Will the Ed Reform Band Continue to March into the Alley?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Robert Pondiscio’s now famous piece on ed reform’s leftward drift brought to mind the above scene from the masterpiece of American juvenile cinema Animal House. It’s hardly impossible to imagine ed reform going off course as, well, it happened before and in the recent past. Tom Loveless for instance argues that the entire Common Core effort has been worth less than a single NAEP point (on a 500 point scale) and that this gain is already reflected in the 2015 exams. I would not bet my left foot that Tom is absolutely correct about that, in fact I hope he’s wrong and the entire effort has some sort of delayed reaction since it is a sunk cost. I have yet to see anyone attempt to muster a credible refutation, and Tom’s analysis finds support from Hanushek’s work as well.  The could be mistaken, but calling the question as of now makes it look like:

Well yes maybe that has not worked out as well as hoped, but the teacher evaluation systems pushed by Race to the Top are going to close the achievement gap by…oh wait watch out….gahhhgh my trombone!!!!!!

Not all such diversions are of recent vintage. Some are more of a persistent folly sort of phenomenon. For instance, it is fairly clear that the school voucher movement never would have launched in Milwaukee without a strange bedfellows coalition of liberals and conservatives. This was terribly exciting at first, but with the benefit of hindsight…

It now seems painfully obvious that the means testing of private choice programs has served to politically marginalize private choice vis-a-vis charter schools, district schools, magnet schools, digital learning and/or **fill in the blank here** because almost nothing else in K-12 education funding has adopted the view that actively discriminating against the children of the people who pay the highest rates of tax constitutes an inspired political strategy.

This is not at all to say that equity issues are anything less than vitally important or that we should not engage in an ongoing and thoughtful discussion about how best to reflect them in a system of private choice. The means testing fetish however has persisted so long that some very prominent charter school supporters for instance failed to recognize the rich irony of their criticism of the Nevada ESA program for being universal in nature when in fact every charter school law also involves universal eligibility by income.  Come to think of it, I don’t know of many charter school laws that give additional state dollars to low-income kids, but the NVESA does provide additional state funds to low-income students….

Anyhoo, means testing for thee, but not for me won’t do- wake me up when our friends on the left means test district or charter schools. Otherwise the worthy conversation lies in settling upon the level of additional resources should be provided to disadvantaged children. All of which leads to Paul Peterson’s great valedictory piece as Editor in Chief of Education Next making the case that the regulatory approach to school reform led us down a blind alley reached its ceiling. Peterson calls on reformers to double down on parental choice as an improvement strategy. This approach, while promising, requires a level of modesty notably lacking from today’s would be technocrats. I’m happy to pass the ed reform baton to those who can snatch this particular pebble, as my next career creating Rhino Record compilation cds of Dean Martin and punk rock classics awaits (Martinis in the Mosh Pit, Volume 7!!!) and would be even more fun than anything in ed reform, other than jayblogging.

Ooops, day dreaming again, so getting back on track the above sort of issues deserve deliberation and debate in my view. I could be in the grips of an enormous folly that is invisible to me, just as my friends in the charter school movement seem oblivious to their means testing double standard. I’ve been wrong before, and I will be wrong again so have at it if you disagree. I’d rather debate these sort of issues than endure any further virtue signalling in the form of therapy sessions where Ivy League ed reformers work out their guilt from lacking an urban Horatio Alger story in public.  Such burdens are best born in private with a determined stoicism, terrible though they may be, as they seem lacking in utility.




11 Responses to Will the Ed Reform Band Continue to March into the Alley?

  1. sstotsky says:

    When is someone going to ask Paul Peterson why he seems to have a built-in aversion to finding out or talking about why the state he lives and works in improved all demographic groups after 2005 for about a decade, only now beginning to decline on NAEP tests? What is the problem in raising two questions: (1) Did the difference in philosophy underlying MERA (it sought to raise all kids’ achievement) and the Common Core project (it seeks to close gaps, among other things) make a difference? (2) Did a focus on strengthening teachers academically make a difference? We know that the small number of charter schools (less than 3% of kids in them), and the elements of choice and competition weren’t the causes of the rise and enduring gains. What’s the problem in at least raising the questions.

  2. matthewladner says:


    There has long been a lack of curiosity about MA with many seeming to assume that testing carried the load for improvement when in fact a multi-faceted set of reforms passed together. I’m not however sure why this should fall on Peterson’s plate in particular.

    • sstotsky says:

      Why not? He talks about the decline of the regulatory state and the importance of choice as if he knows it worked, first-hand, in the very state he lives and works in. Why shouldn’t he, Marty West, and any one else they care to invite, be asked to come up with ideas if there is something to support them? His journal supported Common Core’s standards without evidence (there isn’t a literary expert in the country, including Hirsch, who defends CC standards), and he has suggested nothing to replace them with–not even Core Knowledge. If he is that bankrupt ideationally, why not open up a narrow understanding of choice to broader definitions and to other ideas?

      • matthewladner says:

        You are free to criticize Paul and Marty’s research agenda, but it’s still up to them to decide how to spend their time. Moreover, there are some rather prominent researchers on both the right and the left whose work can reasonably lead one to the conclusion that this entire standards process has been a relatively meaningless tempest in a tea pot. I referenced two of them in the post.

        In other words, if researchers find that state tests and state standards to be generally unrelated to academic trends, it leads me to the conclusion that the CC approach was a misguided improvement effort. It also raises the question however regarding just how much, if at all, the adoption of MA tests and standards influence the MA NAEP improvement.

        My hunch continues to be that it did influence it, and that CC adoption was a foolish decision in MA. Why mess with a system that produced the highest NAEP scores, after all, even if we are uncertain what cause them?

        I sadly think that the CC effort derived from this same unsubstantiated hunch and rushed forward without really understanding what had actually happened in MA. 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, so quick singers everyone grow side-burns!

        I don’t agree with Ravitch often, but I do agree that it made more sense for other states to adopt the old MA tests and standards than anything else, not that they are “proven” either. This absurd episode however is far larger than PP or the Ed Next crowd.

  3. sstotsky says:

    Of course, anyone is still free to criticize anyone else. May not last long, but we should take advantage of the situation. But how come I seem to be the only one criticizing the narrow focus of Ed Next? And for anyone to cry crocodile tears about MA doesn’t help parents/kids in the Bay State.

    At least, there could be some criticism on this website of ESSA. I read none. The entire Common Core project is the worst conceptualized reform in modern history (thanks to people like Bill Gates, David Coleman, Joanne Weiss, and Arne Duncan, among others). So why allow John King and friends to freeze college-and-career-readiness-standards into the approval of states’ applications for Title I money, which has not been shown by anyone to help low-income kids?

    How about restricting K-12 educational policy-making to people with kids or grand-kids in the public schools?

    • matthewladner says:

      I can’t fault Peterson for the failings of the standards movement. Especially when there is so much fault to be found within the standards movement itself.

  4. sstotsky says:

    So, who do you want to blame for the failure of the standards movement, a topic we weren’t discussing? Let’s have a contest. Nominate the person/group you think did the most to tank the standards movement.

  5. matthewladner says:

    Hmmm…..let’s see the grand poo-bah and most of his camp followers threw in with the CC effort, and seemed to take little notice of MA. Another prominent standards supporter allowed her canine appetite for attention morph her into the sock puppet of the AFT during the period in question. Plus she implicitly rejected the MA effort in her latest WaPo interview, completing a long journey to the dark side.

    At least that is how things looked from a very distant patch of cactus.

    The real problem with any strategy that relies on a central ship wheel is that it is only a matter of time until the ship wheel gets taken away. Standards in MA, testing in Texas, chartering in New Orleans, school grading in NYC…I could go on but my computer is running out of juice.

  6. sstotsky says:

    Maybe the grand poo-bah needs to be dethroned? Why not name names? Who are the camp followers? For our own version of the Nuremberg Trials, who destroyed our public schools? And they are destroyed. Ask any school administrator who can afford to be honest. They cannot educate any SES group. Parents all over this country are trying to figure out how to find a way to educate their children outside the “public” schools when they can’t afford a private school, can’t homeschool, or don’t want a sectarian school. The chief victims are the kids championed by our civil rights organizations.

  7. matthewladner says:

    Sounds like an outstanding case for a universal ESA system…

  8. sstotsky says:

    Only a universal escrow system for an alternative K-12 public school system might. Haven’t heard a murmur about that idea.

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