Strawman Alert!

April 20, 2011


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I went to read the Fordham Report on ESEA reauthorization. I didn’t even make it past the preface without finding a gigantic strawman argument:

The local controllers.

These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

I’ll let the Cato Institute speak for itself, but as the coauthor of a piece on NCLB with Gene Hickok for the Heritage Foundation, I must say that this characterization of Heritage is sloppy. Gene and I noted some very real problems with the formulation of NCLB, and recommended a process by which states could negotiate with the federal Department of Education to have a single unified system of school accountability. No burning down the Federal Department of Education, no abandonment of accountability and transparency, nor any fever dreams of federally driven vouchers for all.

NCLB led to a net increase in transparency, and put a bright spotlight on achievement gaps- both very admirable outcomes. NCLB’s formula however contains dozens of ways for districts and schools to fail AYP and back loaded proficiency requirements will be changed, or else AYP with either lose all credibility, or else will lead states to dummy down their tests to absurd levels. The only reasonable assumption to make is that those that crafted the original law intended to reboot the provisions well before 2014. The Safe Harbor provision is not going to save the day, lawmakers must change the law.

Gene and I suggested a reboot that would allow states to have a single system of school accountability (many have a state system and AYP, which often contradict each other). States proposing a reasonable system- something AYP will no longer be in 2014 absent changes-could have a single system for ranking schools. I’m fine with the Federal Department of Education being tough-minded about approving alternatives. No federalist bone in my body would ever compel me to approve a cruel joke of a testing system (I’m looking straight at you Mississippi) and I’m not certain that the Obama administration has a federalist bone in any case. They did however win the election, and they may win the next one as well.

Call me crazy (it’s been too long since anyone has) but I think the federal government allowing parents the clarity of a single system of accountability is good thing if the state is proposing something that provides transparency and will nudge improvement out of the system. Not “perfection” by some arbitrary deadline, but sustained improvement. This strikes me as an especially good idea when the federal system is set to implode.

T. Willard Fair: Save NCLB Private Tutoring

November 11, 2010

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

T. Willard Fair, Chairman of the Florida State Board of Education calls for Congress to maintain the private tutoring provision of NCLB in the Miami Herald. Fair writes:

With scores of funding opportunities for schools and districts targeting myriad programs, this is one of the few federal programs that go directly to individual parents to help provide specific and targeted academic assistance. Selecting from a list of screened providers from across the spectrum, from community groups and other nonprofit groups to companies that provide these tutoring opportunities to more-affluent families, under this program parents can take control of their children’s education to help them get the tools they need to succeed.

Florida has led the nation in creating a system to hold these providers accountable and ensure results.

And parents have been choosing. In Florida alone, nearly 80,000 low income students took part in this tutoring program during the 2008/09 school year.

Given Florida’s leadership in K-12 reform, I am not surprised to see that they managed to make something of the private tutoring NCLB program, and I agree the program should be maintained. Some serious thought should be given however as to how the program could be made easier for parents to access. The tutoring program unwisely relies upon school districts for implementation with predictably disappointing results in most places.

Why not emulate Florida’s accountability system, and cut districts out as the middle man? There has to be a better model than expecting McDonalds to hand out vouchers to buy milk shakes from Wendy’s or Burger King.

Why are we having this fight again?

June 16, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Could the adoption of common core standards lead to substantial academic gains, even if somehow developed and kept at a high level in some imaginary Federal Reserve type fortress of political solitude and kept safe from the great national dummy down?

I ran NAEP numbers for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and calculated the total gains on the main NAEP exams (4th and 8th grade Reading and Math) for the period that all states have been taking NAEP (2003-2009). In order to minimize educational and socio-economic differences, I compared the scores of non-special program (ELL, IEP) children eligible for a free or reduced price lunch.

I then ranked those 50 states, and the table below presents the Top 10, along with the total grades by year for the strength of state proficiency standards as measured by Paul Peterson. Peterson judges state assessments by comparing scores on the state exam to those on NAEP.

To my eyes, it looks as though either nothing or next to nothing is going on here. The top three performers (FL, DC and PA) have unremarkable standards vis a vis NAEP.  Russ Whitehurst has written that some commercially available curriculum packages have shown good results in random assignment studies.

Jolly good- I suggest states adopt them rather than this politically naive common core standards effort.

NAEP Gains in 4h and 8th Grade Math and Reading for FRL, Non-IEP, Non-ELL students, 2003-09 for the Top 10 states (FL=1, NY = 10) compared to State Standards Grades by Peterson and Lastron-Adanon
2003 2005 2007 2009


VT B- B B+
Hawaii B B+ B+ A
Md C+ C C D+

NAEP Gains in 4th and 8th Grade Math and Reading for FRL, Non-IEP, Non-ELL students, 2003-09 for the Top 10 states (FL=1, NY = 10) compared to State Standards Grades by Peterson and Lastron-Adanon
2003 2005 2007 2009


VT B- B B+
Hawaii B B+ B+ A
Md C+ C C D+

Obama Seeks Big NCLB Changes

February 1, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So says Sam Dillon in today’s New York Times. Apparently the administration says it is going to get rid of the things that drive  school boards and teacher unions crazy, but maintain a strong system of accountability. So, we’ll see about that, but color me skeptical. The 2007 sop involved throwing ELL kids under the “porfolio assessment” bus.

On the positive side, the administration is going to propose getting rid of the 2014 100% proficiency standard that will otherwise push states to dummy down their state standards.


May 9, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today Pajamas Media runs my column on the latest long-term trend NAEP results and what they say to critics and supporters of NCLB:

The good news for the critics is that the Nation’s Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

The good news for supporters is that the Nation’s Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

Welcome to the confusing world of education policy!

Real Men of Accountability Illusion Genius

February 19, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fordham strikes again, following up their great Proficiency Illusion study with the Accountability Illusion. This time, they took 18 elementary and 18 middle schools, and applied the varying accountability rules of 28 different states under NCLB to see which of them would make AYP under which set of rules.

In other words, which states have jimmied the gory details to make it really easy to make AYP? Things like how many students you require to make a subgroup and adopted error margins make a big, big difference.

I can’t tell you how shocking it was to see Arizona as the second easiest state studied in which to make AYP.

That is to say, I was shocked that someone had actually made it easier to do than Arizona. This should be a statewide scandal in Wisconsin.

<Cue cheesy singer and Charleton Heston-like voice about here>

Real men of GENIUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here’s to you, Mr. Wisconsin No Child Left Behind compliance guy.

Mr. Wisconsin No Child Left Behind compliance guy!

When those federal bureaucrats required us to test students in return for federal dollars, you figured out how to how to drop your academic standards lower than anyone. Beating out Arizona…that’s really impressive. They said it couldn’t be done, but you did it!

Watch out! Falling cut scores!

When you’ve got schools making AYP in Wisconsin that don’t make it anywhere else, you deserve the satisfaction of a hard day’s work! We want everyone to feel good about their schools after all, whether the students learn anything or not.

Don’t feel bad-trophies for everyone!!

That partial credit scheme for kids that fail was inspired! Why let the sunbelt states have all the fun with low academic standards? Don’t worry about those darned meddling Fordham kids and their fancy study! You can still get away with it!

Oh YEAH! Where’s my Scooby snack?!?

So here’s to you Mr. Wisconsin NCLB compliance guy!  When it comes to creative insubordination, no one can match your GUSTO! Keep taking those federal dollars and giving them hell!

Mr. Wisconsin I’m Too Scared of Adults to Care About Kids NCLB Compliance guuuuuuy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Onay Ildchay Eftlay Ehindbay

February 18, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has signaled he’s open to changing the name of No Child Left Behind. (HT Eduwonk)

Conspiracy theory time! Is this:

1) A cheap way of giving the unions a symbolic victory, to make it easier to deny their more substantial demands?

2) The opening maneuver in the long-awaited rollback of the ridiculous promise to reach 100% student proficiency?

3) A red herring desgined to keep us busy with conspiracy theories and “name that law” contests so no one will notice that the administration isn’t going to do anything substantive on education policy, despite extravagent campaign promises?

4) All of the above?

The betting pool is now open.

But since we have a storied tradition of acronym contests here on JPGB, we can’t pass over the opportunity to come up with a replacement name for NCLB. And of course it has to start with “smart.” Zip it!

How about Smart And Clever Kids, Overcoming Fallacious Canards, Really Achieve Perfection? There’s an acronym for you.

Jeb for National School Grades

January 23, 2009


“Everybody do the FCAT! Yeah!”

HT Orlando Sentinel

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Jeb Bush comes out for a national school grading system on NRO.

What he’s proposing is a federal grade A to F for each school, based on both performance level and improvement – kind of the way Florida schools are graded under the A+ system (though Jeb doesn’t propose federal sanctions for poorly performing schools, just a grading system). He justifies the move on grounds that the NCLB system encourages states to lower standards.

Jeb doesn’t discuss this in the article, but readers of JBGB know that a clash has been brewing between Florida’s A+ program and NCLB. Florida, which has had success with the A+ program (where improvement in performance is a factor alongside performance level), is going to run into the 2014 “everybody must be proficient” wall along with everyone else.

No doubt our own Matt Ladner, chronicler of the looming conflict in the posts linked above, will have more to say about this (hopefully including some more classy artistic illustrations), but just to put my own two cents in, I’m not clear on why there needs to be a national grade.

For that matter, I’m not even convinced we need a national test, since that sacrifices the merits of interstate competition. At both the state and federal levels, the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo and thus will be looking for opportunities to dumb down the test or manipulate the scoring to make schools look better. But if one state dumbs down while another (under political pressure from reformers) stays the course and makes real improvement, that creates pressure on the dumb state to get with it.

The impetus for a single national test, it seems to me, is because federal rewards and punishments create an incentive to dumb down. If we’re not going to have rewards and punishments based on the scores, what’s the need for a single national test? Why not just require each state to maintain a transparent testing system of its own devising – or, if that’s not good enough, require each state to purchase and use one of the major privately developed national tests?

But we can leave that aside. Let’s stipulate the case for a national test. Still, if you’re not going to hold schools accountable with rewards and penalties, then why issue grades along with the test scores? Why not just give a test and report the results numerically, and let private organizations put together their own grading systems? That way people can decide for themselves what aspects of performance measurement matter most, rather than turning the job over to a federal bureaucracy that has an incentive to make schools look better.

Dubya’s Failure vs. Jeb’s Success

January 8, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Heritage Foundation released a study by Dan Lips and yours truly today making the case that real education reform needs to come up from the states, rather than down from the federal government.  We focus on the success of Florida’s reforms, the disappointment of NCLB, and note that in fact NCLB threatens Florida’s continued success. Now the Bushies are exiting the Washington scene, can we at long last admit that the 2014 requirement is encouraging states to lower their standards?

Dan explains this better than I can, so I’ll just sit back an marvel at the cool graphics that the Heritage folks came up with, like the one above.

Matthew Miller: There’s got to be a pony in there somewhere!

December 29, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Matthew Miller writes in the New York Times the federal government should provide a massive new infusion of cash for K-12 schools, but with a group of beneficent strings attached. This time, we’re bound to get it right.

<Insert Einstein’s now cliched definition of insanity about here>