauds by, well, Fordham itself.

I don’t have a problem with private schools choosing to take the state test if it is done voluntarily.  Personally I wouldn’t want anything to do with a private school that lacked the self-confidence to have their own curriculum, but to each their own.  I like national norm reference testing as a light-touch method of providing transparency while leaving curricular choices up to schools.  If policymakers are so inclined, using such data to exit bottom-feeder schools could be undertaken without imposing state tests.

The whole idea of creating a parental choice program however is to provide parents with the broadest possible array of meaningfully varying options so that they can choose a great fit for the needs of their child. Accordingly, we should never make the mistake of viewing the job of a private school participating in a choice program as teaching the state’s curriculum or giving their tests. Rather their job is to satisfy the individual needs of the student to the satisfaction of parents. Parents will find schools following the state’s curriculum and giving the state’s test in abundant supply.  The whole purpose of private choice options is to create a diversity in the menu of choices available to parents and students.

It isn’t the lack of I.Q. that created the mess in state testing systems, rather the natural limitations of technocrats operating within a pluralistic democracy.   We would be wise to recognize these limits and to craft our choice programs accordingly.


What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Rawls and Understanding Update on RedefinED

November 11, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I updated the “forced reincarnation with the chance to pick your state” thought experiment with NAEP 2013 data over at RedefinED.

Bonus Elvis C:


Many States Show Shameful Records in Holding Schools Accountable for the Progress of Special Needs Students

October 23, 2013

Special Ed inclusion

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The No Child Left Behind Act required student testing and reporting of data in return for continuing receipt of federal education dollars. The law however left granular details to the states, most of whom happily went about abusing them.

This chart is from a new study about the inclusion of special needs children in state testing regimes. As you can see from the third column, states held a glorious 35.4% of schools accountable for the academic performance of special needs children during the 2009-10 school year.  This ranged from a glorious 100% in Connecticut and Utah to a sickening 7% in Arizona.

I have heard through the grapevine that addressing this national scandal has been a major point of emphasis in Arne Duncan’s waiver process. As someone who views this process skeptically overall and suspects that it is creating a mess that will be difficult to unwind, let me say bully for Duncan on this score.

Those of us who have a preference for state and local control over K-12 policy need to recognize data like this and shamefully low cut scores as a major problem.  I’m not an enthusiast for Washington by any means. You won’t however be hearing me sing the glories of devolving K-12 power to Arizona as long as the Wall Street stock picking chicken can pass the AIMS test on a good day and 93% percent of the schools are not held accountable for the academic progress of special needs children.


AP Reporter Tom LoBianco Smeared Tony Bennett

September 10, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Just in case there is any lingering doubt out there about just what happened in the faux Indiana grading “scandal” the Sunshine State News very helpfully dispels it:

It was Tony Bennett’s successor in Indiana, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, formerly head of the teachers union in Washington Township schools, who turned over Bennett’s entire Outlook file — six months of emails, four years of calendar items, everything — to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco, according to two of Ritz’s employees.

Ritz beat Bennett in the 2012 Indiana general election, becoming the first Democrat to win the job in 42 years. Bennett had been a favorite of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Two employees in Ritz’s office spoke late Monday to Sunshine State News on condition of anonymity. “Glenda is Tony’s sworn enemy,” said one of the employees. “She approached Tom (LoBianco) and cooperated with the press right down the line.”

“I think the idea was to destroy what Tony stands for by tainting him with a little dirt,” the second employee added, saying what offended Ritz was his hard-driving agenda of charters, vouchers and high-stakes testing.

So you take someone’s entire Outlook file, sift through it, put out a few emails without any context whatsoever. Oh and you make up a story to go along with your out of context emails, and you don’t even bother to learn whether your story holds up to the most basic levels of scrutiny. Questions like “were the changes made reasonable given the circumstances and did they apply across the board?” don’t carry the slightest bit of relevance if your aim is to smear someone, which of course is precisely what Ritz and LoBianco accomplished.

I’m curious where have the rest of the Indiana press been during all of this. Why did it take a news outlet from Florida to reveal what ought to have been immediately suspected from the outset?

UPDATE: While I have a difference of opinion regarding “super-subgroup” and other details RiShawn Biddle’s analysis on this subject is a must read.


Tony Bennett Cleared in A-F grading controversy

September 9, 2013

(Guest Post from Matthew Ladner)

We now have a bipartisan analysis of what actually happened in Indiana grading-gate scandal. Rick Hess covers the subject here:

Flash-forward five weeks, and we finally have a resolution. The headline: Bennett exonerated. That’s the conclusion of a 56-page official report, requested by Indiana’s legislative leaders, and released Friday.  Authored by Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics, the report finds that Bennett acted appropriately and fair-mindedly.  Grew and Sheldrake spent the past month or so investigating what happened and reviewing the data.  They concluded that Bennett and his staff made “fair” and “plausible” changes to Indiana’s school rating system before releasing 2012′s A-F grades.  They found that a lack of planning and capacity had forced Bennett and his team to make a series of on-the-fly “interpretations” and judgments, but that  Bennett and his staff “consistently” applied changes to Christel House and 180 other affected schools.  In short, nothing to see here.

Since Tony’s critics are on the whole fair-minded people with only a tiny minority suffering from some sort of derangement syndrome, I’m sure Tony’s inbox will be filling up with apologies. Some analysts who were willing to pontificate much with little in the way of facts just might be feeling a bit sheepish today as well. Pundits are extremely responsible after all and never just shuffle on to the next subject when they are way off base on something.

I have believed from the outset that no one from Diane Ravitch to Charles Murray sitting in Tony’s position would have told 16 schools without junior and senior students to simply eat getting zero points from graduation rates and AP completion categories. “Would you shut up already and get some juniors and seniors” is simply not a response that any half-way reasonable person was going to utter.  I have also believed from the outset that if the changes made applied to only one school then it was a scandal, but that if they evenly applied the changes across schools then this was a hatchet-job.

For the record it was a hatchet-job.


New York Releases Common Core Scores

August 7, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So purely in the interests of keeping your fighting skills sharp just in case some Common Core supporting crazy old man in a brown robe intrudes on the anti-Common Core cantina, note that a second state after Kentucky released Common Core test results. The results look eerily similar to what happened in Kentucky.

Those guys over there! They said something about cut scores!

Hat tip to Gotham Schools, here is what happened in Reading:

NYCC

The math chart looks pretty similar. Proficiency rates, in short, crashed across New York and are now far closer to the proficiency rates of NAEP.

How did the old New York tests compare to NAEP? High middle and high in 4th and 8th grade reading respectively:

naep-table1

Note that neither Jay nor Greg have ever to my knowledge based any argument on the notion that Common Core standards were low or that the tests would be simple. Your humble blogger noted some years ago that even if the tests start out well, that he’d like to hear the plan for keeping them that way. I’ve heard realistic plans for states to pull out if (yes I heard you yell “WHEN!!!” all the way from the Raven Coffee Bar in Prescott Arizona-try the London Fog btw) the bad guys take them over but nothing yet on a broad strategy.

I’m, umm, not famous for paying close attention but my ears do remain open on that front.

Anyway the dummy down narrative however should be (at least for the time being) mothballed, as it is starting to look increasingly unsupportable by that pesky empirical reality stuff. Forewarned is forearmed, and you wouldn’t want to end up like, well, you know…


Choice First, Standards Second

August 1, 2013

cart-before-the-horse

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.


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