Common Core Smackdown

January 13, 2011

Actually it was much more civilized than that.  You can see below my discussion with Mike Petrilli on the pros and cons of Common Core (national) standards.

Arne Duncan to schools: WAKE UP!

November 19, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Rick Hess has provided a summary of a speech that Arne Duncan delivered at AEI yesterday that is a MUST READ. The hyperlink function of the blog seems to be malfunctioning, so here is the link:

Go read it NOW.

P.S. The Longhorn family is happy to accept Mike Petrilli into the ranks of BOOM Nation. As Lyle likes to sing:

Hemisphere Fallacy Sighting

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a new Flypaper post, Checker and Mike argue that the federal government takeover of schools implementation of common standards can follow one of three paths:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In other words, our options are:

  1. Too big, strong, and heavy handed.
  2. Too weak, limited and complacent.
  3. Just right!

Guess which one they favor. No hints!

JPGB readers will recognize Fordham’s longstanding addiction to the hemisphere fallacy – making themselves look good by oversimplifying the landscape into two extreme errors held by the extreme extremists on either side of them, and the reasonable middle ground occupied by reasonable middle grounders like themselves.

Some people say the earth is flat and others say it’s round, so the reasonable middle ground is to say it’s a hemisphere.

Personally, I’d rephrase those three Fordham options as follows:

  1. So big and bold that the federal government takeover of schools becomes obvious, provoking an inevitable backlash from Americans who have repeatedly made it clear they don’t want any such thing.
  2. So weak and limited that the federal government won’t actually be able to take over the schools.
  3. Just strong enough to hand all schools over to federal control, but not so strong that the handover becomes obvious.

While we’re on the subject, Neal McCluskey notices something interesting in the new Fordham report:

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

I’m not sure I would take it as an apology. If Checker wanted to apologize, he would. But he hasn’t.

Which leads me to wonder why he’s suddenly so anxious to make sure there’s something out there in print that shows him expressing exactly the same doubts we do. Something he could point to later, perhaps?

We Won!

September 29, 2010

I have no idea why a bunch of ed reformers are so gloomy.  Matt has already observed how Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli can’t seem to enjoy the moment when ed reform ideas go mainstream.  Now Liam Julian is joining the poopy parade, lamenting that the new crop of naive reformers are doomed to fail just as past ones have, and “it never works out.” And continuing the gloomy theme, Rick is worrying that school choice (in the form of vouchers) over-promised and under-delivered, losing the support of people like Sol Stern.

That may be, but as a graduate student observed to me today, choice (in the form of vouchers) may have lost Sol Stern, but choice (in the form of charters) just gained Oprah, the Today Show, and the Democratic Party platform.    Overall, he thought that was a pretty good trade, especially since he had to look up who Sol Stern was.

Let’s review.  It is now commonly accepted among mainstream elites — from Oprah to Matt Lauer to Arne Duncan — that simply pouring more money into the public school system will not produce the results we want.  It is now commonly accepted that the teacher unions have been a significant barrier to school improvement by protecting ineffective teachers and opposing meaningful reforms.  It is now commonly accepted that parents should have a say in where their children go to school and this choice will push traditional public schools to improve.  It is now commonly accepted that we have to address the incentives in the school system to recruit, retain, and motivate the best educators.

These reform ideas were barely a twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye three decades ago and are now broadly accepted across both parties and across the ideological spectrum.  This is a huge accomplishment and rather than being all bummed out that everyone else now likes the band that I thought was cool before anyone ever heard of it, we should be amazed at how much good music there is out there.

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

(edited for typos)

The Determined Pessimism of Rick and Mike

September 23, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My friends Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess have been either (a) cautioning people about becoming overly optimistic about Waiting for Superman  and our ability to improve K-12 outcomes or (b) ridiculing the idea completely.


Let me begin by saying that I am no starry-eyed naif when it comes to the possible impact of the film. I wrote the other day that I am starting to entertain the idea that it might be a big deal. Union reactionaries do find themselves increasingly isolated in K-12 policy discussions, and many of their catspaws will be turned out of office in November.

Let me say in advance however that the unions are not going anywhere. They still control hundreds of millions of dollars, legions of organized activists and all the lobbyists that they care to employ. I’m not claiming that a tipping point has been achieved and it is all downhill from here for them, merely that they are in for what could prove to be a sizeable rough patch.

Where I seem to differ with Mike and Rick is with their seeming determined pessimism regarding the realm of the possible for improvement. Rick and I appeared on a panel together at the State Policy Network a couple of weeks ago, and discussed the same issue.

Readers of this blog find themselves subjected to my battering away with Florida’s NAEP scores on a regular basis. I won’t bother going into the litany because you already know it, so let’s take a couple of other examples where real reform agendas have been instituted, and what has been going on with their NAEP scores.

I pick a couple because, well, only a few exist. You have to be in a position to roll the establishment to do these things, and keep them rolled. Very few have pulled that off. However, the results are encouraging.

I am encouraged that New York City now outscores some statewide averages on NAEP, despite a student body that is 84 percent minority and 85% FRL eligible. NYC kids scored 217 on 4th grade reading in 2009, only 206 in 2002. That’s a meaningful difference, and should embolden Chancellor Klein.

Likewise, DCPS is still an academic blight, but has made substantial progress since the mid 1990s. When my coauthors and I tracked the learning gains of general education low-income students for the 50 states and DC from 2003 to 2009 in all four main NAEP subjects, Florida came in with the biggest gains and DC came in with the second largest gains. Coincidence? I doubt it- both Florida and DC have engaged in far-reaching reforms.

MA is justifiably proud of having the nation’s highest NAEP scores accompanying their standards-led reforms. It has been mentioned before that the usual suspects fiercely opposed their adoption.

Notice that there is no one path up the mountain here-but there are some common threads to the reforms: testing, accountability, choice. So maybe I’m like Ronald Reagan and I just think that there has got to be a pony somewhere in all that manure. It seems to me, however, that there is a pattern here: in the limited number of instances when jurisdictions take control of policy away from the reactionaries, keep it away from them for a sustained period, and implement reforms that they hate, NAEP scores make substantial improvement.

My own experience in interacting with lawmakers, candidates and philanthropists around the country is that they almost all like substantial improvement in NAEP scores. It doesn’t matter whether they are on the right or left or center. The funny thing is that everyone but those directly benefiting from the status-quo seem to not only want improvement, many of them are willing to fight for it.

So have we “cracked the code.” Yes, as a matter of fact, I think a few places have done so. Yes with fantastic difficulty and always imperiled sustainability. The success of reformers is limited and fragile, but very real. If the third largest state in the union doesn’t represent “results at scale” then what pray tell does? 

We have learned a great deal over the past 20 years. Our decisions are being guided less by theory and more by experience. Less and less this is less about “Assume a can opener” and more and more about “You know, they did something like that in X, let’s see what we can learn about the results.”

If throwing money at schools, lowering class sizes, expanding preschool, open classrooms, whole language or <fill in the blank here> had produced these types of results, this blog would not exist. There would be no need for an education reform cottage industry, and no one would donate to it. They failed. It’s too bad, because I would much rather be spending my life an executive at Rhino Records putting together compliation CD’s of punk rock bands covering all of Dean Martin’s greatest hits. The cover would have a guy in a tux holding up a martini above a violent mosh pit.

A’int Love a Kick in the Head? Oi….let me demonstrate! But I digress…

Our ideas have barely been tried, and very rarely in sustained concert with each other. Unless someone is able to demonstrate the Florida NAEP, the DCPS NAEP, and the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP for NYC and Miami have all been cooked, the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that unions hate policies that succeed in substantially improving the education of children.

There have been and will continue to be misteps. There will be gains and losses along the way. This is a war, and war is hell. The unions are not going away, but neither are we nor the evidence of our successes. As Dino’s pally Frank used to say, the best is yet to come.

Oh, Those Poor, Powerless School Boards

August 12, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike Petrilli draws attention to this Washington Post column by Laura Berthiaume of the Montgomery County, Md. school board. Mike seems be taking Berthiaume’s claims pretty seriously. I’m not sure why.

Berthiaume is responding to the Post‘s complaints that school boards bend to the wishes of the unions, because the unions have disproportionate power in school board elections.

She begins by acknowledging that the Post is basically right:

It is true that all current board members have gotten their seats with some level of union blessing.

Well, give her this at least: she’s not doing this the easy way. Beating your opponent at chess by knocking down your own king as your opening move is a tough challenge!

She writes:

In the balance of power between the board of education and the bureaucracy, the superintendent and his staff hold all the cards.

That’s a mighty strong claim, considering that, on paper, the superintendent works for the school board. So how does she justify it?

They outwit, outlast and outplay.

Well, forgive me for asking, but: whose fault is that?

Berthiaume elaborates:

When the union felt threatened by an impending state action more tightly linking teacher evaluations to student performance, an “agreement” between MCPS and the unions was announced in The Post on April 21 — and all but one board member found out about it that same morning, in the newspaper.

Well, OK, that was a nasty thing for the superintendent to do. And to hold him accountable you did what?

In my experience, the board actually has little to no impact on union contract negotiations: The superintendent and his staff negotiate the contracts.

And the superintendent is supposed to be held accountable for looking out for the district’s interests in these negotiations by whom?

Even if there ever were actual board opposition, it would be met with a fierce, resolute wall of angry staff.

And the staff work for whom?

Just what does Berthiaume think the voters of Montgomery County put her in office to do? Just what does she think the taxpayers of Montgomery County are paying her for? To rubber stamp whatever the superintendent and his staff do?

If they’re just there to look good, why don’t they put their pictures on the ballots so we can judge for ourselves which candidates are best qualified to fulfill the expectations of the office?

Look, I understand the obstacles to reform are humongous. But if God puts you in a position of responsibility (and really, he’s put all of us in some kind of position of responsibility) then it’s your duty to fight for the right as smartly and as spiritedly as you can, get whatever you can get, and go home at the end of the day satisfied that whatever else others may have done, you fought the good fight.

And if you really think your ability to accomplish anything is zero – well, shame on you for wasting the talent God gave you by spending your time on something you admit is useless!

Update: Just to be clear, Berthiaume is right that the Post shouldn’t go easy on the superintendent and lay all the blame on the board. But she should quit going so easy on herself and laying all the blame on the superintendent!

A Little Context for OFA’s Sob Story

August 10, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The latest item making the rounds is an e-mail from Organizing for America, the old Obama campaign appendage now grafted into the DNC. A teacher from Ambler, Pa. pleads that if we don’t shovel a huge chunk of money into the EduJobs rathole, it’s theoretically possible that someone “like me” could potentially lose a job.

With that special blend of entitlement mentality and self-righteousness only the blob has mastered, she solemnly intones:

I’m not a special interest. I’m a teacher.

(Portentious boldface in original.)

Jim Geraghty would like you to be aware of the numbers featured above – this teacher’s school district, Wissahickon, has an average salary almost half again as high as the state average salary. And that’s before we look at benefits, which are much richer for teachers than in the private sector. Geraghty remarks:

When the local board of education spends money at a rate that the local tax base cannot afford, those teachers who refuse to adjust their salaries to reality do start to look like a special interest.

Mike Petrilli hammers the point home:

Your job could easily be saved if your union leaders were willing to accept some modest concessions. (Even a salary freeze might do the trick.)  But when teachers demand job protections, generous benefits, and salary increases in the midst of a recession…well, that’s expecting special treatment, indeed.

Not to mention JPGB’s own Matt Ladner, commenting on the instantly-famous chart comparing private sector job destruction in the current crisis to government job protection:

The yellow line just put another $10 billion on the credit card of the red line. Let them eat cake!

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for these people.

Forget “Who’s Fickle?” Who’s Paranoid?

July 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Earlier this year, Checker Finn went through a brief period where he was tying himself in knots, sounding a whole lot like he was both for national standards and against them. Mike Petrilli chose that moment to take potshots at Arne Duncan for being “Fickle on Federalism.” I had a little fun asking “Who’s Fickle?

Since then, Checker has finally decided where he stands (at least for now). He’s accused those of us who ask embarrassing questions about whether national standards will be hijacked by the blog blob of “paranoia.”

[Update: Hijacked by the "blob," of course. This was totally not a Freudian slip. The blog doesn't hijack anything - as far as you know. Nothing to see here, folks...]

Well, the game just changed. Neal McCluskey has dug up a 1997 Weekly Standard article in which Checker makes the same arguments against national standards we are now making. None of the relevant facts on the ground has changed. So today I get to ask, “Who’s Paranoid?”

Are National Standards Conservative?

July 23, 2010

Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli seem to think so.  As part of their Gates-fueled pro-standards juggernaut, they have a piece on National Review Online arguing that conservatives should support the current national standards effort.  They write:

Conservatives generally favor setting a “single standard” for everybody. Setting different standards for different people — think affirmative action, for instance — is an idea most associated with the Left.

If by “conservative” we mean people who think that decisions should be decentralized, Finn and Petrilli have it exactly backwards.  National standards are a centrally-imposed, one-size-fits-none approach that would make most conservatives shudder.

Let’s be clear — national standards are being centrally imposed because states are financially punished if they don’t adopt them because they would receive lower scores on their Race to the Top proposals and almost certainly lose out on getting their share of those tax dollars.  National standards are “voluntary” in the same way that federal highway funds are voluntary.  You can disobey the federal dictate as long as you don’t mind having the tax dollars your residents pay go to other states.

Let’s also be clear that conservatives do not generally favor a “single standard” for everyone.  Conservatives do not think everyone should meet a single standard of fashion by being required to wear the same clothes.  Nor should everyone be compelled to meet a single standard of nutrition by being required to eat the same foods.  On what basis would we think conservatives would want every school child to be required to learn the same thing at the same time?  To the contrary, conservatives generally favor allowing consumers (of food, clothing, education, or anything else) to decide how best to serve their own needs by having choice among competing providers with differing products.

It’s true that there are some people who are called conservatives who tend to favor centralization over choice and competition, but those people tend to have more of an authoritarian streak than a liberty-loving streak.  It is one of the weaknesses of our language that the same word — conservative — is used to describe both Benito Mussolini and Milton Friedman.  But no one should be fooled into thinking that policies favored by a “conservative” like Mussolini would also be favored by a “conservative” like Friedman.

The real divide here is between people who think that policies are best when decisions are decentralized and choice and competition are enhanced versus people who think that there is a “right way” that should be imposed centrally and should constrain choice and competition.

Nor are Finn and Petrilli accurate when they assert that national standards are being supported broadly by conservatives except for “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.” Is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which came out against national standards, just a handful of libertarian crazies?  Is the Heritage Foundation, which also opposes national standards, just a handful of libertarian nut-jobs?  Or how about the Pioneer Institute?  And look who’s supporting national standards — fine conservatives like the American Federation of Teachers.

Just because the education bureaucracies in a bunch of red states have signed up for national standards doesn’t mean that the idea has conservative support.  It just means that their budgets are really tight and they want to be in the running for federal Race to the Top dollars as well as gobs of Gates “planning” grant dollars.  The fact that there has not been more active conservative opposition can mostly be explained by the speed with which this is being crammed through in the midst of a severe state budgetary crisis.

But conservatives who favor decentralization, choice, and competition should take heart.  Many of those states will change their minds if they don’t get federal dollars to stay on board.  And the grand national coalition for these standards will probably fall apart as the airy-fairy standards are converted into actual practice in the form of national assessments.  We’ll see how well the Linda Darling-Hammond led national assessment, which I can only imagine involves the testing of drum-circle collaboration, suits conservatives like Finn and Petrilli who so far have supported this enterprise.  And with more time and greater imposition on actual practice, rank and file conservatives will become more mobilized in opposition.

There is a risk that the Obama Administration will link larger amounts of federal dollars, like Title I funds, to full adoption of these standards and a national assessment, in which case conservative opposition may be too little too late.  But if the Obama Administration and the AFT do triumph no one will think it will be a conservative victory.

National Standards — Taking Names and Answering Questions

June 10, 2010

Mike Petrilli seems concerned that I haven’t answered his questions about how to address certain problems without resorting to federally-imposed national standards.  I thought I had.  I said: “The answer is not to have bigger, more centralized regulations.  The answer is to maintain the proper incentives by empowering market forces, which also serve to keep the regulatory framework honest.”

I also thought I answered his questions when I said:

Even though it is messy and imperfect, we need to decentralize power in education rather than centralize it.  We need to do so for the same reason the Constitution decentralizes power — to prevent abuses and tyranny that inevitably arise when power is unchecked and concentrated.  We need to decentralize power in education to allow market mechanisms to operate.  We need to decentralize power to recognize the legitimate diversity of needs and approaches that exist in our educational system.

Benevolent dictatorships are always attractive on paper but the benevolent part never works out in practice.

But perhaps the problem was that I didn’t apply my answers to each of the questions he raised, so I’ll do so here:

Mike asks:   If not through common standards, how else should we address the problem of vague, content-free state standards?

I answer:  Focus political pressure on states with weak standards and assessments.  Using NAEP to shame weak states, as Paul Peterson and Rick Hess have been doing, is helpful.  Choice and competition among states should also help to some degree.  States with lousy standards and assessments will have a harder time attracting (and developing) skilled labor and will attract less capital investment, job-creation, and, as a result, generate less tax revenue.  Lastly, centralizing the standards and assessment process at the national level does nothing to address this problem and may well make things worse, as I’ve been arguing.

Mike asks:  Laughably low cut scores?

I answer:  See the answer to the last question.

Mike asks:  Tests that are poorly designed and can’t possibly bear the weight being placed on them, from value-added demands to merit pay to teacher evaluations, etc.?

I answer:  See above.  Also, there are several high-quality, for-profit testing companies.  States could be urged to contract with one of them.  Frankly, most states already do and most tests are technically reasonable, so I don’t see this as a big problem.  I do see moving the development of assessments to the national level as a big problem because then you are liable to get the Linda Darling-Hammond test focusing on project-based learning, measuring collaboration, etc…

Mike asks:  Small state departments of education that don’t have the resources or capacity to get this technical stuff right?

I answer: Name me a state that does not have the resources to hire a decent commercial testing company.  Even the small state departments of education have more money than Croesus.  And as we know from Caroline Hoxby’s research, the cost of testing is trivial.

Mike asks: Textbook and curriculum and professional development and teacher training markets that are fragmented into fifty pieces?

I answer:  I’ll answer with a question.  What’s bad about having 50 textbooks, curricula, professional development, etc…?  We have more than 50 different restaurants, book publishers, etc… and the expanded choice and competition in those sectors helps improve quality.  It’s odd to hear someone call for a monopoly when the government normally tries to break those things up.

(edited to correct typos)


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