(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Over at the Ed Next blog, Mike Petrilli asks the question: if not the 100% proficiency requirement of NCLB, then what? Mike concludes:
So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next 12 years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about 50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?
To my eye, these are stretch goals–challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 Kindergarteners not to graduate from high school 12 years from now. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).
90,000 out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be taking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean twice as many poor children making it–9 percent instead of 4 percent.
And what about the other 91 percent of our Kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?
Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.
I agree that the 2014 cliff was utopian and counterproductive, and further that the safe-harbor provision does little to rescue NCLB as originally formulated. As Congress dithers on reauthorization (and when have we ever known Congress not to dither?) the 2014 event horizon approaches. Many states back loaded their proficiency requirements to the 2012-2014 period, and ooops, here it comes.
Our goal should be a system which encourages systemic improvement and academic growth rather than a system which requires “perfection on a deadline.” No one is better at creative insubordination than school administrators, making perfection on a deadline a dangerous proposition.
Rather than set goals, we need to focus on aligning the incentives of the adults in the system to match the interests of children and taxpayers. Let’s not bother with any Soviet style 5 year targets, and focus on incentivizing the behaviors we want, and disincentivizing the behaviors we don’t desire. Rather than bemoan a lack of parental involvement, let us promote policies that strongly encourage it. If we can do this, improvement will follow. Stretch goals should come in the form of raising cut scores over time and other forms of raising the bar. All the while, important incentive pieces like parental choice and financially incentivizing academic success must proceed.
Florida pursued this course, and coincidentally the ur-reactionary Ravitch is down there today. The St. Pete Times reports:
“Particularly in Florida, it’s a disaster,” she said during a visit Wednesday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. “What we are doing is killing creativity, originality, divergent thinking. All the things we need in the 21st century are what we’re squeezing out of a generation of children.”
In a speech today at the Florida School Boards Association annual meeting in Tampa, Ravitch plans to continue her full-throated campaign to “save public education” from its obsession with testing.
“This is institutionalized fraud,” she said, referring to the phenomenon of ever-rising scores. “Because we are graduating just as many kids who can’t read as we did 10 years ago.”
She acknowledged that Florida’s focus on reading has produced real gains. But she said other test improvements may have come about partly from the state’s focus on reducing class
Ravitch and her “armies of angry teachers” are living in an alternative universe where she gets to make wild allegations about destroying the creativity of a generation of children without offering any evidence, make claims about education policy (in this case class size) which have been clearly refuted by empirical investigation and label the state which has produced more combined NAEP gains than any other for low-income children “a disaster.” Her point about 12th grade scores may be true in some states, but is not the case in Florida, where FCAT scores, AP passing rates and graduation rates are all improving. Why bother looking anything up if you can simply confidently assert nonsense?
Ravitch is noisily preaching to her reactionary choir as history blows past her, making her the George Wallace of the soft bigotry of low expectations-a sad but ultimately unimportant figure. Meanwhile, the serious conversation of K-12 carries on without her. Getting back to Mike’s post, I think the reactionary he should be worried about is not Diane Ravitch and her army of angry teachers but rather Charles Murray and his potential army of angry taxpayers.
The country after all spends about $10,000 per year per child-amounting to about $50,000 by the end of 4th grade-more if there was public pre-school provided. For that amount of money, which is largely the envy of the rest of the planet, it seems reasonable to teach the vast majority of children how to read. If it can’t be done because of “poverty” then why are we spending so much money going through the motions of pretending to try? Only educating an elite may offend our sensibilities, a Murrayite could argue, but only educating an elite while spending trillions of dollars on maintaining an illusion of educating the uneducable is far, far worse.
Far left meets far right at far gone, so to speak.
Americans are not quitters, and we are not going to give up on public education. Nor are we going to embrace some dorm-room bull session pipe dream of embracing state socialism to fix our education problems, which is just as well, because it wouldn’t work anyway. The grown ups in the K-12 reform conversation, both on the left and right, are pursuing greater productivity for the existing enormous investment in education.
I can forgive Mike for assuming we need some sort of gosplan, and that the gosplan needs to have an assumed rate of failure- he works in DC, and there is something in the water. Focusing on aligning the interests of adults with the interests of children while increasing parental involvement in a variety of ways will produce improvement. We’ve had enough utopian exercises (Goals 2000, NCLB 2014 with Common Core on hot standby). Our focus should be on thoughtful management of incentives in order to produce improvement. This is mostly going to involve sustained hand to hand combat in state capitals- a long hard slog.
Let’s get on with it-sometimes the hard way is the only way. Forget about a master plan or a schedule for improvement Mike- let’s get as much improvement as fast as we can get it.