The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics

April 14, 2014

Ed reform has been going through a bad stretch lately.  Currently dominant reform theories are the result of technocratic thinking.  They seek to identify (and impose) “optimal” topics to be taught, ways to teach those subjects, methods for training teachers, strategies for evaluating and motivating teachers, etc…  An army of economists or economist-wannabes have seized the reins of reform organizations with the hope that their next regression will tell everyone what to do to solve the mystery of improving schools.  They pay little heed to history, which might alert them to the failure of past efforts similar to their brave new undertakings.  And they are unfamiliar with basic lessons from political science on the dangers and failures of technocratic central planning.

Let me offer one political science lesson for ed reformers that I learned from reading Edward Luttwak’s book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.  Luttwak argues that there is a paradoxical logic to strategy.  In the realm of strategy what often seems good turns out to be bad and vice versa.  This is why strategists often say things like: “If you want peace, prepare for war;” “A buildup of offensive weapons can be purely defensive;” and “The worst road may be the best route to battle.”

Both military and political strategy have this paradoxical logic because they involve opponents who can observe your efforts and make counter-moves.  You can’t just run a regression to find the optimal solution and then expect everyone to thank you for discovering what you claim to be better methods.  Education is a political system that involves competing interests and values.  For the most part our problems are not caused by ignorance of optimal solutions, but by these clashing interests and values embedded in dysfunctional systems.

To fix these problems we need to address people’s competing interests and values and not just impose a technocratic solution from above.  In education, as in military and political strategy more generally, the most direct and definitive path to victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  Instead, the indirect and less definitive solution is almost always more effective.

Before turning to education, let’s consider the paradoxical logic of strategy with respect to another policy — gay marriage.  Opponents of gay marriage pursued the most direct and definitive approach to securing the victory of their policy view.  In 1996 they managed to get a bipartisan and veto-proof majority in Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became law with the signature of President Bill Clinton.  DOMA “barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as ‘spouses’ for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits.”  Opponents then managed to get 31 states to adopt constitutional amendments forbidding those states from recognizing same-sex unions.

By banning gay marriage at the federal level and in a majority of state constitutions one might have thought that opponents of gay marriage had scored a decisive victory.  But, by seeking to impose their policy view with a direct and definitive approach, the opponents of gay marriage planted the seeds of their own defeat.  Big losses for supporters of gay marriage motivated them to organize and develop inventive strategies for reversing those defeats.  They focused heavily on influencing popular culture and the media.  They went to the courts.

Meanwhile, opponents of gay marriage failed to continue efforts aimed at influencing mass opinion and neglected the debate.  They thought they had won, so why keep debating?  In a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country, there are no permanent political victories or defeats.  Winning a legislative battle or ballot initiative does not make the other side change its mind or go away.  They’re still there, devising ways to come back and win in future rounds.

Supporters of Common Core have made some of the same political mistakes that opponents of gay marriage did.  They figured if they could get the US Department of Education, DC-based organizations, and state school chiefs on board, they would have a direct and definitive victory.  And at first blush it looked like they had achieved it, with about 45 states committing to adopt the new set of standards and federally-sponsored standardized tests aligned to those standards.  Like opponents of gay marriage, the Common Core victory seemed so overwhelming that they hardly felt the need to engage in debates to defend it.

But in the rush to a clear and total victory, supporters of Common Core failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react.  For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board.  Otherwise Common Core, like most past standards, will just be a bunch of empty words in a document.

These millions of local officials, educators, and parents often have reasons for holding educational preferences that are different than those dictated by Common Core.  Common Core may call for things like more focus on “informational texts”  and delaying Algebra until 9th grade, but there are reasons why that is not already universal practice.  It’s not as if local officials, educators, and parents are unaware of the existence of informational texts or just waiting to be told by national elites about when they should start teaching Algebra.  They have interests and values that drove them to the arrangements that were in place prior to Common Core.

Having the Secretary of Education, state boards, and a bunch of DC advocacy groups declare a particular approach to be best and cram it into place in the middle of a financial crisis with virtually no public debate or input from educators or parents did not convince local officials, educators, and parents to change their minds.  These are the folks who need to be on board to make the implementation of Common Core real.  And these are the folks who are organizing a political backlash that will undo or neuter Common Core.  A direct path to victory by Common Core supporters sowed the seeds of  its own defeat.

The unraveling of Common Core makes this flop the most obviously ill-conceived and doomed-to-fail reform effort since the Annenberg Foundation threw $500 million away in the 1990s.  I assure you that while the money was flowing from Annenberg that effort had plenty of defenders, just as Common Core does today.  After Common Core fails, everyone will say how they knew it was flawed, just as they currently do with Annenberg.  Victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

But some of us have been warning of the political naivite of the Common Core effort for some time now.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane at AEI have also done an admirable job of describing the political weakness of Common Core, regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the standards themselves.

Supporters of Common Core may draw the wrong lesson from this post and increase efforts to convince the public and train educators to love the Common Core.  Not only will these re-education efforts be too little, too late, but they fail to grasp the inherent flaw in reforms like Common Core.  Trying to change the content and practice of the entire nation’s school system requires a top-down, direct, and definitive victory to get adopted.  If input and deliberation are sought, or decisions are truly decentralized, then it is too easy to block standards reforms, like Common Core.  Supporters of CC learned this much from the numerous failed efforts to adopt national standards in the past.

But the brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country impossible.  This can’t be solved by more professional development and a belated marketing campaign.  Even the Chinese re-education camps couldn’t make the Cultural Revolution reailty — and they invested a whole lot more energy and resources in trying to do so than the Common Core folks ever could.

There is a better, more indirect and less definitive approach to education reform.  In the next post I’ll discuss what that looks like.

The Already Existing Chaos in Student Testing

April 11, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt complains about “coming chaos in student testing” because opponents of Common Core don’t agree on what should replace it. As I’ve been arguing in the comment thread, the American political system is designed to allow messy, chaotic coalitions to form quickly among people who don’t agree about much but want to oppose something that they all dislike, even if they don’t agree about why they dislike it or what should replace it.

You want to know why that’s happening in the case of Common Core testing? Stuff like this:

I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.

Imagine how that sounds to parents. Jim Geraghty comments in his email blast:

We live in a world where Ed Snowden’s revealed all of our biggest national-security secrets, but parents in New York State can’t know what’s on the tests the kids are taking. What, are they trying to design a system with as little accountability as possible?

Yes, they are.

You would not have this huge anti-CC coalition drawing together people who agree about nothing else if CC were not being done in such a way as to generate huge opposition from a very diverse set of constituencies. And the CC coalition has proven that it is not willing to bend even an inch to accommodate those concerns.

As long as the CC coalition behaves the way it does, no one has any right to complain about the coalition that has formed against it. They are right to work together to oppose CC without waiting for consensus to emerge on an alternative.

I will keep on saying it and saying it: The core issue is trust. Nothing else matters. The system has lost the trust of parents, not because the parents are paranoid but because the system actually does not deserve their trust. Nothing else is going to go right until the system earns back the parents’ trust.

And the only plausible path to restoring trust is school choice without a common standard.

Update: More analysis of testing concerns from Rick Hess: “Four years after these testing consortia launched, I still can’t get answers to practical questions about whether the results will provide the kind of valid, reliable data needed to support transparency, accountability, and informed competition.”

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.



Alaska House Passes Scholarship Tax Credits and A-F School Grading

April 9, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was already madly in love with Alaska after having visited in 2006.  Now United States Senate candidate Mead Treadwell (great guy) had me up and gave me some great advice. My flight left at something like 2:30 am (they like to have planes leave Alaska late and fill up in the lower 48 early) and so Mead advised me to go up to Talkeetna and recruit some climbers to do a flight seeing tour of Mount McKinley.  The first guy I found had a ZZ-Top style beard and was from Vermont, and then I found two yuppies from Boulder who were heading up to camp and climb for a week. We landed on the glacier and the whole scene looked like another planet, let’s call it “Hoth.”

The pilot reassured us that we had picked the right time to come (May) because the cold had snapped but the Grizzlies were still hibernating. Best $100 I ever spent.

Anyhoo, now I somehow love Alaska even more because last night the House passed both a scholarship tax credit program and A-F school grading.


One of 4,500 Campaign Begins

April 8, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I recall a discussion I had as an undergraduate where my professor made the point the people who dropped bombs on cities in World War II would have had a much more difficult time emotionally looking the same people in the eye and killing them with a knife.  Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is determined to make their attackers look their victims in the eye in this 1 of 4,500 campaign.

Shakespeare’s Cassius told Brutus “There is my dagger and here my naked chest. Inside it is a heart more valuable than Pluto’s silver mine and richer than gold. If you’re a Roman, take my heart out. I, who denied you gold, will give you my heart.”

I don’t expect that those who brought this suit will share the reluctance of the noblest Roman of them all.  They fear having someone deny them gold and they seem out for blood.  Hopefully the courts will stay their hand.


Cost per Graduate

April 8, 2014

Dropout factories

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The most recent edition of the OCPA Perspective ran an article by yours truly on measuring the “cost per graduate”:

Suppose you buy your daughter ten piano lessons at $20 apiece, but you forget to take her to the first two lessons. You have to pay for all 10 lessons, but she only gets eight of them. Being a conscientious parent, you then buy your daughter another two lessons at $20 apiece so she can complete the 10-lesson course of instruction. And this time you remember to take her!

How much did you spend per lesson? Not $20, but $24. It’s pretty simple math: you spent a total of $240, and your daughter got 10 lessons. Yes, the immediate cost of each lesson at the time you paid for it was $20, but the total cost per lesson ended up being 20 percent higher than that because you didn’t do your job with the first two lessons…

Oklahoma’s high school graduation rate is only 78.5 percent. According to calculations from the U.S. Department of Education, about 10,529 Oklahoma students who ought to have graduated from high school in 2010 dropped out instead. A state that spends so much has a right to expect a lot better than that from its schools.

The education of these dropouts is roughly analogous to the two missed piano lessons. The people of Oklahoma paid the schools to educate these students, but the students didn’t get the education Oklahoma paid for.


I calculate that if we look at spending per high school graduate instead of per student, at current spending levels the annual cost of Oklahoma public schools is not $8,630, but $10,483.

The most important question is not whether Oklahoma taxpayers can afford to go on spending $10,483 per graduate every year, although that question matters. The most important question is whether Oklahoma can afford to go on failing 10,529 students in every high school class, year after year. Schools, like students, need to learn to see a tough task through until it’s complete. And if they tell us they’re having too much trouble learning, reforms like school choice could help them get up to speed.


Kansas Lawmakers Create Scholarship Tax Credit Program

April 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HB 2506 made it through the Kansas House and Senate last night and contains some significant education reforms, including a scholarship tax credit program, curbs on teacher tenure abuse and alternative teacher certification.  Congratulations to Kansas lawmakers and education reformers.  The “never say die” crew at the Kansas Policy Institute Dave Trabert and James Franko have earned a:


for their dedicated, determinedly fact-based efforts to improve Kansas education outcomes.


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