A Chance for a New Fordham

Fordham’s Kathleen Porter Magee has responded to my post last week in which I argued that Fordham’s vision of Common Core as “tight-loose” is looking a lot more like “tight-tight.”  In her rejoinder, Kathleen Porter-Magee reiterates the distinction between standards and curriculum and insists that “good standards aren’t prescriptive, but they’re not agnostic, either.”

But just a week earlier in the foreword to Fordham’s new study judging the extent to which English teachers are changing instruction to meet Common Core, Kathleen and Checker talk about the “instructional shifts” Common Core standards “expect” and “demand.”  Now we are asked to believe that there is a world of difference between “prescribing” and ‘expecting” or “demanding.”

If this is beginning to sound like debating what the meaning of the word “is” is, there is a reason.  Almost everything coming out of Fordham (and a great many other DC think-tanks and advocacy groups) feels more like political campaign rhetoric than serious intellectual inquiry.  Rick Hess described Kathleen Porter-Magee’s rejoinder, saying it “read to me like a pol’s answer.”  Precisely.  It is a politician’s answer because the folks at Fordham (and many other DC policy shops) too often behave, talk, and write more like politicians than scholars or serious policy analysts.

My goal in critiquing Fordham (and the Gates Foundation) is to encourage them to behave less like politicians and more like scholars and serious policy analysts.  Kathleen Porter-Magee misunderstands my motivation, suggesting that I am trying to “undermine the credibility of [my] opponents” on Common Core so I “can win the day—facts be damned.”

But the truth is that I am under no delusion that what I write or say will have any effect on the fate of Common Core, nor do I really care about having such an effect.  As I have written and said on numerous occasions, Common Core is doomed regardless of what I or the folks at Fordham say or do.  Either Common Core will be “tight” in trying to compel teachers and schools through a system of aligned assessments and meaningful consequences to change their practice.  Or Common Core will be “loose” in that it will be a bunch of words in a document that merely provide advice to educators.

Either approach is doomed.  If Common Core tries being tight by coercing teachers and schools through aligned assessments and consequences, it will be greeted by a fierce organized rebellion from educators.  It’ll be Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and their army of angry teachers who will drive a stake through the heart of Common Core, not me or any other current critic . If Common Core tries being loose, it will be like every previous standards-based reform — a bunch of empty words in a document that educators can promptly ignore while continuing to do whatever they were doing before.

This is the impossible paradox for Common Core.  To succeed it requires more centralized coercion than is possible (or desirable) under our current political system and more coercive than organized educators will allow.  And if it doesn’t try to coerce unwilling teachers and schools, it will produce little change.

If Common Core is doomed, why do I bother responding to Fordham, Gates, and others making arguments in its favor?  I am responding to the intellectual corruption that the political campaign for Common Core is producing among otherwise decent, smart, and well-intentioned folks.  Arguments like “tight-loose” are political campaign slogans, not intellectually serious ideas.  I’m trying to point this out, not “win the day” on the merits of Common Core.  I pick on Fordham because I am actually in substantive agreement with a good deal of what they are trying to accomplish and don’t want to see them pursue those goals with crappy political slogans.

But with Mike Petrilli assuming the presidency of the Fordham Institute next year, I see hope for a new Fordham.  He might start by hiring more social scientists and fewer former journalists and office-holders.  Policy analysis isn’t entirely about “messaging” to convince people to do what we already know is right.  There is a lot we don’t know and competing social science claims we need to adjudicate, so a good policy organization needs a bunch of people with content and research method expertise.  You can’t just rent this expertise on the cheap; you need to hire social scientists to make this expertise a stronger part of the organization’s DNA.  Look at Brookings, EPI, and AEI for models across the political spectrum that give priority to social science.

Mike might also consider diversifying support away from the Gates Foundation.  With more than $6 million from Gates in the last few years and with the appointment of former Gates political strategist, Stefanie Sanford, to the Fordham board, Fordham is beginning to feel like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Gates Foundation.  I don’t think Fordham is advocating for anything they don’t believe because of Gates support, but I do think Gates is a corrupting influence that tries to make everything part of a political campaign rather than serious, honest inquiry.  Reducing reliance on Gates might free Fordham up to sound less like a string of political slogans.

To accomplish less reliance on Gates, Fordham might need to shrink a bit in size.  That would probably be a good thing.  A policy shop shouldn’t try to maximize its budget or head-count.  It should try to be the right size to do the work it wants to do.  Not chasing every dollar to become ever-larger would also free up Fordham to speak only when it wants to and not feel obliged to produce reports, tweets, and blog posts all of the frickin’ time.  A lower volume of communication might produce higher quality communication and probably increased influence.

Lastly, a shift away from the political obsession of journalists and former office-holders and toward a more serious, social scientific approach would help Fordham avoid crappy research and slogans.  Fordham should avoid doing any expert panel studies giving grades to this or that.  It should avoid doing selection on dependent variable analyses exploring why Massachusetts, Finland or anyone else is doing well.  It should avoid repeating the Fordham drinking game in which arguments depend on appending “smart” to regulation, curricum, etc… or dividing policies into three kinds where the middle one is the sensible alternative to two extremes.  Messaging is not really an argument.

One thing Fordham should not change is its principles and its sincere commitment to Common Core.  Contrary to Kathleen Porter-Magee’s assumptions, I am not trying to convince Fordham to change its position on Common Core. I just want Fordham not to confuse political campaigns for policy analysis.  Whatever happens with Common Core (and who knows, perhaps Fordham is right in thinking it is a great idea and will somehow help), we cannot degrade the currency of policy analysis by turning everything into an advocacy campaign.  Education reform is likely to be a very long game, so we don’t want to bend all rules, twist all facts, and pull out all stops just to win this one battle.  It would be nice to have a credible and effective Fordham around for the next ed reform debate.  I hope Mike Petrilli can help do this.

10 Responses to A Chance for a New Fordham

  1. Jason Bedrick says:

    To borrow from Robert Frost:

    Some say the Core will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve seen of the Ravitch empire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of prate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The teacher cannot hear the parent;
    Classes fall apart; the curriculum cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the school,
    The blood-dimmed tirade is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of learning is drowned;
    The best lack all valid data, while the worst
    Are full of passionate junk science.

    Surely some reform is at hand;
    Surely the Common Core is at hand.
    The Common Core! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Technocracy
    Troubles my sight: a waste of administrative bloat;
    A shape with lion body and the head of Bill Gates,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant teacher unions.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty-first century skills and critical thought
    Were vexed to nightmare by federal influence,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Washington to be born?

  3. Haven’t you guys heard? Poetry has been eliminated from JPGB to make room for more informational texts. We need to move toward the 21st century and don’t have time for those dead white guys. Besides, how will Yeats or Frost help you be a better worker?

    • Greg Forster says:

      When the Blogger says: “What is the meaning of this reform?
      Do you huddle close together because you learn from each other?”
      What will you answer? “We all design standards together
      To make money from government contracts”? or “This is a community”?

      Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Blogger.
      Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

      There is one who remembers the way to your door:
      Parents you may evade, but Jay Greene you shall not.
      You shall not deny the Blogger.

      They constantly try to escape
      From the darkness outside and within
      By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
      But the man that is shall shadow
      The man that pretends to be.

  4. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    Jay, we *urgently* need “like” to be available for comments on your blog!!! 🙂

  5. Ed says:

    Jay, you miss how common core will take root. It’s API will be the data backbone for scores of learning systems.

    Regardless of what individual teachers do, everyone who wants to build a digital component of School 3.0 will build it somehow upon the common core. Even if you’re building a school where traditional classes no longer exist, you’ll align your student expectations to the CCSSI.

    And if schools (or un-schools) like that are wildly successful and leave the core in the dust? Well, it will still have done its job.

    As to Fordham–I’d prefer they hire Learning Engineers a la AEI http://www.aei.org/module/1/digital-learning/ (But then I’m biased there.)

    • Greg Forster says:

      Regardless of what individual teachers do, everyone who wants to build a digital component of School 3.0 will build it somehow upon the common core.

      Wow . . . you really believe that, don’t you? I mean, you actually believe this is true.

      The whole point of digital learning is that it’s an open field and people can do what they want. Why would we expect everyone to do the same thing? You implicitly concede that “individual teachers” can’t be expected to all do the same thing, and those are people whom you have some control over because they’re part of the public system. If you can’t convince them to get on board, you’re certainly not going to corral every cowboy entrepreneur who wants to kick off a digital learning startup.

      And even if it were remotely plausible that this might happen, on what possible basis could you claim to already know that it’s going to happen?

      • Ed says:

        Hi, Greg, thanks.

        First, just checked your blog. Allowing more humanities, more curiosity and respect for religious and cultural heritage are central to where we need to go.

        “On what basis”:
        I know because I’ve been searching for years for ways to achieve that increased room for humanities. Because, like everyone, I’ve repeatedly run against the status quo.

        And,.because the inventor of a radically new school approach asked me yesterday how they could do what they imagine. And we both knew the only path.

        But also, because before I became a learning engineer, I was an avionics engineer. We built an incredibly complex and unique system because we had lower level standards to rely on.

        Why did the PC vastly outsell the McIntosh? Because there were a few, open, simple standards that inventors and entrepreneurs relied on. Why are robots about to invade our lives? Simple, open, standards.

        Of course there’s no guarantee that we remake the learning world. Anything can happen.

        But barring a North-Korean-style retrenchment, school 3.0 will come in the next 5 years, and for students, it will look nothing like school today.

      • Greg Forster says:

        There are “standards” controlling what people are allowed to use their PCs for? That’s funny, nobody told me. PCs would never have been successful if PC makers had been required to design them so that their use would be uniform across all users, and would accomplish goals agreed upon by panels of self-appointed experts.

        Not to mention that the CC standards are not “simple” and are the very opposite of “open.” You are advocating the opposite of what you seem to think you are advocating.

        The idea that common standards will be helpful for digital learning is further debunked here: https://jaypgreene.com/2011/08/30/barriers-to-digital-learning/

  6. We can’t get a straight answer in Missouri from Michael Petrelli or our Commissioner of Education on what the standards even are. Petrelli states they set “world-class academic standards for student achievement” and during the same hearing, our commissioner said they were “the floor”.

    Petrelli was invited by our commissioner to speak, so he was not a hostile witness.


    We here in Missouri would like clarification on why they are conservative, if they are the “floor” or “high” standards, and tell us just one country that supports the international benchmark claim. Petrelli responded that “one country had fewer standards than the US”….but he couldn’t name the country.

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