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

April 23, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

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

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

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

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:


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:


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…

Tony Bennett Is Having a Bad Week

July 29, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

What’s the best way to top off a really Walt-on-Lost level bad week for Common Core? How about a scandal in which emails show one of its most prominent supporters having manipulated his state’s “high standards” system to ensure that a particular school (one founded by a major donor) scored high? Just as that same state becomes the latest to move toward dropping out of a CC testing consortium?

I’d like to take Andy’s bafflement about CC supporters not anticipating pushback on the costs of implementation and double it in this case, if not triple it: why on earth did they discuss this so transparently in their government email accounts, which made it inevitable that the whole ugly show would eventually come out?

I feel sympathetic to Tony Bennett here. Any kind of evaluation system must involve qualitative as well as quantitative testing. That is, you not only have to make sure the numbers are accurately collected, crunched and reported, you have to make sure that what the system is calling “good” really is good. Of course you could in theory test your system by comparing it to the results of other systems, but if that’s all you do, the whole thing is circular. Ultimately you have no choice but to pick some examples of cases that you presuppose to be very good or very bad (or in the middle, for that matter) based on some kind of opinion - maybe yours, maybe your organization’s, maybe a consensus of experts, maybe a popular majority – and see if your system ranked those cases in accordance with the presupposed opinion. It is logically impossible to remove this element of judgment. You just can’t fully test a system for evaluating schools without at some point picking out some super-schools and asking “did these score well?”

Of course, everything hinges on what basis you use for selecting those cases – in other words, whose opinion of which cases are “good” you presuppose, and why. In the real world, if the standards are being set by government, that is always going to be a political process in which one or another set of powerful constituencies are privileged. The Bennett emails reveal the sausage-making nature of the process. What I want to emphasize is that this is not because Bennett is in some way specially corrupt but that this is what any such process must always look like. It is, again, logically impossible to avoid this type of qualitative reality check, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that any set of political actors would carry out that reality check in any way other than something like what the Bennett emails reveal.

The lesson here is not “Bennett is corrupt” but “all educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”

Common Core Is Having a Bad Week

July 26, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

When Locke first meets Walt, he says something about Walt getting back to his mother soon, and Walt tells him that his mother died two weeks ago. Locke looks around at the deserted island where they’ve all just crash-landed and says, “you’re having a bad month.”

Common Core is having a bad week. Pop some popcorn and enjoy watching the excruciating downfall of civilization with your host, Andy Smarick. Line for the ages: Smarick links back to an old post of his where he predicted this would happen and then says, “I can’t help but wonder: If some dude blogging from a coffee shop could see this coming, why in the world didn’t Common Core’s and common assessments’ powerful, well-staffed, and deep-pocketed backers get ahead of this?” He should check out the latest medical literature on PLDD.

In the meantime, the argument that Common Core is bad for school choice seems to be getting some traction, to judge by the increased level of desperate insistence (unconnected to logic or evidence) that Common Core is really great for school choice. Hope you’ve got more popcorn, because master magician Jason Bedrick is here to cut those arguments in two. Unfortunately for CC supporters, he hasn’t learned the part of the trick where they go back together.

You still have more popcorn, and you’re tired of knock-down, drag-out knife fights for the fate of the world on the edges of slowly crumbling cliffs? Don’t worry – we have the lightsabers you’re looking for.

Oops, Sorry, Turns Out Common Core is Anti-Choice

June 28, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, folks, I have to recant my recantation from yesterday. Turns out Common Core really does destroy parental options.

At Heritage, Brittany Corona points out that the SAT, ACT and GED are all competing to see who is most “aligned” to Common Core. As the College Board begins a major overhaul of the SAT, prompted by the ACT recently surpassing it as the most-used college exam, the Board is bragging that “in its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment that has been developed for college admission and placement.” The revisions will seek even stronger “alignment” between the SAT and Common Core. No doubt the SAT feels like it has to play catch-up because the ACT has been boasting for some time that it “pledges to work with other stakeholders to develop strategies and solutions that maximize the coverage of the Common Core State Standards to meet the needs of states, districts, schools, and students.” Meanwhile, the GED cites “the shift to the Common Core standards [that] is happening nationwide” as one reason it has to make major changes to its test.

Corona points out that private schools and homeschoolers are impacted by these changes. Private schools are already under pressure from short-sighted and/or cowardly system leaders to adopt (or pretend to adopt) Common Core, so that they won’t be stigmatized as dissenters from the One Best Way. If college entrance exams are Common-Core-ized, it will be virtually impossible for private schools and homeschoolers to maintain any kind of alternative to the One Best Way. As for the GED, Corona points out that homeschoolers often use it for external validation of their education.

Now, just like everything else associated with Common Core, there is less here than meets the eye. That’s because the claims that these tests are, or will be, “aligned” to Common Core are all meaningless BS (just like so many other claims associated with Common Core). As Jay has pointed out, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that anybody is ever really going to align anything to Common Core in a meaningful way. You can see that just from what the College Board people are saying. “In its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment.” What the heck does that even mean? What can that mean? The federal government’s contractors haven’t finished developing their official federal-government-designed assessments “aligned” to Common Core. We don’t even have the standards themselves yet! These people are simply talking out of their bodily orifices (just like…).

Moreover, as Corona points out, the deadening hand of dictatorial control by cynical elites is a constant wellspring of opportunity for entrepreneurial innovators: “Thankfully, tests like the SAT and ACT can be changed or replaced, even though they have begun a transition to Common Core. If a significant number of states pull out of Common Core, these exams can be modified, or there could be an opening in the market for other college entrance exams to take root.”

But although Common Core is unlikely to do the kind of extensive damage to parental control and educational diversity that the bragging of the College Board, ACT and GED would imply, nonetheless it is increasingly clear that Common Core represents the technocratic spirit of the One Best Way, to which all families should (in principle) bow the knee and conform. The inability of the technocrats to achieve their dream of forcing all parents into the One Best Way should not blind us to the fact that this is, in fact, their dream. Or that is what is implied by their behavior, at any rate.

My apologies for the wrong turn yesterday, folks. I was right the first time – Common Core is bad for school choice.

HT Bill Evers and Breitbart

I Recant! Common Core for All!

June 27, 2013

Greg loves CC cropped

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just like Jay did a little more than a year ago, I am recanting my opposition to Common Core. I’m all for it! Never mind everything we said about how there’s no one best way to teach children, and even if there were, we don’t know what it is yet; never mind everything we said about how unions would inevitably get control of the standards or how they would reignite the culture wars; never mind everything we said about how the standards are already being set too low, how they’re being put together by people with conflicts of interest, how they’re being illegally pushed from Washington.

Never mind all that. I’m all for Common Core. Why? Because Common Core is good for school choice!

Yes, I just wrote a big post about why Common Core is bad for school choice. I take it all back. Every word of it.

As Matt has just pointed out, 2013 is turning out to be the third big year in a row for school choice. Now here’s the thing. Back when 2011 was a big year for school choice, you heard about it everywhere. I mean every-frikkin-where. And don’t get me wrong, that was sweet. But 2012 and 2013 have been good years for choice, and for some reason, nobody’s noticing.

What gives? Well, for years we’ve been saying that “vouchers make the world safe for charters.” Whenever vouchers get on a roll, the unions have to train all fire on vouchers – leaving charters to slip through with less opposition. Meanwhile, mushy-middle politicians, academics and journalists can triangulate by opposing vouchers but supporting charters. It was Jay’s idea originally, but I wrote about it at some length in the Freedom and School Choice book a while back.

It would appear that just as vouchers make the world safe for charters, Common Core makes the world safe for vouchers. Everyone is so busy running around fighting over Common Core – especially the unions – that voucher supporters seem to have a freer hand. A while back, Jay wrote that one reason Common Core is a problem is “because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies….Common Core is consuming the lion’s share of reform oxygen and resources.” But it’s also consuming the anti-reform oxygen and resources!

And when money and muscle cancel out, there’s nothing left to determine the outcome but the merits – a debate we’ve already won.

So lock the government collar around my neck and break out the Gates Foundation checkbook, because starting now I’m all for Common Core.

PS Yes, that is St. Milton watching over me in the background.

Common Core Hurts School Choice

May 31, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In his post yesterday, Jay mentioned that the imperatives behind Common Core are hostile to school choice:

Pushing it forward requires frightening reductions in parental control over education and expansions of federal power.  These are not the unnecessary by-products of a misguided Obama Administration over-reach.  Constraining parental choice and increasing federal power were entirely necessary to advance Common Core.  And they were perfectly foreseeable (we certainly foresaw these dangers here at JPGB).

But back in the day, Jay and I were both supporters of Jeb Bush’s A+ program, which combined standards and choice. So why is Common Core anti-choice where Florida’s standards were choice-friendly?

The answer lies in the imperative to expand standards. As Jay and I have both pointed out, the whole CC project is centrally built on the assumption that there is a positive relationship between the geographic scope of standards and their academic quality. Consistently, CC advocates have used adjectives like “national” and “common” as if they were synonyms for “better.”

Why would we expect standards to be better if they are set at a higher geographic level? The implicit educational worldview behind this is a technocratic scientific progressivism: there is one best way to educate children, and an elite class of technocrats can be trusted to know what it is and get the bureaucracy to carry it out successfully (and without corruption). Consequently, we should want more uniformity across schools. If parents have diverse opinions about what is best for their children and wish to choose diverse schools, we must not permit ourselves to think that this may be because 1) there is no “one best way” because every child is unique; 2) the technocrats’ knowledge of the one best way is fallible; 3) the technocrats’ ability to get the bureaucracy to do its will is severely limited; or 4) power corrupts, and the technocrats and the bureaucracy alike are not to be trusted with monopoly power. Diverse parental desires are to be interpreted as a sign that parents can’t be trusted.

By contrast, A+ did not seek to expand standards; it only sought to impose them on one school system. The implicit logic of A+ ran as follows: if the state is going to run a school system, it ought to set standards for what that system should be doing. However, we have no illusions that the standards we are setting for our own system represent the “one best way,” so parents ought to be free to choose whether our school or some other school is best for their child. With this logic, as Jay used to say, standards and choice are like chocolate and peanut butter – two great tastes that taste great together.

(Of course, it is a comparatively recent development that all the public schools in a state are effectively one school system. Over the past half century or so, America has dramatically shifted from having many thousands of local school systems to having just fifty state systems. And that has been a bad development because it has reduced choice and thereby reduced pressure for improvement. But that’s a discussion for another day; it doesn’t change the fact that the logic behind A+ was non-expansionary.)

Now, it is logically possible for a person to favor both CC and school choice. But the arguments in favor of CC that you have to construct in order to get to that result are the intellectual equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s like that court case a few years ago over teaching intelligent design in public schools, where the expert called to testify in favor of ID said that you don’t need to believe in God to believe in ID. That is true, at the level of logical possibilities; you can construct an argument that simultaneously affirms ID and atheism. But there is no one who actually believes that, because the intellectual contortions necessary to get there are absurd. In fact, ID is intuitively theistic even though it does not logically require theism. That fact is not an argument against its truth (unless you begin by begging the question and assuming atheism is true) but it is relevant to the consideration of how students encounter ID in public schools.

In the same way, CC is intuitively anti-choice even though it does not logically require opposition to choice.

The End of the Beginning for Common Core

May 30, 2013

The folks at Pioneer have landed another blow against Common Core in the mainstream Conservative press.  This time Jim Stergios and Jamie Gass have a lengthy piece in the Weekly Standard detailing the start of troubles for Common Core, both substantively and politically.  This follows on a piece by Gass and Charles Chieppo in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.  A central part of the strategy for Common Core was to create the impression that it was inevitable, so everybody might as well get on board.  That aura of inevitability has been shattered.

My reasons for opposing Common Core are slightly different from those articulated by the folks at Pioneer, but we agree on the political analysis of its fate.  To become something meaningful Common Core requires more centralization of power than is possible under our current political system.  Pushing it forward requires frightening reductions in parental control over education and expansions of federal power.  These are not the unnecessary by-products of a misguided Obama Administration over-reach.  Constraining parental choice and increasing federal power were entirely necessary to advance Common Core.  And they were perfectly foreseeable (we certainly foresaw these dangers here at JPGB).

There is something either disingenuous or shockingly naive about the Fordham Institute’s horror at discovering federal involvement in the push for Common Core.  And it is equally disingenuous or naive for conservative curriculum backers of Common Core to suddenly discover that the new regime may be more progressive nonsense rather than their fantasy of the triumph of E.D. Hirsch.  We warned folks that federal coercion was central to the success of Common Core.  And we warned folks that national standards would ultimately advance the preferences of entrenched education special interests rather than those of reformers.

Rather than heeding these warnings or hedging their bets, these “conservative” backers of Common Core have doubled down in their support.  Checker in his customary high-handed style has tried to dismiss critics as crazy so that their legitimate objections need not be taken seriously.  The opponents just consist of “tea party activists, a couple of influential talk-radio hosts and bloggers, some disgruntled academics, several conservative think-tanks, and a couple of mysterious but deep-pocketed funders.”

Well, there’s no mystery about the deep-pocketed funder behind Common Core as the Gates Foundation continues to hand the Fordham Institute large bags of cash.  And to help solve the mystery of who is funding the opponents, I confess that I personally paid for the web site.  But because my pockets are not quite as deep as the Gates Foundation, I just let the registration for that web site run out.

Here’s a pro-tip for Checker and Common Core’s deep-pocketed backers… As opposition to Common Core grows in state legislatures and schools around the country, don’t dismiss those critics as crazies from your perch in DC.  The federal takeover of education has not yet been completed, so local and state politicians and educators still control the fate of Common Core.  Right now it appears they have no stomach to implement Common Core in any meaningful way.  Some may pause it.  Some may repeal it.  And some may leave it on the books but promptly ignore it just like a host of previous reform fads.  You can’t win these people over and successfully implement Common Core with a strategy that funds DC think-tanks to denounce the folks in the hinterland as a bunch of hicks and boobs who believe in crazy black helicopter conspiracies.

And here’s another pro-tip… If you don’t want people to believe in crazy black helicopter conspiracies, you shouldn’t fly around in black helicopters.  Local and state politicians and educators might have reason to suspect federal power grabs as the federal government grabs power to expand Common Core.  Saying that this was unnecessary and unfortunate and that states continue to control education does not change the reality of what is happening.

Reality exists outside of DC receptions and the words we use.  And the reality is that the backlash against national standards is real and gaining momentum.  It is inevitable that the Common Core bus will drive over a political cliff, just as previous failed efforts to nationalize education standards have.  Because true conservatives believe in personal responsibility, let’s hope we all remember who was driving the bus and cheering it forward.

If I Woke Up With Larry Grau, I’d Really Hate Myself

April 24, 2013

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) supports Common Core.  I don’t for reasons I’ve explained on numerous occasions in the past, but most recently here.  Reasonable people can disagree, so I am not particularly perturbed by DFER’s position.  It’s fine.

What’s not fine is how DFER Indiana director, Larry Grau, tries to support Common Core in a blog post that was mass e-mailed today. It’s provocatively titled, “Are you going to hate yourself in the morning?”  He answers saying that if you “have spent the night canoodling with far-right opponents of the Common Core State Standards… we can almost guarantee the answer will be yes.”

His argument, such as it is, in support of Common Core standards is that a number of Common Core opponents are the kinds of people you wouldn’t want to wake up next to: “Before you decide to get into bed with extremist right-wing critics of the Common Core, we highly recommend that you get to know them better.”  He then goes on to profile State Senator Scott Schneider and Eagle Forum founder, Phyllis Schlafly, to show that they oppose abortion and other policies that DFER folks might like.  In sum, Larry Grau’s case for Common Core is that its opponents are people with whom you may strongly disagree on other matters.

By Grau’s brilliant reasoning, of course, you should also oppose charter schools, which DFER strongly supports.  As it turns out, Sen Scott Schneider was given the Charter School Warrior of the Year Award in 2012 by School Choice Indiana.  So if you should recoil at the thought of agreeing with Sen. Schneider, you should also oppose DFER on charters.

Unfortunately, this type of non-substantive, ad hominem argument is becoming the norm in education policy discourse.  Even people with whom I generally agree, like DFER, think this is how you are supposed to make arguments in education policy.  It’s disgusting.

Well, if Grau wants to go down this path of ad hominem in defense of Common Core, he might consider how it could be used against Common Core.  After all, I’m hard pressed to think of a single pro-Common Core organization that has not received money from the Gates Foundation.  And at least if folks get in bed with Sen. Schneider to oppose Common Core they are doing it for love, not money.  So when Grau or other Common Core supporters wake up in the morning to find Gates money on the nightstand, they can at least take comfort in the thought that they are carrying on the traditions of a venerable profession — some say the oldest profession.

Extremism in Defense of Mediocrity is Quite a Vice

January 31, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Michelle Malkin recently wrote columns of an alarmed tone warning of the dangers of the Common Core. Here is a taste:

Under President Obama, these top-down mal-formers — empowered by Washington education bureaucrats and backed by misguided liberal philanthropists led by billionaire Bill Gates — are now presiding over a radical makeover of your children’s school curriculum. It’s being done in the name of federal “Common Core” standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high.

Substitute the word “conservative” for “liberal” and the paragraph reads like Diane Ravitch. Ms. Malkin proceeds to repeat various anti-Common Core assertions as facts-but are they facts? Having read that last bit about “standards that do anything but set the achievement bar high” I decided to put it to a straightforward empirical test.

Kentucky was the earliest adopter of Common Core in 2012, and folks from the Department of Education sent some before and after statistics regarding 4th grade reading and math proficiency. I decided to compare them to NAEP, first 2011 KY state test and 2011 NAEP for 4th Grade Reading and Math. NAEP has four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced. Kentucky also has four achievement levels: Novice, Apprentice, Proficient and Distinguished. The first figure compares “Proficient or Better” on both NAEP and the state test in 2011:

KY CC 1As you can see, Kentucky’s definition of “Proficient” was far more lax than that of NAEP. In the Spring of 2012 however they became the first state to give a Common Core exam. How did the 2012 state results compare to the 2011 NAEP?

KY CC 2Kentucky’s figures are strongly suggestive that the new test is a good deal more rigorous than the old one- it tracks much closer to NAEP than the previous test. While it is possible that Kentucky had item exposure that explains some of the difference, but let’s just say there is an awful lot of difference to explain. We would expect somewhat lower scores with a new test, but if the new test were some dummied down terror…

There will also still be honest differences of opinion over standards independent of the rigor of the tests. Moreover, just because it is an obnoxious pet-peeve of mine, it is worth noting that starting out more rigorous doesn’t guarantee that they will stay that way…

A formal study could definitively establish the rigor of the new Kentucky test definitely vis-a-vis NAEP, but it is well worth considering where KY’s old test ranked in such a study by NCES. Short answer: Kentucky’s old standards were high-middle when compared to those of other states. Ergo we can infer that the proficiency standard on the KYCC test is far closer to those of NAEP than a large majority of current state exams.

There is room for honest debate regarding Common Core as a sustainable reform strategy, but we should have that debate rather than the present one.

UPDATE: Reader Richard Innes detected an error in the NAEP proficiency rates in the first version of this post. I made the mistake of looking at the cumulative rather than the discrete achievement levels and then treating the cumulative as discrete-thus double counting the NAEP advanced. If you have any idea of what I am talking about give yourself a NAEP Nerd Gold Star. Getting instant expert feedback is one of the best things about blogging, and I have updated the charts to correct the error.

In terms of substance, both sets of KY tests were further apart from NAEP proficiency standards, but the new ones are still far closer than the old ones.



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