Tell me, friend, when did a bipartisan super-majority abandon reason for madness?

July 7, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So welcome back from your Independence Day holiday break, glad you are still ready to get your wonk on, so let’s talk a little academic transparency. The forces of light and darkness are on the march in this Middle Earth.

A few months ago I had the chance to meet with Bill Jackson from Greatschools here in Phoenix. At that meeting Bill told me something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around ever since- that more than half of parents visited Greatschools last year.

My instant reaction was to pick my jaw off the table and then mumble incoherently about probably far less than that percentage of parents had visited the Arizona Department of Education website ever, and of those that did only some unknown fraction did so to learn information about particular schools.

So then I decided to compare the Great Schools rating system with that of the state of Arizona on schools in my neighborhood. I started with Arcadia High. Arcadia High is a large high school south of Camelback Mountain. You may have heard of a prominent former student by the name of Spielberg- local legend has it that the architecture of the school inspired the space ship design in Close Encounters. The NCES put their FRL % at about half the statewide average at 25% back in 2010.

Great Schools gives Arcadia High a 7 out of 10, while easy grading Arizona gives it an “A” grade. So Greatschools essentially gave the school a C-minus, while the state of Arizona gave it an A. Which one is more accurate? Well one can never be certain (the same school can work very differently for different kids) but the Arizona Board of Regents tracked the academic progress of the entire public school Class of 2006 and found that 39% of the Arcadia High cohort finished a four-year degree within a six-year window.

Hmm, if 39% = “A” then what does a “B” look like? Well Shadow Mountain High School, near where I used to live a few years ago, got a “B” from the state, but saw 29.7% of their Class of 2006 get a BA in six years. The more discerning Greatschools ranking system gave the school a 6 out of 10 rating, which one can reasonably translate to “D-minus” and which seems to fit much more comfortably with the school’s higher education outcomes.

I could go on beating this horse into horseburger, but it misses the point. The (main) point is not that Arizona’s grading system needs a lot of work- although it clearly does- but rather that Greatschools provides an invaluable public service by providing a more rigorous ranking system. In addition, Greatschools also provides a source for student, parent and teacher reviews of schools. Mike McShane cited research showing that parents rate this reviews highly in their decision-making (see page three). This makes it all the better that Greatschools gets more traffic than the state website- it has more of the information they desire. It’s worth noting that the state of Arizona recently took a couple of year time out on school grades as they transition to a new state test. There is precedent for this, as the Arizona Department of Education just stopped publishing school report cards for several years within the last decade. Fortunately Bill Jackson and company have no need for timeouts, and parents are frequenting his website anyway.

Greatschools is performing a very valuable service in a fashion clearly superior to that provided by my state government-may God and His Angels bless Bill Jackson and all of his descendants. Greatschools gives highly valuable information to parents for free in helping them make difficult education decisions here in Arizona, and elsewhere. Greatschools however must make use of public data, and therein lies a growing threat to this invaluable parental choice resource.

It is with great sadness that news has reached my ears that an Arizona Congressman plans to offer an amendment to the ESEA reauthorization bill that would fundamentally undermine Greatschool’s ability to provide comparable data between schools for consideration by parents. The amendment would create a parental opt-out of testing. This would create what seems like a fatal blow to data comparability between schools, and a rather powerful perverse incentive for schools to nudge their weaker students to “opt-out.” Parents and researchers would have little to no way of knowing the rates of strategic “opting out” and thus compatibility between schools would be utterly compromised.

In the midst of anti-testing hysteria being fanned by the unions (the NEA for instance has model opt-out legislation) and others I fear this amendment will in fact pass. I had a front row seat to watch Texas dispatch a 30+ year bipartisan consensus in favor of testing and transparency in a distressingly casual fashion. If it can happen in Austin, it can happen anywhere.

Yes you can argue the federal government should have no role at all in financing schools and/or bossing them around. So why should you care? Notice however that the option of getting the feds out of the schooling business will not be seriously considered anywhere in the process. The federal government will still be sending money, will still be bossing schools around, but just would not get data reliable enough for Greatschools to even pull an Arizona-style rescue manoeuvre, or to consider student learning gains in making more rational retention and tenure decisions. In other words, federal policy will have been entirely captured by adult interests- funding will continue to flow, but transparency will suffer a train wreck.

In fact, if Congress were to pass a law with a parental opt-out, it doesn’t take a very active imagination to foresee a veto by President Obama. If you lead with your chin you should expect your opponent to break your jaw. A veto would allow Secretary Duncan to complete the last two years of rule by lawless administrative fiat in technocratic peace. Some of the latest waivers, by the way, have already stretched into the term of the next administration. They’ve already done waivers for states and districts- why not have the Department of Education hire some seasonal workers and offer waivers to individual schools if they are willing to pant, beg and roll over as commanded? Congress may lack the seriousness to actually put a stop to it.

Jay will argue that reformers brought this down on themselves with naive overreach. If the House votes to kill academic transparency it should indeed be a cause for education reformers to stare long and hard in the mirror. They won’t however be alone. The broad bipartisan consensus that created some level of academic transparency in return for federal funding and bossiness, warts and all, had a better idea than our contemporaries who would provide federal funding and bossiness in return for approximately nothing.

Who can stand against the union of the two towers, when far-left meets far-right at far-gone? Any chance Bill Jackson can take a long hike and throw the One Ring into the lava of Mount Doom?






Heading to the Heart of Cygnus, Headlong into Mystery…

July 7, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Week reports that a growing number of states have signaled their intention to ignore the 2014 deadline. USDoE threatens action against these states, and is hoping to leverage the 2014 deadline to spur Congress to act on reauthorization. Congress seems disinterested. Tennessee and others have announced that they will seek waivers, which Secretary Duncan is willing to grant in return for reform, but which Chairman Kline seems to oppose. Duncan wants a reauthorization, but it isn’t in the cards.

Where is all this heading?

Actually, a full-blown train-wreck is not inevitable there is still time to reauthorize ESEA, even if they wait until after the election. Seeing states engage in what could either be described as civil disobedience or lawlessness does send a clear signal that Congress and the administration need to deal with the 2014 event horizon, and that the Safe Harbor loophole is insufficient.

Closer…..move a little closer….a little more….GOTCHA!

Reauthorization beats waivers, and waivers beat the status-quo, which runs the risk of a great cut score dummy down. Washington would be awfully dull without some brinkmanship every now and then, so let’s see how they work this out. Something that would allow states with a system to nudge improvement out of their schools (which NCLB is doing very little of) to run their own testing systems still seems like a sensible idea to me.

Nowhere to Hide

August 16, 2010

The LA Times used Freedom of Information requests to obtain student achievement data linked to teachers in LA unified.  The students’ names were removed, but not the teachers. The paper then hired researchers at RAND to analyze the data and calculate the value-added of individual teachers.  And then the paper published all of the results.  WOW!

It’s no longer possible to hide the fact that there are some awful teachers who continue receiving paychecks and depriving kids of an education.  School officials have had these data for years and never used them, never tried to identify who were the best and worst teachers, and never tried to remove bad teachers from the profession.  It took a newspaper and a big FOI request.

Now the school district will be forced to do something about those chronically ineffective teachers.  No one is suggesting that analyses of these test scores should be the sole criteria for identifying or removing ineffective teachers.  But it is a start.

This is going to spread.  As long as the data exist, there will be more and more pressure for school systems to actually use the information and develop systems for identifying and removing teachers who can’t teach.

It’s also worth emphasizing that this new reality is a huge accomplishment of No Child Left Behind.  The accountability and choice provisions of NCLB could never work because school systems could never be asked to sanction themselves.  But the one big thing that NCLB accomplished is getting every public school to measure student achievement in grades 3-8 and report results.  NCLB made it so that these data exist so that the LA Times could FOI the results and push schools to act upon it.  NCLB could never get schools to take real action, but the existence of the data could get others to force schools to act.

And what is the reaction of the teachers unions to all of this?  They’ve called for a boycott of the LA Times. As usual, we see how much more they care about protecting incompetent teachers than protecting kids suffering from educational malpractice.


May 9, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today Pajamas Media runs my column on the latest long-term trend NAEP results and what they say to critics and supporters of NCLB:

The good news for the critics is that the Nation’s Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

The good news for supporters is that the Nation’s Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

Welcome to the confusing world of education policy!

Onay Ildchay Eftlay Ehindbay

February 18, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has signaled he’s open to changing the name of No Child Left Behind. (HT Eduwonk)

Conspiracy theory time! Is this:

1) A cheap way of giving the unions a symbolic victory, to make it easier to deny their more substantial demands?

2) The opening maneuver in the long-awaited rollback of the ridiculous promise to reach 100% student proficiency?

3) A red herring desgined to keep us busy with conspiracy theories and “name that law” contests so no one will notice that the administration isn’t going to do anything substantive on education policy, despite extravagent campaign promises?

4) All of the above?

The betting pool is now open.

But since we have a storied tradition of acronym contests here on JPGB, we can’t pass over the opportunity to come up with a replacement name for NCLB. And of course it has to start with “smart.” Zip it!

How about Smart And Clever Kids, Overcoming Fallacious Canards, Really Achieve Perfection? There’s an acronym for you.

Jeb for National School Grades

January 23, 2009


“Everybody do the FCAT! Yeah!”

HT Orlando Sentinel

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Jeb Bush comes out for a national school grading system on NRO.

What he’s proposing is a federal grade A to F for each school, based on both performance level and improvement – kind of the way Florida schools are graded under the A+ system (though Jeb doesn’t propose federal sanctions for poorly performing schools, just a grading system). He justifies the move on grounds that the NCLB system encourages states to lower standards.

Jeb doesn’t discuss this in the article, but readers of JBGB know that a clash has been brewing between Florida’s A+ program and NCLB. Florida, which has had success with the A+ program (where improvement in performance is a factor alongside performance level), is going to run into the 2014 “everybody must be proficient” wall along with everyone else.

No doubt our own Matt Ladner, chronicler of the looming conflict in the posts linked above, will have more to say about this (hopefully including some more classy artistic illustrations), but just to put my own two cents in, I’m not clear on why there needs to be a national grade.

For that matter, I’m not even convinced we need a national test, since that sacrifices the merits of interstate competition. At both the state and federal levels, the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo and thus will be looking for opportunities to dumb down the test or manipulate the scoring to make schools look better. But if one state dumbs down while another (under political pressure from reformers) stays the course and makes real improvement, that creates pressure on the dumb state to get with it.

The impetus for a single national test, it seems to me, is because federal rewards and punishments create an incentive to dumb down. If we’re not going to have rewards and punishments based on the scores, what’s the need for a single national test? Why not just require each state to maintain a transparent testing system of its own devising – or, if that’s not good enough, require each state to purchase and use one of the major privately developed national tests?

But we can leave that aside. Let’s stipulate the case for a national test. Still, if you’re not going to hold schools accountable with rewards and penalties, then why issue grades along with the test scores? Why not just give a test and report the results numerically, and let private organizations put together their own grading systems? That way people can decide for themselves what aspects of performance measurement matter most, rather than turning the job over to a federal bureaucracy that has an incentive to make schools look better.

No Consumer Left Behind

December 8, 2008

The news is reporting today that the Republican (last time I checked) Bush Administration and Congressional Democrats are close to an agreement to bailout the auto industry.  The terms of the deal involve a $15 billion bridge loan and a federal oversight board.

It’s now becoming clear that rather than moving K-12 public education to look more like a competitive market, we are moving the competitive market to look more like K-12 public education.  To assist in those efforts (can’t nobody say JPGB never did nothing for the peoples), I would like to propose the No Consumer Left Behind act.  You don’t even need a new acronym!

Under the No Consumer Left Behind act we will provide a system of goals and assistance to ensure that all companies serve their consumers effectively.  No longer will we have stigmatizing terms like “bankruptcy.”  Instead, we will have “companies in need of improvement.” 

All companies will have to achieve profitability by 2014.  And they can define for themselves what “profitability” really means.  Each year they must make adequate yearly progress toward that goal.  If a company fails to make AYP they must offer their consumers the option to buy a different product that the same company sells.  After all we have to have choice!

Companies that are in need of improvement will also be provided with additional resources and professional development.  If we don’t help them, how else can they help their consumers?  We won’t call these additional resources a bailout or reward for failure.  Instead, we will call it technical assistance.  It’s just technical — like a technical foul.

We will also require all companies to employ “highly qualified” workers.  Highly qualified will generally be defined as whoever they currently employ.  Alternatively, highly qualified can be restricted to workers possessing union-approved credentials.

If a company fails to make AYP for several years, it will have to “restructure.”  But restructuring won’t be like the old bankruptcy restructuring, where you have to sell assets or layoff workers.  Instead, it can mean that you held some team-building workshops or hired a new CEO.  This new NCLB will be all about accountability.

And as you can tell from the title of the proposed law — we are doing all of this because we care about the consumer.  By focusing on companies in need of improvement, offering product choice within companies, providing additional resources to companies, requiring highly qualified workers, and redefining restructuring to mean essentially nothing, we are taking all of the steps necessary to help the companies — err, I meant consumer.

(HT: Bob Maranto)


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