2016: The Year in Edu-Review

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So what did we learn in 2016?

Tom Loveless reported in an analysis performed this year that the adoption of Common Core had resulted in less than a point of average improvement in NAEP scores, and that we probably already got the partial point. Meanwhile states continued revising their standards and tests. Another K-12 master plan bites the dustbin of history.

Speaking of tests, one of the subtle trends that continued in 2016 was the enhancement of academic transparency by NGOs. Non-profit firms have built platforms that analyze state testing data into digestible ratings and in addition collect parent reviews. Thus even when states adopt phony “trophies for everyone” school rating systems, a private platform like Greatschools gives parents a more realistic skinny on academic performance, and user reviews to boot. Already the amount of web traffic these sites generate dwarf those of state departments of education websites, and Greatschools has competition.

Similar to Mark Perry explaining that your television didn’t cost $6,200 because people figured things out over time, perhaps a bit more diversity could help the cause of academic transparency. The best case scenario on testing likewise imo would be to give schools more flexibility regarding the standards and testing used. The private platforms have already been dealing with “trophies for everyone” and can further take on the task of digesting a more diverse testing data for parents so long as state officials make some basic efforts regarding comparability and avoid opt-out provisions. Accountability could then take the form of parents choosing schools with decent information, which is strongly preferable to the accountability-free accountability bureaucratic compliance systems practiced in most states today. States can of course choose to keep things as they have been, but quite frankly its a bit difficult to see much benefit in so doing. Arizona lawmakers struck a deal to increase testing flexibility in preference to an opt-out bill in 2016. Perhaps other states will follow in 2017.

When we look back at 2016, the most important research may prove to be a Harvard study of the Georgia Tech MOOC Master’s degree program. Cliff’s Notes: the inexpensive Masters program in Computer Science program is competing against non-consumption. In other words, in the absence of the online GT program, the participating students would simply not pursue graduate level training in the field. As the study explained:

Demand for the online option is driven by mid-career Americans. By satisfying large, previously unmet demand for mid-career training, this single program will boost annual production of American computer science master’s degrees by about eight percent. More generally, these results suggest that low cost, high quality online options may open opportunities for populations who would not otherwise pursue education.

Crunchy education traditionalists like Jay will doubtlessly harumph that we don’t yet know what the job market will make of such a degree as yet. They will alas be right, but competing against non-consumption moves the question from “is this as good as a normal GT Masters” to “hey is this worth $7,000 and my time?”

On the parental choice legislative front, 2016 does not rank among the legendary years for progress, in part because it was an election year. Speaking of the election year, the Massachusetts ballot issue on charter schools ought to serve as a wake up call.  Writing on the Presidential election in MA, New York Times reported “You could drive a full 30 miles through the leafy suburbs northwest of Boston before reaching a town where Mr. Trump hit 20 percent of the vote.” Note however that these same wealthy and progressive voters slapped down more charter schools for inner city Boston kids on the same ballot. AFDC makes a poor role model for the parental choice movement, while the example of Social Security suggests a way forward.

Finally the biggest K-12 story of 2016 doesn’t have much to do with K-12. One of the two American catch-all parties commands a dominant position at the state level where the vast majority of K-12 action lies. Since President Obama took office, the Democratic Party has seen their collection of state legislative seats shrink by almost a quarter, and experienced a net decline in governors as well. Republicans will hold “trifectas” (the Governor and legislative majorities in both chambers of the legislature) in 25 states in 2017, while Democrats hold trifectas in six states in their coastal strongholds (and Hawaii). The sea-change at the state level occurred in November of 2010, but many may have been expecting the trend to moderate in 2016, but the voters made other plans for the time being.

Even before the election of 2016, the tyrants seemed to be defeating the street in the ongoing Arab Spring of the center-left debate over education policy-NAACP, Democratic Party Platform, etc. I agree with Greg that the choice movement has cultivated ties with progressives and can ill-afford to squander them. Has however the loss of almost a thousand state legislative seats moved Democratic caucuses hopelessly to the left on K-12 issues?  Can progressives keep clear about the benefits of choice to disadvantaged communities even though Donald Trump professes an affection for it?*

There is only one way to find out- let’s get 2017 started.


*If not I will set my stopwatch to await progressive opposition to infrastructure spending and federal family leave legislation, as “I hate anything Trump likes” will be about the level of analysis utilized.




10 Responses to 2016: The Year in Edu-Review

  1. Why can’t we have a sensible and clear conversation about real choice for adolescents–the kind of high school curriculum they choose/prefer and can commit themselves to? The jewel in the MA education crown is the network of regional voc/tech high schools across the state. Almost zilch attrition rate (these are all 9-12 high schools), higher graduation rate than regular public high schools, offer male instructors to kids many of whom badly need to see a full-time working male, and almost all students passed the statewide grade 10 tests in basic subjects by grade 12. They don’t cherry-pick admissions; kids have to have passed the grade 8 tests in ELA and math to be interviewed for admission. Most of these schools have waiting lists, happy parents, and happy kids. What’s wrong with them?

    • Matthewladner says:

      Sounds great to me.

      • Why aren’t the “choice” folks trying to get these kinds of choices available in every state? If some are, I haven’t heard about it.

      • matthewladner says:

        Florida provides the same bonus for schools for kids earning professional certifications in high demand fields as for those earning college credit by exam. Since lawmakers put the bonus in place, professional certifications in high demand fields have taken off. Excel in Ed actively promotes this policy in other states.

  2. Why can’t we have a clear and sensible conversation about the kind of choice most adolescents would prefer/choose and commit themselves to? The jewel in the education crown in MA was its network of regional voc/tech high schools (9-12). Attrition rate was almost zilch, pass rate of grade 10 MCAS tests in basic subjects almost 100%, lots of male instructors for many kids who badly need to see and talk to full-time working males, choice of programs in these schools, mostly waiting lists, happy parents, happy kids, and community support. No cherry-picking; kids need to have passed the grade 8 tests in ELA and math to be considered for interview for admission. What’s the problem with this kind of choice?

    • pdexiii says:

      There’s no problem except the dearth of leadership everywhere else committed to creating it. Even if the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) wanted to do it the effort and expense would be beyond their capability or desire. Voc/tech is all but phased out of every high school in LA; they’re all ‘college and career-ready.’
      ‘No cherry-picking’: If had to have passed grade 8 tests, that is not only cherry-picking, but picking the sweetest, low-hanging fruit. Again, here in LA if you did that the only folks eligible for admission in those schools would be a) Asians, 2) Latino girls; 3) Black girls.
      Bad leadership is the core of all our education issues; hard to export quality leadership.

      • Voc/tech school attendance requires a minimum level of reading ability. I’ve looked at the complex machinery and microchip-based programs students learn to use (e.g., for tool and dye making, boiler-making). The requirement of passing grade 8 tests in ELA and math should incentivize middle school students to do what is necessary to pass (and grade 8 pass scores are not excessively high). It also means these schools are not “dumping grounds.” If unwilling to do that, kids are responsible for their future as ditch-diggers. That’s the way it works. It’s not cherry-picking. We still have sheltered workshops for adults who cannot be trusted to handle an off/on switch on a complex machine.

        Leadership is always needed. So, too, is a little bit of motivation to learn–and incentives designed for that purpose. Duncan/Gates et al missed the boat because they have no skin in the game. (Sorry for mixed metaphors; my ancestor was Mrs. Malaprop.)

  3. Greg Forster says:

    No doubt it says a lot about me that as I come away from this excellent post, I am preoccupied with the thought, “why doesn’t Matt consider Hawaii a Democratic coastal stronghold?” It’s clearly a Dem stronghold so the exclusion must be based on a flagrantly continent-ist conception of “coastal.” It’s hard for any state to be as coastal as Hawaii. Repent of your continent-centrism and get geographically woke!

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