“Testing” Is Not a Synonym for Common Core

November 6, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Over at the Cato-at-Liberty blog today, I dissect the results of BAEO’s recent survey of black voters’ views of education policy. BAEO is a fantastic organization, but this isn’t their best work. Although their question about school vouchers was straightforward (when asked “Do you support school vouchers/scholarships?” more than 60 percent answered in the affirmative), the survey question that they claim shows support for Common Core actually does no such thing.

BAEO claims the survey “indicated solid support among Black voters that believe educational standards such as Common Core and its related assessments is essential to holding education stakeholders responsible for student learning outcomes.”

It does not. As I explained at the Cato blog:

If the wording of the survey question was identical to how it appears on their website, then it says absolutely nothing about black support for Common Core. The question as it appears on their website is: “Do you think that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable for student achievement?” The question doesn’t mention Common Core at all. For that matter, it doesn’t mention standardized testing specifically, nor explain how the testing is meant to “hold schools accountable.” Perhaps it means publishing the score results so parents will hold schools accountable. Or perhaps it means the state government will offer financial carrots or regulatory sticks. Or maybe it means whatever the survey respondent wants it to mean.

If Acme Snack Co. asked survey respondents, “Do you like snacks that are delicious and nutritious?” and then claimed “two-thirds of Americans enjoy delicious and nutritious snacks such as Acme Snack Co. snacks,” they would be guilty of false advertising. Maybe the survey respondents really do like Acme Snacks–or Common Core–but we can’t know that from that survey. Just as some people may enjoy carrots (delicious and nutritious) but find Acme Snacks revolting, lots of parents may support some measure of testing while opposing Common Core testing for any number of reasons.

“Testing” is not a synonym for Common Core. Supporting the former does not imply supporting the latter. (Just ask the Pioneer Institute.) If BAEO wanted to ask about Common Core, they should’ve asked about Common Core. Instead, they asked about mere “testing.” Making any claims about support for Common Core based on this question is irresponsible. BAEO can do better.

Shuls Slays Dracula Again

November 3, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

A few months ago, JPG regular James Shuls and Marty Lueken of the Friedman Foundation put a stake in the heart of the school choice myth that just won’t die. However, the vampire is back roaming the countryside, this time in the form of a report from the Center for Public Education.

Fortunately, James “Van Helsing” Shuls does not rest:

Recently, the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association, released a report on the merits of school choice. The paper claims to summarize “what the research says.” Interestingly, the report fails to include almost every analysis that has found benefits to private school choice programs.

When Anna Egalite, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and human development at North Carolina State University, conducted a systematic review of the competitive effects of private school choice programs, she found 21 studies. She concluded that the results “unanimously find positive impacts on student achievement. Such overwhelming evidence supports the development of market-based schooling policies as a means to increase student achievement in traditional public schools.” Interestingly, the Center for Public Education did not cite any of these studies.

Similarly, there have been 12 random-assignment studies of voucher programs. These are considered the “gold-standard” in social science research because they are the best at determining causality. Eleven of the 12 studies have found positive effects from voucher programs. The Center for Public Education review only cites one of these studies.

The report cites plenty of useful statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources, but does not even attempt to cite the plethora of useful research on school choice programs.

Nevertheless, the report does get at least one thing right—private school choice tends to boost graduation rates.  This was highlighted in the evaluation of the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which showed a 21 percentage point increase in the graduation rate for voucher users.

Not surprisingly, given that they neglect to cite any of the ample evidence showing that school choice succeeds, the Center’s conclusion is that “In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools.”

The Great Gates Political FAIL

November 3, 2015

The Gates Foundation’s education reform strategy is in the midst of the most catastrophic failure since the Annenberg Foundation blew $500 million in the 1990s.  The wheels are coming off Common Core, the center-piece of the Gates reform strategy.  Today’s front-page Wall Street Journal article documents how states and districts are abandoning the standards and their aligned tests and/or backing away from making the necessary expenditures to implement the new standards.  At this point only 23 states are still using one of the two Common Core assessments, putting me clearly in the lead on the Greene-Polikoff Wager.  The WSJ article paints a devastating picture of Common Core’s collapse.

Even local efforts by the Gates Foundation to implement its teacher quality strategy are falling apart.  Gates pledged $100 million to the Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida to make it the model of its reform strategy.  As the district is running out of Gates money and discovering the unsustainability of its own financial commitments, the whole effort of using new teacher evaluation methods, mentoring, and merit pay is about to be dismantled.

Despite all of this investment, Hillsborough is getting lousy academic results.  As can be seen in the table below, Hillsborough has been doing very poorly on the US Department of Ed’s Urban NAEP over the last 2 and 4 years.  Hillsborough has even lagged far behind the generally disappointing national results.  Nor is this a Florida problem as Hillsborough lags far behind the trend in Miami.  Of course, one cannot attribute these aggregate trends to any specific policy, but political interpretations do not hinge on these methodological niceties.  The obvious conclusion policymakers are drawing is that the Gates effort in Hillsborough cost a fortune, is not financially or politically sustainable, and is an academic flop.

Hillsborough Average for Large Urban Districts
Math 2015-2013 2015-2011 2015-2013 2015-2011
8th grade -8 -6 -2 0
4th grade 1 1 -1 1
8th grade -6 -3 -1 2
4th grade 2 1 2 3

The question is whether philanthropists and ed reformers are going to learn the right lessons from the unfolding Great Gates Political FAIL.  Some seem to have mistakenly concluded that the problem was just poor communication and messaging.  Others seem to think we just need to try harder to succeed with implementation.  I’m convinced that a top-down strategy that falsely invokes science to identify “best practices” and then attempts to impose those practices on our highly decentralized education system is always doomed to fail, regardless of how it is “messaged” and no matter how earnest we are about implementation.

There are no indications as of yet that folks at the Gates Foundation or other major reform organizations have learned the proper lessons.  Vicki Phillips just announced that she is leaving as the head of Gates education efforts, but the Foundation’s public statements indicate no change in strategy.  It’s unclear whether Phillips is leaving because of perceived failure, because of the repeated mis-representation of research, or just because it is time for a change after 8 years at the helm.  And other foundations seem to be drifting toward more top-down, high-regulation approaches.

Effective philanthropy is hard and education reform is even more challenging.  But unless the major organizations change their approach they are doomed to repeat this failure.

More on The Al

November 3, 2015

Yesterday I announced Ken M as the winner of the 2015 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  In that post I didn’t do enough to explain why I did not select one of the other very worthy nominees, so I’d like to remedy that today.

Malcolm McLean is like several of Matt’s previous nominees — a business innovator who had to overcome entrenched interests to introduce a new and more efficient method that has improved the human condition.  McLean’s development of inter-modal container shipping is a great advance but it is also a bit too similar to our past honoree and Matt nominee, George P. Mitchell, who pioneered fracking.  Recognizing the variety of ways in which people can improve the human condition is a factor in selecting the recipient of The Al.

I nominated Gary Gygax, who created Dungeons & Dragons.  Gygax does highlight the variety of ways people can improve the human condition, but he still falls short.  The real contribution of D&D is giving permission to adolescents and adults to play pretend, not the development of a bunch of rules, books, and accessories.  Had Gygax spent more energy emphasizing the former rather than the later, he might have been a stronger contender for The Al.

John Lasseter, is a crowd favorite and Greg writes a brilliant post nominating him.  But The Al tends to recognize the un-recongized over the already famous.  Lasseter has a shelf full of accolades for his amazing work.  Honoring Lasseter would be like honoring Jonas Salk or Steve Jobs.  There is no doubt that they accomplished great things that improved the human condition, but those accomplishments are already well-known and not in need of further recognition.

I explained my reasoning for selecting Mike McShane’s nominee, Ken M, yesterday, but I’d like to elaborate on that a bit.  Ken M reminds me of The Lazlo Letters, a collection of correspondence between comedian Don Novello’s alter ego, Lazlo Toth, and a variety of public figures and major corporations in the 1970s.  Novello, better known for playing Father Guido Sarducci, wrote idiotic letters to these powerful people and companies to elicit their polite but often manipulative replies.  As he put it, “No matter how absurd my letter was, no matter how much I ranted and raved, they always answered.  Many of these replies are beautiful examples of pure public relations nonsense.”  PR letters in the 1970s were just the primitive ancestors of today’s perpetual social media campaign and flacking.

I’m pleased to report that Ken M contacted me this morning in appreciation of receiving The Al.  In fact, of the living recipients of The Al, we have heard from all of the individuals or family members with the exception of Weird Al (perhaps a sign that he was already so widely recognized for his accomplishments that he might not have been the best selection to win The Al.)  But to the rest of The Al honorees I can only say thank you for all you have done to improve the human condition.  In the words of Lazlo Toth to then President Gerald Ford: “Lean to your left — Lean to your right — Stand up, sit down — Fight! Fight! Fight!”

And the Winner of the 2015 “Al” is… Ken M

November 2, 2015

We had another strong field of nominees for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, including Malcolm McLean, Gary Gygax, and John Lasseter.  All of them would be worthy of “The Al” at some time, but one of them — Ken M — is the Al winner the world currently needs.

Why do we need Ken M to win the Al? Because serious and powerful people have adopted the ridiculous idea that policy can be changed and the world can be made a better place by constantly communicating and arguing on social media.  This idea has infected virtually every policy issue, including education reform.  Intellectual discussion of policy has often devolved into a perpetual campaign, where the goal is to get as many “likes” and “hits” as possible.  There are conference calls to develop “messaging” and distribute “talking points,” as if they were orchestrating an actual election campaign rather than trying to better understand and improve public policy. This is why we see so much total b.s., half-truths, and distortions from people who should be more responsible.  They just want to win as many votes (hits, likes, etc…) for their policy as possible, credibility be damned.

Ken M has made a significant contribution to improving the human condition by revealing what a complete waste of time social media is for anyone who takes it seriously and thinks they are changing the world by tweeting, posting, and arguing on the internet.  Social media is filled with idiots, like Ken M’s persona, whose opinions can’t be changed and whose opinions don’t really matter anyway.

It’s amazing to me that people with a lot of resources and who imagine themselves to be politically sophisticated have absolutely no idea how policy change occurs.  Retail politics with mass communication have practically nothing to do with how policy gets made, most of which is determined by better-informed elites and interest-groups.  Mass opinion matters only very indirectly.

In addition, it’s amazing to me that ed reformers would be attracted to a perpetual campaign approach given that the unions and other status quo forces have way more money and volunteers than reformers can ever have.  In a brute force political contest the unions and their fellow-travelers will win almost every time.  The one thing reformers have going for them is the truth.  The unions are stuck with lousy ideas that produce miserable outcomes.  Reformers can beat them by remaining committed to telling the truth as faithfully as they can.  Messaging, spinning, and distorting only undermine the credibility of reformers and deprive them of the one advantage they have.

I write all of this in a blog post with a complete understanding that this post will not change the world for the better.  This blog exists mostly because I enjoy having a running conversation with a few friends and because doing this amuses us.  Ken M has the right idea.  Social media is mostly for socializing and having fun, not changing the world.  For that he is worthy of this year’s Al.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award: Ken M

October 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Mike McShane)

The internet is awesome. From the Marine in Afghanistan who can Skype home to Alabama to help his wife tuck his kids in, to the incredible amount of free, crowd-sourced information on sites like Wikipedia, to the connective power that social media has provided, even to the point of helping taking down unjust dictatorships, it has been an incredible force for good in our world.

But the internet is also terrible. The combination of anonymity, a perceived soapbox, and the belief that there is real connection between opinion makers and mothers’ basement dwellers has surfaced an ugliness that has meted mob justice (sometimes incorrectly), harassed people, hacked into cell phones and shared private photos, and said horrible things that I’m not even going to hyperlink to.

The internet has developed a word for the people who perpetuate such ugliness, trolls.  It is evocative and accurate. Some of these trolls become well known. Others shift from user name to user name and IP address to IP address to guard their secrecy.

By and large, trolls are terrible and most websites are powerless to do anything about them. But, a recent Gizmodo post reminded me of an individual that took on trolling in the only way that might actually work, by trolling the trolls.

Ken M, the nom-de-plume of comedian Kenneth McCarthy, pops into comment sections with a childlike wonder and an idiocy that is so deep and true that it drives self-righteous and pedantic internet commenters nuts.  Here are a couple of examples:




You tell ’em Ken.

I love Ken M for three reasons. First and foremost, he makes me laugh. Like big dirty, laughs. Second, he’s not mean spirited.  Sure, he’s pulling these folks leg and we’re having a laugh at their expense, but he’s part of the joke too, and there is no nastiness in what he is doing. Finally, like all great comedy, Ken M’s shtick is rooted in something true—it is stupid to argue on the internet.  It is stupid to argue on the internet, and only by watching a stupid person argue on the internet can we fully appreciate just how stupid it is to argue on the internet.

So I’d like to nominate the pedant-baiting, Mars Rover-chastising, Pompeii-defaming, National Geographic-baking, Ken M for the Al. Hope he made you laugh as hard as he made me.

Cheeseheaded Arguments Against School Choice

October 29, 2015

Cheesehead Evers

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Enrollment in Wisconsin’s voucher program doubled for the second year in a row and members of the public education establishment are not happy.

“Private school vouchers aren’t making our kids smarter — but they are spiking our property taxes and siphoning money away from our kids’ public schools,” Mary Young, president of Support Our Schools Wauwatosa, said in a statement.

If the vouchers aren’t making kids smarter, then neither are the district schools. A longitudinal study found that they score about the same on test scores, with advantages for the voucher students in some years. The major difference is that the voucher students graduate at a higher rate and cost about 40 percent less per pupil — important facts that somehow didn’t make it into the Journal-Sentinel‘s coverage.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated this year that the [school voucher] expansion could shift $600 million to $800 million from public schools over the next decade.

State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers said at the time that the plan would hurt public school budgets and students.

“You lose two or three kids, it doesn’t mean you can lay off five teachers,” Evers said. “It will have major negative impacts.”

First, it must be the case that Evers was misquoted. There’s no way he actually believes that a school losing “two or three kids” will suffer “major negative impacts.” If two or three kids moved out or town or started homeschooling and the resulting fiscal impact was anything approaching “major,” the town should fire the principal and impeach the school board for gross incompetence.

But wait, what about that “$600 to $800 million” that will shift “from public schools over the next decade”? Isn’t that a lot of money?

Well yes… and no. Here the Journal-Sentinel reporter yet again fails to provide the crucial context: how much the state and local governments currently spend on education. According to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Wisconsin public school system cost more than $10.6 billion per year (about half of which is state spending). Even assuming no growth in spending, that’s more than $106 billion over the next decade. In other words, the voucher program expansion is projected to result in a reduction of about 0.56 percent to 0.75 percent of public spending on district schools. (The precise amount may vary slightly depending on the data source and growth assumptions, but we’re still talking about a fraction of one percent.)

Moreover, this calculation does not factor in the reduction in costs associated with students who leave the system. Plus, as Marty Lueken recently detailed at the Friedman Foundation blog, under the current school funding formula, “school districts that lose students to the parental choice program actually end up with more revenue for each student who remains in their schools.”

In summary, the projected fiscal impact of the voucher expansion on district schools is minuscule overall and district schools may even see an increase in their per-student funding. Of course, that’s not the impression that a context-free mention of “$600 to $800 million” gives, which is why providing that context is so essential. Readers who don’t crunch the numbers themselves aren’t just uninformed, they’re misinformed. Failure to provide that context is journalistic malpractice.


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