WILL Video Explains It All

May 22, 2015

Marty Lueken from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and a Department of Ed Reform alum sent me this remarkably informative video on the lack of relationship between school spending and achievement globally and in Wisconsin.  Check it out.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barack Obama

May 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So my favorite part of the entire Georgetown poverty discussion was when the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks- alone against the President of the United States, a leading public intellectual/academic and a moderator sympathetic to their point of view- nevertheless took their best shot and then put them on the canvass.

President Obama laid out an indictment about a tax-dodge for hedge fund managers, how he had sought to close this loophole in order to tax hedge fund managers at the normal rate, and that he had planned to invest the additional revenue in high-return fashion to advantage poor children. Sounds pretty damning, unless you can think. Arthur Brooks can think:

MR. BROOKS:  Yes, sure.  Fine.  These are show issues.  Corporate jets are show issues.  Carried interest is a show issue.  The real issue?  Middle-class entitlements — 70 percent of the federal budget.  That’s where the real money is.  And the truth of the matter is until we can take that on — if we want to make progress, if the left and right want to make progress politically as they put together budgets, they’re going to have to make progress on that. 

Now, if we want to create — if we want to increase taxes on carried interest, I mean, that’s fine for me — not that I can speak for everybody, certainly not everybody on the Republican side. 

So if we want to make progress, I think let’s decide that we have a preference — I mean, let’s have a rumble over how much money we’re spending on public goods for poor people, for sure.  And Republicans should say, I want to spend money on programs for the poor, but I think these ones are counterproductive and I think these ones are ineffective, and Democrats should say, no they’re not, we’ve never done them right and they’ve always been underfunded.  I want to have that competition of ideas.  That’s really productive.

But we can’t even get to that when politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements, because we’re looking at it in terms of the right saying all the money is gone on this, and the left saying all we need is a lot more money on top of these things — when most people who are looking at it realize that this is an unsustainable path.  It’s an unsustainable path for lots of things, not just programs for the poor.  We can’t adequately fund our military. 

I think you and I would have a tremendous amount of agreement about the misguided notion of the sequester, for lots of reasons, because we can’t spend money on purpose.  And that’s what we need to do.  And when we’re on an automatic path to spend tons of money in entitlements that are leading us to fiscal unsustainability, we can’t get to these progressive conversations where conservatives and liberals really disagree and can work together, potentially, to help poor people and defend our nation.

I’m forming the Arthur Brooks fan club over here by the way. Obama, Putnam and Dionne are no match for him.

Was Missouri’s Interdistrict Transfer Program Poorly Designed?

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In the early 1970s the Ford Motor Company designed the Pinto. In addition to being extremely ugly, the Pinto was extremely dangerous. A rear-end collision could cause the gas tank to rupture and ignite. For obvious reasons, the Pinto is regarded as one of the worst cars ever.

At the very least, it was poorly designed.

Many look at Missouri’s interdistrict transfer program, which has allowed more than 2,000 students from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to transfer to higher performing suburban districts, as if it were a Pinto. It has forced the two unaccredited districts to hemorrhage and rest on the verge of bankruptcy.

Is it ugly? Yes. Is it poorly designed? It depends.

In 2013, the year before students transferred, fewer than 20 percent of students in the two unaccredited school districts were proficient in reading or math. Dropout rates were abysmal, and the prospects were slim for graduates of either district.

Now, let’s imagine that the transfer law was not in place. What would be different today? Chances are, the school districts would not be performing significantly better. What’s more, few outside of the school districts would have taken any note of the quality of education being delivered in these two north Saint Louis County districts.

Since nearly a quarter of the students walked out of these flailing districts, much has changed. No, the districts have not gotten significantly better; nor have they gotten significantly worse. The transfer program, however, has allowed 2,000-plus students to have the opportunity for a better education. Moreover, it has launched a robust conversation around the state about how to turn around struggling school districts.

But to understand if the program was “poorly designed,” we have to determine what it was designed to do.

Was it designed to be a school reform model for unaccredited school districts? If so, it failed, since it has drained these districts of necessary financial resources and could bankrupt both of them.

Was it designed as a long-term fix, a permanent interdistrict program? Again, if this is the case, it failed, since the program lacks a feasible tuition system. Currently, tuition ranges from roughly $10,000 to $20,000, depending on where a student transferred.

Is it possible, however, that the transfer program was designed for another purpose, like to create controversy or to spark change?

As I note in my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” the transfer students were largely absorbed into 24 receiving districts with little disruption. In this regard, the transfer program functioned relatively well.

The program has told families in low-performing schools that their children do not have to be doomed to perpetual underperformance. These families took the right to an education guaranteed by Missouri’s state constitution. Angel Matthews, for instance, experienced the benefits that come from choosing your own school. Angel was one of 175 students who initially transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to the Kirkwood School District, and she has embraced the rigors and opportunities of her new school by taking AP honors classes, cheerleading, and running track.

The transfer program has caught our attention, but it is not a permanent fix. Policymakers must now develop new policies that establish quality schools in every neighborhood. These policies must include some form of school choice, lest we fall back into our old pattern of assigning students to chronically failing schools.


James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.  Follow on Twitter @Shulsie

The Cowboy Sons of George P. Mitchell vs. Saudi Sheik Update

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT Mark Perry. From FuelFix:

HOUSTON — Pumping a barrel of oil out of the Eagle Ford Shale could get $10 to $15 cheaper by summer 2016 as service companies cut costs and operators tune up their wells, analysts say.

The oil slump hasn’t stopped producers in the South Texas play from getting better at targeting oil-rich rock in lateral sections of their horizontal wells, speeding up their pressure pumping systems and adopting better technologies for bringing wells into production.

Those efforts could help lift wells’ initial production rates by an average 33 percent in the Eagle Ford, even as service companies cut prices for drilling tools, proppant and rigs by an average 16 percent this year, Wood Mackenzie analysts said at a meeting with journalists last week.

Those two factors could bring the Eagle Ford’s breakeven oil price down from $56 to as low as $41 a barrel by June next year, putting millions more barrels within reach for producers. Similar trends are emerging in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Permian Basin in West Texas.

“The death of the unconventional business has been greatly exaggerated,” Wood Mackenzie analyst Cody Rice said. “Operators can still make money in the best portions of the best plays in the lower 48.”

Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?

Common Core Sophistry is Fun!

May 7, 2015

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Jason Riley on “The Soccer Mom Revolt Against Common Core.”  In it, I was quoted offering the analysis that upper-middle class moms were accustomed to having significant control over their kids’ schools.  NCLB may have annoyed these moms with tests that had little meaning for their kids, but by remaining largely agnostic on standards, academic content, and the method of testing, NCLB didn’t interfere with the operational control of suburban moms.

The over-reach of Common Core and federally-sponsored aligned tests is that they impinge to a much greater extent on the operations of schools.  When soccer moms come to school to complain about Rome and Juliet being cut to make way for informational texts, they are being told that the school had no choice in the matter.  Common Core made them do it.  And if they want to do well on the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests, they have to make these changes.  It doesn’t matter whether CC really requires this change or not.  The issue is that large numbers of upper-middle class parents are being told that they no longer have the same kind of influence over their schools that they are used to having.  And they are pissed.  So, they are starting to boycott the tests.

Not so fast, says Mike Petrilli.  In a post today he argues:

Here’s where Jason’s argument falls apart: Common Core is almost everywhere. Soccer moms are found almost everywhere. Yet the rebellion he describes is limited to one specific area.

As for Jay, maybe the loss of parental control is a real issue, but why do parents in Montclair, for example, feel that their power is being usurped much more so than parents in other states? Again, it can’t be Common Core, or testing, or school accountability policies, because those are almost universal.

Common Core couldn’t explain the opt-outs because they are concentrated in NY and NJ while CC is spread across the country.  The culprit must be the unions, he argues, since they are strong in NY and NJ and managed to enroll these parents in their general fight against accountability.

Let’s try Petrilli’s argument on another situation to see how well it stands up.  The Baltimore riots couldn’t be caused by police abuse, he would have to argue, because the riots are concentrated in Baltimore while police abuse is widespread.  Convinced?

Let’s try another one.  The unions can’t be responsible for the opt-outs because their opposition to accountability is longstanding while the opt-outs are a new phenomenon.  Common Core sophistry is fun!

Of course, mass protests, like opting out or rioting, have to start somewhere even if the source of complaint is widespread.  In addition, agitators typically play a role in motivating and organizing mass protests, but the underlying injury needs to be present or the agitation fails to gain traction.  The unions couldn’t get the soccer moms to opt-out unless they were upset about something.  Before Common Core, the unions tried but failed to elicit upper-middle class action against accountability tests.  Now they are finding a receptive audience.

No amount of sophistry is going to change the political challenge Common Core faces by interfering with soccer moms’ control over local schools.  And no amount of blaming those soccer moms for failing to care about poor and minority students is going to guilt them into surrendering that control.

Begun the First Amendment War Has…

May 5, 2015


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

up two-zip, Texas is.


Testimony to the Arkansas Common Core Council

May 4, 2015

Below is the text of the testimony I intend to present to the Arkansas Common Core Council on Wednesday.  The Council is chaired by Lt. Governor Tim Griffin and was charged by the legislature with providing advice on the future of Common Core Standards and PARCC testing.  You can watch videos of the Council testimony and discussions here.


Jay P. Greene’s Testimony to the Arkansas Common Core Council
May 6, 2015

Standards are about what we value. They communicate what we think is important for our children to learn, when they should learn it, and ultimately what kinds of adults we hope they will grow up to be.

Because standards are about values, their content is not merely a technical issue that can be determined by scientific methods. There is no technically correct set of standards, just as there is no technically correct political party or religion. Reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion about what they want their children taught. A fundamental problem with national standards efforts, like Common Core, is that they are attempting to impose a single vision of a proper education on a large and diverse country with differing views.

National standards can try to produce uniformity out of diversity with some combination of two approaches. They can promote standards that are so bland and ambiguous as to be inoffensive to almost everyone. Or they can force their particular vision on those who believe differently. Either way, national standards, like Common Core, are inappropriate and likely to be ineffective. If national standards embrace a vague consensus, then they make no difference since almost everyone already believes them and is already working toward them. If, on the other hand, national standards attempt to impose their particular vision of a proper education on those with differing visions, then national standards are oppressive and likely to face high levels of resistance and non-compliance. So, national standards are doomed to be either unnecessary or illiberal. Either way, they are wrong.

Some of you may be thinking that education is not entirely about values. Can’t we at least agree, you might be thinking, that all children need to acquire basic competency in literacy and numeracy? And if so, might not standards be helpful in addressing these more technical issues even if they cannot address broader issues of values?

Unfortunately, even when it comes to some of the narrower goals of education, there is no evidence that standards deemed to be higher quality are effective in producing higher levels of literacy and numeracy. I’m aware of four analyses that have examined whether states with standards judged to be better have greater academic achievement. I’ve provided references to these four analyses in the written version of my testimony. None of them show any relationship between the ratings of state standards according to the Fordham Institute and Education Week and each state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. I’m not aware of any empirical analyses that show that “better” standards lead to better outcomes for students.

The lack of relationship between the judged quality of state standards and student achievement should raise a number of concerns for this Council. First, it should make you doubt claims about the quality of Common Core standards. How does anyone know whether Common Core standards are good and will contribute to academic achievement if no one has ever found a relationship between Common Core (or any standards for that matter) and student outcomes? Many people claim to be expert judges of the quality of standards but no one’s judgment has been validated by actual improvement in student performance.

Second, perhaps the lack of relationship between expert judgments about the quality of standards and student achievement is explained by the fact that there is not a single path to academic success for all of our incredibly different children. Common Core or other standards might be good for some students in some circumstances, but bad for other students in other situations. The reason why expert claims about the quality of standards have never aligned with student achievement is that there is no single set of standards that could be optimal for promoting even basic literacy and numeracy for all students. Standards, particularly national standards, are then a fool’s enterprise of one size fits none.

Third, the lack of relationship between “better” standards and achievement might be caused by low levels of compliance by schools and educators rather than the unreliable judgment of experts. That is, standards are just a bunch of words in a document. Even if they are the right words and even if one set of words could fit what all children need, there is no assurance that schools or educators would teach to those standards. Schools and educators have their own ideas about the proper goals of education and little can be done to force them to change their practice.

Key backers of Common Core standards are aware of this problem and so the U.S. Department of Education funded the development of new tests that would be aligned with these national standards. If these new tests could detect whether schools and educators were changing their practices in the ways desired by Common Core and if rewards and punishments could be imposed on schools and educators for their compliance with the new standards, then perhaps the empty words of standards could be transformed into a real change in the education system.

The problem with trying to use PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests to drive Common Core changes is that it almost certainly requires more coercion than is politically possible and would be undesirable even if it could be accomplished. If Arkansas tries to use the PARCC test to impose strong enough sanctions on schools and educators to drive changes in their practice, we will witness a well-organized and effective counter-attack from educators and sympathetic parents who will likely neuter those sanctions. If, on the other hand, the consequences of PARCC are roughly the equivalent of double secret probation in the movie, Animal House, then no one has to change practice to align with the new standards.

And even if by some political miracle the new PARCC test could be used to impose tough sanctions on schools and educators who failed to comply with Common Core, it’s a really bad idea to try to run school systems with a test. All sorts of bad things happen when maximizing performance on standardized tests becomes the governing principle of schools. Schools and educators are likely to narrow the curriculum by focusing on tested subjects at the expense of untested ones. If we care at all about the Arts, History, and Science we should oppose trying to run schools with math and ELA tests. And within tested subjects schools and educators are likely to focus narrowly on tested items at the expense of a more complete understanding of math and English.

Common Core is unlikely to produce meaningful changes in practice without an aligned test that punishes schools and educators, but those types of harsh consequences are unlikely to survive the political opposition of educators and parents. And even if PARCC could impose tough consequences to drive changes in practice, the changes would produce a disastrous narrowing in the curriculum of schools.

So what should this Council recommend? Given that there is no technically correct set of standards and given that expert judgment about the quality of standards has never been validated by better student outcomes, there is no reason for Arkansas to defer to the small group of national experts who drafted the Common Core standards. Arkansas policymakers, educators, and parents know as much about effective standards as these self-proclaimed experts. So we should be empowered to write our own standards that reflect our own priorities and values in education. If standards are about values, they should be developed as close to the people to whom they apply as is practical.

But even standards that are developed in a decentralized way will fail to capture all of the legitimate diversity of goals and needs. For that reason, even standards that are developed locally should be humble about what they can accomplish and the extent to which schools and educators ought to change their practice as a result. In the end, it is families, educators, and communities who need to set appropriate goals for individual children, not the state and certainly not the national government or organizations.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we should abandon PARCC and purchase an already-developed, nationally-normed standardized test from ACT or any of the reputable testing companies. The purpose of PARCC is to drive changes in educator behavior in ways that are desired by Common Core. But we should not be using tests aligned with a set of standards to coerce schools and educators to change their practice. What we really need from standardized testing is just information about how our students are performing. This can be accomplished at much lower cost by just buying a nationally-normed test off of the shelf. And lower stakes tests that are primarily about information rather than coercion will produce much less harmful narrowing of the curriculum.
Charlie M. Belin and Brian Kisida, “Science Standards, Science Achievement, and Attitudes About Evolution,” Educational Policy, September 21, 2014. http://epx.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/09/23/0895904814550069

Eric A. Hanushek, “Is the Common Core Just a Distraction?” Education Next, May 9, 2012. http://educationnext.org/is-the-common-core-just-a-distraction/

Tom Loveless, “How Well are American Students Learning?” The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, The Brookings Institution, February, 2012.http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, “Don’t Forget Curriculum,” Brown Center Letters on Education, The Brookings Institution, October, 2009. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2009/10/14-curriculum-whitehurst


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