Checker Says RELAX!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Checker Finn wrote a response to the eight or so of us incurable skeptics of  Common Core Standards.  I will address a few points. Checker wrote:

Yes, it would have been better if the voluntary move by states to develop and consider adopting common standards hadn’t been entangled in a competition for federal money. Yes, it would be better if more of that same federal money weren’t paying for development of new assessment systems to accompany the standards. Yes, it would have been lots better if President Obama had never hinted at harnessing national standards to future Title I funding. Yes, the long-term governance of the standards and tests remains to be worked out.

But good grief, folks, do you really want to preserve the meager academic expectations, crummy tests, and weak-kneed accountability arrangements that currently drive—or fail to drive—K-12 education across most of this broad land? Are you so risk averse and change resistant as to see no merit in trying to do this differently in the future?

So other than that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln? The final point about long-term governance alone is more than enough to reject Common Core.  Checker quickly moves the discussion straight into a straw-man argument. Do I want to preserve a status quo of meager standards?  No thank you. Good standards and tests are a vital part of a comprehensive reform package. 

No one who supports Common Core can seem to muster anything better than a “yeah, we’ll figure that out later” on long-term governance. Let’s just say that I’d happily bet my left big toe that Common Core has already reserved a final resting place in the failed education fad graveyard.  This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. Tick tock.

Checker goes on to very odd paragraph:

Third, much as I wish otherwise, conservatives’ preferred alternative ed ucation-reform strategies haven’t gained the traction or scale that advocates (myself included) hoped for, nor have they delivered reliably better academic results. Yes, the principle has largely been accepted that kids need not necessarily attend the district school in their neighborhood. Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers. And charter-school enrollments, while respectably up, don’t amount to more than 3 percent of all kids. The parent marketplace isn’t causing bad schools to close. (Only Catholic schools, many of them fine, seem to be closing.) One can keep beating this drum—and you’ll find more and more people snapping their fingers in time with the beat—but, mostly for political reasons that aren’t going away, it hasn’t produced a lot of marching.

Oi vey- again with the magic bullet straw man. Let’s get this straight once and for all: within real world political constraints parental choice programs are not a panacea to the ills of public education. Neither is anything else.  Let’s all pull up our big boy pants and have everyone admit there are no magic bullets in K-12

It is not the case however that a reform needs to either be a cure-all, or we don’t do it at all. By that logic, Massachusetts should abolish all student testing because there are still illiterate children in Boston. Florida may as well abolish their reforms too- after all, 27% of 4th graders still score Below Basic in reading!

Parental choice programs have been demonstrated to have positive academic effects on participants, and positive impacts on district schools.  So far as I know, no one else has come up with another decentralized system of accountability that allows parents to hold schools directly accountable. Please let me know when someone does- and sign me up. Until then, it is worth bearing in mind that no system of schooling will ever be as effective as it could be in the absence of parental choice. Top down command and control efforts have their limits. Comprehensive approaches are the way to go- and the one state that has tried it succeeded in vastly improving student learning.

Checker is frustrated with the trench warfare pace of the battle for parental choice. So am I, but let’s not lose sight of what has been accomplished. Nationwide, 25 percent of students attend schools other than their zoned district school. Figure at least that many parents have exercised “check-book choice” by paying a premium for housing in neighborhoods with desirable district schools. I’d guess it is more than that, but it would be just that, a guess. Half down, half to go. Don’t give up yet, Checker. 

In any case, none of this discussion about choice this has anything to do with whether states should adopt Common Core. Back on task, Checker writes:

So yes, I’ve partly changed my mind about national standards and tests. I’m mindful of the risks and unknowns that lie ahead. I’m not totally satisfied with the Common Core. (Our raters gave it honors grades but not straight As). It troubles me that we’re so narrowly focused on just two subjects within the school curriculum. I’ve no idea what “cut scores” will be established for the forthcoming tests nor whether colleges and employers will take them seriously. I’m alarmed that one of the new assessment consortia doesn’t seem serious about accountability. I’m wary of what Congress will do to the Common Core when it finally gets around to reauthorizing NCLB. I’m nervous about the administration’s political backbone as electoral stakes rise. I’m skeptical about the stick-to-it-iveness of states that pledge their troth to Common Core but are rejected at the Race to the Top altar. (This may get clear fast. On Tuesday, a dozen states that had already adopted the new standards—more than one third of all adopters—were omitted from Secretary Duncan’s list of RTT finalists.)

Right, now we are getting somewhere. Checker forgot to mention that no one has any assurance whatsoever about the maintenance of the standards and tests, if they are any good to start with,  which is in doubt.

But what’s the point of just fretting and biting my nails and issuing cries of alarum? The education status quo sucks, to put it bluntly. Conserving it is no fit work for conservatives. In most of the country, they—we—should demand something better.

I certainly can’t speak for all Common Core skeptics, but “conserving the status-quo” is not my cup of K-12 tea. I completely agree that the status-quo sucks out loud. That doesn’t mean I should support something as poorly thought out as Common Core.

My state (Arizona) received pretty good grades for standards from Fordham, but it is painfully obvious that nothing about the status-quo of testing has been driving improvement. Our state has 44% of 4th graders who can’t read according to NAEP, and 4% of schools labeled underperforming by the Arizona Department of Education.

Arizona’s system, in short, devolved into a cruel joke on kids.

So what did we do?  Rather than dreaming about some implausible federal “solution” we fought back. We talked to our policymakers. Our governor called for Arizona to adopt the Florida method for grading schools based upon a combination of overall scores and student learning gains. Our legislature adopted the law with a bipartisan majority.  There will be attempts to water this down. The fight goes on.

If Arizona adopts the Common Core standards, and they turn out to be unteachable mush, how do I seek redress? I know who to talk to here in Arizona.  I get to vote for these people. Why should I want academic standards for my children drawn up by some faceless body of alleged grandees?  Churchill’s had it right when he said that democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the other ones.

In 2005, Esquire ran an article about Donald Rumsfeld called “An Old Man in a Hurry.”  As the United States continued to wallow in a full-blown Iraqi insurgency for which it had failed to prepare, the title of this piece became increasingly ironic. The title derived from an old English expression “Beware of an old man in a hurry.”

Checker isn’t old in my book, but is a highly respected veteran of the school reform movement. He’s earned the stars on his shoulder, and my admiration. He has an insightful intelligence and a knack for quickly getting to the heart of things. He may have forgotten more about K-12 policy than I’ll ever know. 

Passion however can lead to impatience, impatience can lead to recklessness, and recklessness leads to suffering. David Petraeus ought not to have been forced to write the United States Army Counterinsurgency Manual on the field in Iraq in 2006. ( Hundreds of thousands of people in the military, but no one had time to write one before. Hmmm.) Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld ought not to have invaded Iraq without an occupation plan. 

“Relax, don’t worry, be happy, we’ll figure out that stuff later” is an opening verse to a song that often ends in disaster. Rushing to adopt academic standards without so much as a reassuring fairy-tale of how they will be maintained over time is reckless.

Conservatism isn’t exclusively about preserving the status-quo. It also involves caution and a healthy respect for the law of unintended consequences.  Rummy forgot this and it seems to come and go with Checker, sometimes within the span of a single essay. Checker circa 1997 seemed to have it figured out, Checker circa 2010 seems to have thrown caution to the wind.

12 Responses to Checker Says RELAX!

  1. Daniel Earley says:

    While the Fabians of a century ago may have been utterly misguided in principle, their tactics are what made them successful. Each was fully aware that they would never live to see their utopian leftist dreams fulfilled, yet they were committed. Hence their namesake — the embodiment of the model of patience they followed.

    Perhaps the only Fabian virtue worthy of our emulation, patience is easy to lose — and consequently our cause in its entirety.

    Of course, this begs the question of what our cause is. Is it just about test scores? Is it about providing life-opportunities to the disadvantaged? Is it about freeing market forces to lift all boats? Is it also about preserving the kind of educated people who can preserve liberty in functioning republic? Might it be even something more?

    The Fabians’ centralized utopian cure for society’s ills turned out to be worse than the disease. The “risk” Checker suddenly invites us to take in the sphere of K-12 unfortunately lies parallel to that well-trod path, only now in the name of impatience. Call me averse to the risk of cures like Thalidomide, but some treatments have well-known effects.

    That said, I appreciate Matt’s deference to Checker for his life-long experience. After a lifetime in the trenches, his frustration may certainly be understandable. But therein lies the trap that makes Checker vulnerable: the temptation to believe that he’s already seen everything, that nothing will change, that there is nothing to be patient for.

    The only response I can give at this time without saying too much is that the marketplace is wiser than anyone realizes. Beyond Checker’s time frame being too short, revolutionary developments do, in fact, turn industries on their heads on a regular basis. The very medium we’re communicating through attests to this, and events are in the pipeline that even Gates is not aware of.

    Hopefully Checker and his backers will soon rise out of the gloomy funk that has burned out their hope in in mankind’s ability to excel without parental compulsion. Rather than yield to their impulse to micromanage, they could rejoin the real race to the top — illuminating the marketplace — where the focus is instead on shining brighter lights for sorting out the schools.

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    Clarification: Perhaps the only Fabian virtue worthy of our emulation–patience–is an easy virtue to lose, and consequently our cause is likewise easy to lose in its entirety. Unfortunately, this impatience seems to be Checker’s current driving force, even admittedly so.

  3. concerned says:

    You’re right! Conservatism isn’t about maintaining the status quo!

    Readers might be interested in some info from CA here:

    Thanks also to Sandra Stotsky! I hadn’t seen Professor Milgram’s review of the math standards prior to following your link. Thx!

  4. I think Matt really has it figured out. Conservatives are aware of the limitations and dangers of government action, so they tend to proceed gradually and with limited ambition. Checker is a man in a hurry and has dropped his previously sensible caution to rush ahead with something — anything — that might work.

  5. concerned says:

    There’s a tension that exists for conservatives throughout the political spectrum, but I wouldn’t categorize it as either gradual or limited…

  6. Greg Forster says:

    I don’t really agree with the idea that gradualism has a special connection to conservatism. Certainly if conservatives want to be faithful to their principles (which they frequently aren’t) they ought to be careful and cautious when doing something that involves increased exertion of government power (e.g. for national defense). But I think the same doesn’t apply when conservatives are rolling back state power. Of course we ought to be prudent, but sometimes real prudence demands boldness and even radicalism. The mountain climber who never takes a risk is doomed to fail. If you gave me a magic wand that would instantly create universal voucher programs in all 50 states, I wouldn’t hesitate to wave it.

  7. […] of some leaders advocating for the adoption of Common Core — those who are trying to tell us just to relax and not worry about the whole […]

  8. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Checker lost all credibility by embracing this scam against parents and taxpayers.
    We all know the Fordham grades are slightly inflated. We are not impressed.
    He needs to do what Ravitch did and admit he was wrong.

  9. Daniel Earley says:

    Thomas Jefferson on government prescribing arbitrary and foolhardy standards beyond its natural jurisdiction of competence:

    “[T]he Newtonian principle of [gravity] is more firmly established on the basis of reason than it would be were the government to step in and make it an article of necessary faith. It is [only] error which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

  10. QUICK Hits says:

    […] Jay Greene and Checker Finn are dueling it out over the Common Core education standards.  Who&#8217… (Jay P. Greene’s Blog) […]

  11. Madmommy says:

    howzabout we parents and pundits get a hold of some of those tests that all the apocalyptic statistics and rhetoric is based on so we can look at the actual questions being asked to the children, and determine how they can be so illiterate. My suspician is, having seen many unanswerable non questions, bad questions and insane questions ( pineapplegate) brought home in homework with all of my children, that these standardized tests hold many inferior, confusing and unanswerable questions meant to acheive these statistics. Outcome based testing. Manipulation of statistics by quality of the test. BOOM. ” EDUCATION IS BROKEN!! AAAHHH!”
    My 5th grader’s teacher yesterday spouted the same tired propaganda of education failure according to testing, ergo drastic transformation is needed. Hegel at work. He is not aware.
    So I question the data.
    But mostly I question how they all ignore the elephant in the room which is all the pedagogies, and best practices in use for those corresponding years up til now; Education by design, outcome based education, backwards education, constructivist education, whole child education, and on and on, all non linear, non fact based, non memorizing, non phonics based playtime and test time.
    Round in circles till all arrive at the” BIG IDEA”.
    why they want to double down on progressive education trends that seem to be the root cause of these statistical failures of American children is cause for concern. It really does seem like they are using there own tricky trend of outcome based data. iCombined with say, adding in all the special needs children’s data into the mix would skew data also.
    So all the elite academic puffery is really a smokescreen for an agenda that has fulfilled its own destiny, at the expense of American Children, and I wonder who would want to possibly do that? ( rhetorical question).
    So lets examine the tests.

    postscript: When you are setting up the lemonade stand at school with a few other Moms there is nothing like, ” hey ladies, have you noticed the fabian slant of the kids literature this year? “

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