Don’t Go Wobbly, Mike

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at the Ed Next blog, Mike Petrilli asks the question: if not the 100% proficiency requirement of NCLB, then what? Mike concludes:

So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next 12 years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about  50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

To my eye, these are stretch goals–challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 Kindergarteners not to graduate from  high school 12 years from now. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would  expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).

90,000 out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be taking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean twice as many poor children making it–9 percent instead of 4 percent.

And what about the other 91 percent of our Kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of  them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.

I agree that the 2014 cliff was utopian and counterproductive, and further that the safe-harbor provision does little to rescue NCLB as originally formulated. As Congress dithers on reauthorization (and when have we ever known Congress not to dither?) the 2014 event horizon approaches. Many states back loaded their proficiency requirements to the 2012-2014 period, and ooops, here it comes.

Our goal should be a system which encourages systemic improvement and academic growth rather than a system which requires “perfection on a deadline.” No one is better at creative insubordination than school administrators, making perfection on a deadline a dangerous proposition.

Rather than set goals, we need to focus on aligning the incentives of the adults in the system to match the interests of children and taxpayers. Let’s not bother with any Soviet style 5 year targets, and focus on incentivizing the behaviors we want, and disincentivizing the behaviors we don’t desire. Rather than bemoan a lack of parental involvement, let us promote policies that strongly encourage it. If we can do this, improvement will follow. Stretch goals should come in the form of raising cut scores over time and other forms of raising the bar. All the while, important incentive pieces like parental choice and financially incentivizing academic success must proceed.

Florida pursued this course, and coincidentally the ur-reactionary Ravitch is down there today. The St. Pete Times reports:

“Particularly in  Florida, it’s a disaster,” she said during a visit Wednesday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. “What we are doing is killing creativity, originality, divergent thinking. All the things we need in the 21st century are what we’re squeezing out of a generation of children.”

In a speech today at the Florida School Boards Association annual meeting in Tampa, Ravitch plans to continue her full-throated campaign to “save public education” from its obsession with testing.

“This is institutionalized fraud,” she said, referring to the phenomenon of ever-rising scores. “Because we are graduating just as many kids who can’t read as we did 10 years ago.”

She acknowledged that Florida’s focus on reading has produced real gains. But she said other test improvements may have come about partly from the state’s focus on reducing class

Ravitch and her “armies of angry teachers” are living in an alternative universe where she gets to make wild allegations about destroying the creativity of a generation of children without offering any evidence, make claims about education policy (in this case class size) which have been clearly refuted by empirical investigation and label the state which has produced more combined NAEP gains than any other for low-income children “a disaster.” Her point about 12th grade scores may be true in some states, but is not the case in Florida, where FCAT scores, AP passing rates and graduation rates are all improving. Why bother looking anything up if you can simply confidently assert nonsense?

Ravitch is noisily preaching to her reactionary choir as history blows past her, making her the George Wallace of the soft bigotry of low expectations-a sad but ultimately unimportant figure. Meanwhile, the serious conversation of K-12 carries on without her. Getting back to Mike’s post, I think the reactionary he should be worried about is not Diane Ravitch and her army of angry teachers but rather Charles Murray and his potential army of angry taxpayers.

The country after all spends about $10,000 per year per child-amounting to about $50,000 by the end of 4th grade-more if there was public pre-school provided. For that amount of money, which is largely the envy of the rest of the planet, it seems reasonable to teach the vast majority of children how to read. If it can’t be done because of “poverty” then why are we spending so much money going through the motions of pretending to try? Only educating an elite may offend our sensibilities, a Murrayite could argue, but only educating an elite while spending trillions of dollars on maintaining an illusion of educating the uneducable is far, far worse.

Far left meets far right at far gone, so to speak.

Americans are not quitters, and we are not going to give up on public education. Nor are we going to embrace some dorm-room bull session pipe dream of embracing state socialism to fix our education problems, which is just as well, because it wouldn’t work anyway. The grown ups in the K-12 reform conversation, both on the left and right, are pursuing greater productivity for the existing enormous investment in education.

I can forgive Mike for assuming we need some sort of gosplan, and that the gosplan needs to have an assumed rate of failure- he works in DC, and there is something in the water. Focusing on aligning the interests of adults with the interests of children while increasing parental involvement in a variety of ways will produce improvement. We’ve had enough utopian exercises (Goals 2000, NCLB 2014 with Common Core on hot standby). Our focus should be on thoughtful management of incentives in order to produce improvement. This is mostly going to involve sustained hand to hand combat in state capitals- a long hard slog.

Let’s get on with it-sometimes the hard way is the only way. Forget about a master plan or a schedule for improvement Mike- let’s get as much improvement as fast as we can get it.

8 Responses to Don’t Go Wobbly, Mike

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Outstanding post, both on style (the image of Charles Murray leading an army of angry taxpayers is on par with anything in Aristophanes) and substance.

    One quibble. Suppose we stipulate Ravitch is the George Wallace of education – or, rather, the Richard Weaver, the highly intelligent manufacturer of ideological justifications for the system of injustice. Does it follow that she’s unimportant? I mean, when Jim Crow was still the law of the land and peaceful protrators were getting dogs and hoses turned on them, would anyone have written “Wallace is noisily preaching to his reactionary choir while history blows past him, making him the Diane Ravitch of the hard bigotry of segregationist expectations – a sad but ultimately unimportant figure. Meanwhile, the serious conversation of racial integration carries on without him”?

  2. matthewladner says:

    Thanks Greg. You are correct that no one at the time would have dismissed Wallace as unimportant. It is only with benefit of hindsight that Wallace’s relative insignificance as champion of a disreputable and thus doomed point of view is clear.

    So in describing Ravitch as the George Wallace of the soft bigotry of low expectations, I am calling my shot in advance. I believe that our grandchildren will shake their heads in disbelief when we tell them that we used to make it next to impossible to fire ineffective teachers, distributed the least effective teachers to the children with the largest academic needs, and effectively kept parental choice as a private reserve for the wealthy.

  3. GGW says:

    Feels like you’re forcing it a bit.

    “Our focus should be on thoughtful management of incentives in order to produce improvement.” Agreed.

    In other posts, you’ve laid the differences on the first side of the sentence — you focus on a certain type of choice/incentives, and Petrilli (if I’m reading him right) largely agrees with many of those policies, plus other stuff that you object to, like common core, which he’d describe as incentives and you describe as coercion. Fair enough. Disagree on “how.”

    The second question is simply him trying to move us towards measuring “improvement” in relative terms over baseline in a fixed amount of time, rather than towards “all kids shall.”

    I’d think you’d generally agree on that — example, when proposing a new voucher program, we might argue “based on similar programs, we might expect X improvement over current realities in the coming years.”

  4. matthewladner says:


    I think you are right, we probably are not that far off on policy. I do believe that there are benefits to academic standards and tests, if done skillfully, and I think we both support charters and vouchers, etc. We even share a somewhat similar view on NCLB.

    If you want to see what is wrong with Mike’s post, go and read the comment section. Mike writes a post to say the plan should build in failure, and the Ravitch zombies instantly start their happy dance.

    I think the way to pursue this is to ruthlessly seek improvement. How close can we get to 100%? We won’t know until we pull out all the stops.

  5. GGW says:

    Yep. This is where I’m flustered. The noise ratio from the RZs as you say is so high, it precludes the sort of precise idea exchanges that would help us actually improve incentives/systems/schools faster.

  6. Jenni White says:

    I agree with your thesis, Matt. But how do we go about “aligning the interests of adults with the interests of children while increasing parental involvement in a variety of ways will produce improvement”?

    As egregious and ridiculous as it sounds (cynicism), we must turn our efforts toward a total defunding of the Dept. of Ed. We then return the oneness for public education back to the states as our Forefathers envisioned and develop and engage local control as a way to steer results.

    We can argue incessantly over NCLB and/or any of the other revisions of ESEA since 1965 and how relevant they are (mainly aren’t), but it matters not. ALL public school reforms are soundly based on Marxist ideals using progressive teaching and assessment models which have been shown time after time after time not to work in any country that’s tried them – including the US.

    Why argue over failed models? A study of the literature indicates that returning ALL currently argued over reforms back to traditional methods would solve nearly every issue at hand. (

    Interestingly, after giving a presentation of our research to some legislators recently, the idea of gradually pulling the plug on education funding (even that paltry sum provided by the feds) incited greater frustration than the failure of the current system. I suppose, as deeply ingrained in nanny-state mentality as we apparently are in America today, the idea of providing our children the means for self-knowledge and self-reliance is nearly foreign. How sad.

    Certainly this strategy would be the uphill battle of the century. Taking money from a bureaucrat and depriving them of their useless bureaucracy is like pulling the pacifier out of the mouth of a toddler. Yet there seems to be no other way. Once the money is off the table, legislators, school boards and parents can force the issue of the cheaper, ‘traditional’ methods. Right now, the cacophonous rustling created by the tonnage of tender and the incessant negative feedback loop of mandates it creates, makes it extremely hard for educrats to hear the voices of reasoned researchers OR the people they serve.

  7. matthewladner says:


    I’m not a big fan of the U.S. Department of Education, but the action on school reform is at the state level and will continue to be regardless of what happens at the federal level. The feds have not ultimately inhibited successful states from making progress, nor have they done much to ensure that laggards get their acts together.

  8. Julia Gregory Seay says:

    By and large, what is coming out of our “teaching schools” is Marxist by design. Teachers at age 40 and under know little else unless they had some outside source (like a Patriot mom and dad, for instance) teaching them American exceptionalism alongside the college “education” that is required to be certified. Even the zealous teachers who really love teaching kids are teaching to a mandated test. When you begin to remove the funds, the carrot at the end of the stick, the educators scream, then the parents get the story from them, then the legislators hear from the parents AND the teachers. How do we ever get the chance to say, “Money is not the answer here! Teaching critical thinking is.” We are going to have the Stepford Students if we don’t get this turned around soon. How do we break this cycle? Where do we start if not by saying NO to Federal money and mandates?

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