The Common Core Culture War Intensifies

May 14, 2013

psychic-octopus-culture-war

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s Journal, Sol Stern and Joel Klein attempt to sell conservatives on national standards by 1) misleading them about the federal government’s role, both in ramming the standards through and in continuing to shape them going forward, and 2) portraying the national standards as a patriotic way to patriotically patriotize our vulnerable young patriots, who are now at the mercy of the eeeeeeeeeeeevil progressives and their social justice agenda.

Now, what do you think the major Democratic party effort to support national standards thinks of that?

Paul the psychic octopus looks more right every month – national standards are built on an anti-school-choice, one-size-fits-all worldview and are therefore a one-way ticket to the worst kind of culture war.

Update: I wonder what Stern and Klein would say about Heather Mac Donald’s warning that the national “science” standards endorse an unscientific and anti-human environmental agenda?


Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

September 26, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago when Sol Stern decided to attack parental choice for reasons that are still largely only known to him, City Journal posted an online debate concerning Sol’s article, which included a full-throated endorsement of Sol’s position by E.D. Hirsch.

I had a hard time making much sense of the Hirsch critique. It seemed to read much more as an indictment of bad state standards than of the parental choice movement.  The parental choice movement’s original sin seemed to be in being a “structural reform” that ignored the vital importance of imposing Core Knowlege on everyone.

Or something to that effect, near as I could tell. I was and still am confused with exactly how this is supposed to happen, but I’m sure someone has a fail-safe plan this time.

My own contribution to the debate attempted to make the point that of course the political constraints facing parental choice programs keep them from being some sort of miracle-drug cure-all, but that was hardly a reason to oppose it. I haven’t seen any other miracle cures either. Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that the parental choice movement and the standards movement need to necessarily be at odds.

In any case, above is a picture of the district middle school in my neighborhood-Shea Middle School in the Paradise Valley School District. Shea is proudly announcing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum will begin in August 2013 in a 9000 point font banner you see above. At least one of the elementary schools that feed in to Shea Middle School has also  adopted Core Knowledge.

Shea’s adoption of Core Knowledge might have something to do with the fact that two of the highest performing charter schools in country opened campuses in the area this fall. Arizona homegrown outfits BASIS and Great Hearts both opened new schools within a few miles of Shea Middle School in the Fall of 2012.  Both BASIS and Great Hearts have an impressive record of academic achievement. Some of the Great Hearts schools have generated 1,000 student waiting lists, and both operators have attracted the interest of out-of-state philanthropists.*

Of course it could be the case that these new schools opening in the neighborhood had nothing to do with the decision to adopt Core Knowledge, or to hang a giant banner advertising the adoption for that matter. Other Paradise Valley schools have used the Core Knowledge curriculum for years. It is within the realm of the plausible that Shea Middle School would have been adopting Core Knowledge in 2013 whether facing competition from BASIS and Great Hearts or not. If I were to have the opportunity to ask PV officials about this, they might very well make such a claim with conviction.

And if I hadn’t seen an email from a Parent-Teacher group from one of the feeder elementary schools full of steely determination not to lose students to the new charter schools, I might have even believed them. The email expressed (rational) concern about losing students and listed a number of possible strategies including the adoption of IB, foreign language immersion and (yes) Core Knowledge as reform strategies….and now the banner.

Smoking gun? No. Enough to convince a reasonable person? Certainly.

Parental choice mechanisms have done a great deal to satisfy parental demand for Core Knowledge and CK type schools. If we had more of it, we would also have a higher use of CK and similar curriculum both in district and non-district schools. Hopefully it will prove useful for Shea Middle School. Alternatively, we could dream of a master plan that transforms millions of public school teachers into Allan Bloom in one great non-incremental stroke, but I think we all know how that story ends.

Oh well, back to the old super-genius drawing board…

Personally I am a fan of traditional curriculum and want it to be available to those who desire it. I’m also leery of imposing it on those who don’t. I view American schools as having serious curriculum problems, but plenty of other problems as well. Dirigisme got us into this mess, and some of us are naturally skeptical that a new and improved version is going to get us out of it all by itself.

* Disclosure: I serve on the board of a BASIS school (not the one discussed here) and two of my children very happily attend a Great Hearts Academy (but not the school alluded to here).

Edited for Typos


Klein’s Lessons

December 6, 2010

*** Joel Klein tells us in the pages of the WSJ what he learned as Chancellor of NYC schools.  Here’s a highlight:

First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential. It’s now proven that a child who does poorly with one teacher could have done very well with another. Take Harlem Success Academy, a charter school with all minority, mostly high-poverty students admitted by lottery. It performs as well as our gifted and talented schools that admit kids based solely on demanding tests. We also have many new small high schools that replaced large failing ones, and are now getting outsized results for poor children.

Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc.—aren’t going to get the job done. Public education is a service-delivery challenge, and it must be operated as such.

Klein raises an excellent point.  Diane Ravitch, Sol Stern, and others who claim that they have grown frustrated with choice and other incentive-based reforms because they haven’t yet produced the miracles they expected ought to be 1,000 times more frustrated with the failure of more money, higher teacher certification requirements, curricular and pedagogical reform, etc…  We’ve tried those kinds of reforms more than 1,000 times more on a much grander scale and yet we still wait for the miracles.

To judge the effectiveness of reform strategies we can’t use miraculous improvement as the standard.  And we certainly need more fine-grained analyses than looking at whether cities or states that have tried something have improved.  And finally, we can work on various types of reforms simultaneously, so pitting incentives versus instruction is a false conflict that serves only to inflate the ego-starved reformer rather than the cause of reform.


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)


Murray Misses the Mark

May 5, 2010

The New York Times features a piece by Charles Murray arguing that choice has failed to improve test scores.  In general, Murray doesn’t think schools can do much to improve test scores.  He says:

This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

Murray wants to be clear that he still favors choice, but not to improve test scores.  Instead, he favors choice because it satisfies the diversity of preferences about how schools teach and what they teach.  Standardized test scores impose a uniform concept of higher achievement on students, and so cannot capture the improved satisfaction of the diversity of tastes that choice can more efficiently satisfy.

There is a kernel of truth in Murray’s argument.  We should support school choice simply because it allows us the liberty of providing our children with the kind of education that we prefer.

But Murray is completely mistaken in asserting that choice cannot (and has not) produced improved outcomes on standardized measures.  The only research he references is the recently released, non-random assignment evaluation of the effect of Milwaukee’s voucher program on students receiving vouchers.  This ignores the 10 superior, random research designed studies summarized here.  Importantly, it also ignores the effects of expanding choice and competition on achievement in entire school systems.

Especially with regard to a large and mature voucher program, like the one in Milwaukee, the relevant thing to focus on is systemic effects, not participant effects.  Almost everyone in Milwaukee has access to expanded choice, so everyone is receiving the treatment — school choice.  The difference between voucher participants and non-participants is where they chose to go to school, not the difference between having access to choice or not. And if you look at the systemic effects study in Milwaukee it shows significant gains in student achievement as choice and competition are expanded.

It is irritating to have to repeat this discussion of the evidence each time Charles Murray, Sol Stern, or Diane Ravitch selectively cite (or ignore) the research literature and claim that choice has no effect.  It’s also puzzling why “conservative” activists feel the need to denounce choice and competition in order to promote their pet reform idea.

Murray may well be right that schools face serious constraints in improving student achievement, but you don’t have to trash the gains that have been realized to make that point.  (And I think the constraints are less severe than he suggests).

Stern may well be right that even schools in more competitive markets have to make good decisions with regard to curriculum and pedagogy to produce significant improvement.  But choice and competition facilitate schools making good decisions about curriculum and pedagogy by providing negative consequences for those who choose foolishly (as well as giving schools the freedom to try more effective instructional techniques).  And Ravitch may be right about … well, maybe she isn’t right about very much.

Are conservative activists so starved for attention that they are willing to feed the New York Time’s preferred strategy of promoting conservative in-fighting, just so they can get into the pages of the Grey Lady?

(Edited to add link)


McCain and Obama Agree: Competition Good for Education

October 16, 2008

Education finally came up in a presidential debate and I heard something that I never heard before — the standard-bearers for both parties agreed that competition was good for public schools.  Sure, past Democratic candidates have endorsed school choice with charters, as Obama did.  But Obama did something new.  He specifically said that competition from charter schools was important for improving traditional public schools. 

Clinton, Gore, and Kerry embraced school choice with charters as an escape hatch for students condemned to failing public schools, sounding very much like Sol Stern, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess.  But Obama left previous Democratic candidates and these fellows at market-oriented (?!) think tanks in the dust by saying that choice was desirable because of competition. 

Here are Obama’s exact words: “Charter schools, I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers unions. I think it’s important to foster competition inside the public schools.”

Of course, Obama wants to limit choice and competition to public schools (which include charters), while McCain wants to include private schools in the mix.  But they agree on the big idea:  public schools are improved when they have to compete to earn students and the revenue those students generate.

Just think.  Only twenty years ago school choice and competition was hardly a glimmer in Ronald Reagan’s eye.  Now the idea is so widely accepted as reasonable that the leaders of both parties differ only on the mechanism for producing choice and competition.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Correction — Rick Hess emailed to say that he did not want to be counted among those who are unpersuaded by competitive effects from choice.  He does think that almost no current choice program is designed properly to produce competitive effects, but he thinks such effects are possible and desirable.


Does Joel Klein Matter?

September 18, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Literature contains any number examples of the “magic child” myth- the one with mystical abilities that will become a great leader. Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker and Thomas “Neo” Anderson are recent examples from science fiction, but there are many others.

 

For some reason, we tend to buy into the messianic myth with school leaders as well.

 

The oddest thing (to me) about the back and forth we’ve had here and elsewhere about instructional versus incentive based reform seems to center around Joel Klein’s tenure in NYC. I think Klein will ultimately be seen as a fairly inconsequential figure.

 

Let me hasten to say that I briefly met Klein at a conference a few months ago, and he seemed like a good guy, so this is nothing personal. He seems to have good intentions. Some have lauded his reforms; others have indicted him for making poor instructional choices. It seems perfectly plausible to me that Klein deserves praise for some things and criticism for others.

 

In my book, however, there are usually only two types of urban superintendents: those that have failed, and those that will fail. Rick Hess’ Spinning Wheels made this case convincingly- school systems cycle through superintendents as pseudo-messiahs as a method for kicking the can down the road. New savior arrives, tries to implement reforms, and receives a pink slip about three years later.

 

The new-new savior finds a group of half implemented reforms lying around, discards them to put in his or her own new program. Repeat process indefinitely. Longtime teachers learn to ignore the flailing at the top, knowing that “this too shall pass.”

 

Klein obviously departs from this model. He has a legal rather than an education background, and assumed control under the auspices of Mayor Bloomberg taking over the schools. His tenure has already lasted far longer than average.

 

It has never been a tenet of those of us in the choice movement that a gigantic schooling system would substantially improve if only they had the right superintendent. We emphasize market mechanisms, not benevolent dictatorships. In fact, we’ve seen some celebrity superintendents in the past: Roy Roemer in Los Angeles, Mike Moses (former state Education Commissioner) in Dallas.

 

No revolutionary improvement there, either.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m hoping for the best with people like Rhee and Klein. One might think that, for instance, that it shouldn’t be inconceivable for Rhee to improve the governance of the DCPS, but the track record here is not awe-inspiring.

 

If the critique of Klein is that he received a huge windfall of money but has failed so far to produce big results, what can one say other than: why would you expect anything else? Surely hope cannot have so completely triumphed over experience.

 

We should be persuaded by the evidence that instructional choices are very important. Incentive based reforms are also important. If a NYC chancellor does a little bit of one and none of the other, the results are likely to be underwhelming.

 

In other words-this too shall pass. Wake me up if and when Klein does anything truly radical- like a Jack Welch program for firing the bottom 10% of teachers and bureaucrats each year or widespread parental choice. Until then, I’ll hope for the best but not expect too much.


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