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.

 


Mostly Harmless

September 8, 2009

Many electrons have already been spilled on Obama’s speech today to the nation’s school children.  When news first broke of the planned speech, alarms were raised by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and Neal McCluskey (among many others). 

This was followed by a counter-backlash from the left as well as folks on the right, including the Wall Street Journal and Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes, who said that the initial reaction was “overwrought” and “demented” (respectively if not respectfully).

The counter-backlash is correct that the speech is basically harmless.  Telling kids to stay in school, say no to drugs, and the like is the sort of thing that Nancy Reagan used to say (and people used to mock not because it was indoctrinating but because it was likely ineffective.)

It’s worth stepping back from this kerfuffle to wonder why the president making a speech to the nation’s school children while they are in school is such a big deal.  The counter-backlash wants to suggest that the original backlash against the speech was motivated by crazy, conspiratorial thinking.  Presidents talk to the country all the time, they note.  And if the problem is supposed to be in the lesson plan proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers can use or ignore these suggestions as they wish, just like they can regularly choose lesson plans.

But that is at the heart of the backlash and is not entirely crazy.  Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school.  This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.  Most of those lessons, just like the president’s speech, are likely to be unobjectionable to most parents. 

But on a fairly regular basis schools teach (or fail to teach) some things that are contrary to the values that parents would like conveyed to their children.  To those of us who see education as an extension of child-rearing, compulsory education privileging government-operated schools is an intrusion of the government on this parental responsibility.  To others, the intervention of the government is a positive good, protecting children from potentially dangerous values of the their parents and assuring allegiance to a common set of ideals necessary for our society to function.  As an empirical matter, government-operated schools are actually less effective at conveying that common set of ideas than are schools selected by parents.  

Amy Gutmann, in the widely read book, Democratic Education, argues that this is not really an empirical question.  The principle is that there should be some democratic input into what is taught to children, not just parental control.   But in a chapter in the book, Learning from School Choice, I dissect Gutmann’s book to show that her scheme isn’t democratic at all.  She believes that local democracies should control schools as long as they avoid discriminating and repressing.  The problem is that almost everything of importance that they do could be portrayed as discriminating or repressing.  So who, under her scheme, resolves these disputes about what is permissible for local democracies to control in schools?  Unelected judges and unelected teaching professionals.  Gutmann’s proposal is really to substitute the dictatorship of an elite for the dictatorship of parents.  As I’ve argued before, I prefer to trust even poorly educated parents to make decisions in the best interests of their own children than well-trained but differently motivated bureaucrats.

So, beneath the over-reactions and counter-over-reactions on Obama’s speech today is a real issue — Who should have primary responsibility for raising (educating) children?


More DC Voucher Buzz

April 7, 2009

Patrick McIlheran at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asks, “And what happens to results showing school choice works?”  His answer: “Well, if it’s in the hands of a federal government hostile to the idea, it gets covered up… The students were tested in the spring, the results analyzed in the summer and the preliminary findings given to the team working with the Department of Education in November. Why, then, didn’t the department chime in when Congress was ending choice?”

Joanne Jacobs asks: “What did Education Secretary Arne Duncan know about the study’s findings and when did he know it? Duncan had to know during the voucher reauthorization debate that D.C.’s program is advancing students by nearly half a year, editorializes the Wall Street Journal. Why didn’t he speak up?”

Michelle Malkin writes: “It would have been helpful to know about a Department of Education study on D.C.’s school choice initiative before the Democrats — beholden to teachers unions allergic to competition — voted to starve the innovative program benefiting poor, minority children in the worst school district in the nation.  Somehow, the results of the study conducted last spring didn’t surface until now.”

As Matt has already noted, Whitney Tilson of Democrats for Education Reform has chimed in warning that charter supporters shouldn’t think they are safe if vouchers get squeezed.  As he put it: “First they came for the vouchers. I remained silent because I was not for vouchers….”

I’ve already noted, Neal McCluskey has an excellent post on the impotence of “tough talk” on education from the Obama administration when they won’t act to defend choice.

Lisa Snell argues: “Kids in the D.C. Opportunity scholarship program deserve the same chance to go to a higher quality school as President Obama’s own children. The taxpayers of the United States deserve at least one education program that actually gets results in exchange for the money.”

And this photo on “From the Pen” says it all.

“Democrats Block School Choice… Again”

Republicans made us do it! Honest!


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