Choice First, Standards Second

August 1, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.

Are We Allowed to Be Neither Naive Nor Cynical?

July 31, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have a question. Am I permitted to be neither naïve nor cynical about the Tony Bennett emails? Or is there some sort of law that dictates I must be one or the other? Indiana StateImpact places me with the Bennett supporters while Matt seems to think I’m attacking Bennett (I’m not sure how else to interpret “haters gonna hate”). I don’t intend to be either.

I find it difficult to buy the new house line, and I will continue to find it difficult until someone asks Bennett the obvious question: “If this was a glitch in the system, as we are now being told, why did you seek to change the grade only for this one school?” Rick Hess didn’t ask him that question. Matt seems uninterested in asking it, and seems to think I’m a “hater” for asking it. Until that question is answered, I don’t see why I’m a “hater” for pointing out uncomfortable realities.

Is it really so scandalous, does it really make me a “hater,” to acknowledge the obvious fact that politicians are responsive to their donors? When government sets educational standards and has to do what Bennett himself calls a “face validity” test, it is going to know which schools are run by major donors and it is going to be sensitive to that fact. Good grief, are we this naïve?

What we have now is not “the rest of the story” but a failure to seek the rest of the story. Or am I somehow missing something?

On the other hand, Ze’ev and others seem to think I’m saying all standards are arbitrary and there’s no such thing as a rational public consensus. I’m not; I’m just trying to be realistic about what I called “the sausage-making nature of the process” when those standards are being cooked up behind closed doors by a government bureaucracy and its political allies, as opposed to standards that emerge organically from the give and take of a thriving marketplace of options. Technology standards emerge in the context of a system dominated by consumer choice. Educational standards should emerge in the same way.

Tony Bennett Is Having a Bad Week

July 29, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

What’s the best way to top off a really Walt-on-Lost level bad week for Common Core? How about a scandal in which emails show one of its most prominent supporters having manipulated his state’s “high standards” system to ensure that a particular school (one founded by a major donor) scored high? Just as that same state becomes the latest to move toward dropping out of a CC testing consortium?

I’d like to take Andy’s bafflement about CC supporters not anticipating pushback on the costs of implementation and double it in this case, if not triple it: why on earth did they discuss this so transparently in their government email accounts, which made it inevitable that the whole ugly show would eventually come out?

I feel sympathetic to Tony Bennett here. Any kind of evaluation system must involve qualitative as well as quantitative testing. That is, you not only have to make sure the numbers are accurately collected, crunched and reported, you have to make sure that what the system is calling “good” really is good. Of course you could in theory test your system by comparing it to the results of other systems, but if that’s all you do, the whole thing is circular. Ultimately you have no choice but to pick some examples of cases that you presuppose to be very good or very bad (or in the middle, for that matter) based on some kind of opinion – maybe yours, maybe your organization’s, maybe a consensus of experts, maybe a popular majority – and see if your system ranked those cases in accordance with the presupposed opinion. It is logically impossible to remove this element of judgment. You just can’t fully test a system for evaluating schools without at some point picking out some super-schools and asking “did these score well?”

Of course, everything hinges on what basis you use for selecting those cases – in other words, whose opinion of which cases are “good” you presuppose, and why. In the real world, if the standards are being set by government, that is always going to be a political process in which one or another set of powerful constituencies are privileged. The Bennett emails reveal the sausage-making nature of the process. What I want to emphasize is that this is not because Bennett is in some way specially corrupt but that this is what any such process must always look like. It is, again, logically impossible to avoid this type of qualitative reality check, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that any set of political actors would carry out that reality check in any way other than something like what the Bennett emails reveal.

The lesson here is not “Bennett is corrupt” but “all educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”

Testing, Cheating, Culture and Corruption

July 21, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt draws our attention to some of the broader issues raised by the APS scandal. Cheating is not just about cheating.

Here’s another one of those broader issues I think we should take note of. To call this “cheating” is really inadequate. This was a whole institutional culture in which cheating had become not just acceptable, but normal. This was way beyond teachers subtly indicating the correct answers (such as through tone of voice) or deliberately seating bad students next to good ones (so they could copy). Those things happened, but much more happened.

Teachers had “cheating parties” in which they sat around erasing and remarking student answer sheets. There was one guy whose job was to open test booklets, copy the contents, reseal them (using a lighter to melt the plastic back into place) and then distribute the contents to everybody. This was a huge, pervasive, known-to-everybody cheating system.

And cheating was not just normal but mandatory. Hark ye, my bretheren, unto the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

Cheat – or else!

What’s going on here? This is not just the undifferentiated “corruption of human nature.” This is a very specific dynamic of institutional culture. This is a system whose organizational culture responded to NCLB by systematically embracing cheating at all levels, even to the extent of viewing non-cheaters (i.e. honest teachers) as threats to the integrity of the system.

We should think carefully about how that kind of thing happens. There is one hypothesis that sticks out to me as clearly plausible: This happened because the testing requirements of NCLB were percieved as evil, tyrannical and a threat to the integrity of education. Personnel at all levels actually viewed cheating as morally virtuous because it was necessary to protect an essential good (education) from being undermined by vicious oppressors with evil agendas. And given widespread teacher cynicism about the value of standardized tests as a metric of learning, in their perception nothing valuable was lost in the process.

This is about more than cheating. This is a wakeup call to our thinking about how reform works.

I have always been in favor of the aspect of NCLB that uses tests to create transparency. Remember, before NCLB you didn’t even have all states participating in NAEP. Anyone want to go back to that? No? Well, then, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, it is now pretty clear that NCLB does not work as an accountability tool. Might the systemic, institutional extent of the cheating in APS help explain why? Teachers and administrators don’t percieve the tests as legitimate – they see them as inaccurate metrics being imposed by evil oppressors as tools of exploitation – and thus don’t respond to them in positive ways. (On net, that is. Bad responses cancel out good ones.)

Contrast that with the use of testing for accountability in two other contexts. Jeb Bush’s A+ accountabiliy testing system in Florida did produce positive results. Could that be because Florida had spent years at the bottom of the national listings for education and was sick of it, and had spent years trying to improve through the tried and true ideas of the unions and was sick of failing, and was thus more open to new directions? In the context of this openness, Jeb Bush’s leadership, and his partnership with the right stakeholders, framed the reforms in a way that caused them to be experienced as legitimate at the school level.

Even more impressive, consider the use of testing in innovative charter schools like KIPP. Remember that David Brooks column blasting Ravitch? Brooks identifies what he calls “a core tension,” namely: “Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.”

However, in schools where the entire institutional culture has been reinvented from the ground up around personal relationships between teacher and student that are centered around leadership, mentorship and accountability, testing isn’t experienced as mechanistic at all. Where the students really see the teachers caring about them, and vice versa, standardized testing is accepted as a tool that empowers this relationship:

The schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are mostlikely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change…

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

I think this means it’s essential that the use of tests for accountability purposes must be implemented only in contexts of institutional culture where they will be experienced as legitimate – and the degree to which the tests are used must be controlled by the degree to which the institutional culture permits this experiential legitimacy.

In some cases (as with Jeb in Florida) that could be accomplished statewide. In others it can’t. Sometimes it will have to be districts, or a network of charter schools. In many contexts it won’t work at any level. It certainly won’t work nationally, since the institutional context of the federal role in education could never permit this kind of thing to develop in a way that would be seen as legitimate.

How, then, do we drive accountability? Choice and competition, obviously. And guess what? Once schools face the disruptive threat of choice, they will be more likely to start using tests for accountability voluntarily – because they want to survive and they’ll be ready to reconsider their options.

You know, it strikes me that this principle might have application to other issues besides accountability testing. In general, the higher you go up the ladder of power – from school to district, from district to state, and from state to national – the less likely you will really be implementing your reform, and the more likely you will just be playing power games, and be seen to be playing power games, and thus cause those below you on the ladder to respond by playing power games of their own. As in Atlanta.

Is The Fox Guarding the Hen House?

November 15, 2010

Cheating in K-12 education appears to be a serious problem.  Addressing that problem may not be helped by the allegations in this Chronicle of Higher Education piece that education students are themselves frequent cheaters.

The piece is written by Ed Dante, which the editors note “is a pseudonym for a writer who lives on the East Coast. Through a literary agent, he approached The Chronicle wanting to tell the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed.”

Here’s the money quote:

it’s hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I’d say education is the worst. I’ve written papers for students in elementary-education programs, special-education majors, and ESL-training courses. I’ve written lesson plans for aspiring high-school teachers, and I’ve synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I’ve written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I’ve completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)

(HT to SB)

Priest and Teacher Scandals Revisited

May 10, 2010

My colleague, Bob Maranto, has an op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News about sexual misconduct by teachers and priests.  He references one of my earliest blog posts that compares the rate of sexual misconduct by priests and male teachers and finds that the rates in each case are very low and roughly the same.

It’s a very good piece except that he describes me as his “very un-Catholic colleague.”  It’s true that I am not Catholic but I don’t think that makes me “un-Catholic.”  In any event, here is what Bob wrote:

As a teen, I spent years in a large, hierarchical institution bound by ancient rituals, which often proclaimed its high ideals. Alas, not all of its adults lived up to those ideals.

There is simply no gentle way to put this. In this particular institution, some adults made sexual advances toward the young people they were responsible for guiding. Many of us kids knew that this sort of behavior went on. Many grown-ups knew it, too, and did nothing to stop it. One teenager reported being groped to higher-ups who warned of dire consequences for her were she to go public.

Besides, the “groper” was a man who took boys on “camping trips.” A third perpetrator eventually married one of his charges.

Yet, despite what I saw in my own high school, I support public education. My own kids attend public schools.

I recalled my decades-old school days recently on reading a brief news item reporting that over the last five years, more than 175 Florida teachers had their licenses revoked because of sexual behavior toward students that was inappropriate, immoral and just plain creepy.

In one case, a 55-year-old middle-school teacher sent amorous e-mails to a 14-year-old former student, declaring, “You don’t have to say you love me; I feel it when we hug.”

USA Today relegated the story to the bottom of Page 3, a 28-line summary of a Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel piece. The New York Times, which publishes “All the news that’s fit to print,” saw no reason to print this story at all.

Yet, on that same day, the Times had two separate pieces about the horrendous child sexual-abuse scandals bedeviling the Catholic Church. Just as the scandal of the American church seemed to run its course, the media discovered new outbreaks in Ireland and Germany. Assuming that no clergy have molested Antarctic penguins, that leaves four more continents to go.

The funny thing is that all the time I attended public school, I also attended Catholic mass and Sunday school, and never heard of any priest preying on kids.

Statistics suggest that my experience is typical. As my very un-Catholic colleague Jay Greene wrote in a wonderful blog, in the average year just under one (0.76) out of 1,000 priests is alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors. A statistically identical 0.77 of every 1,000 male teachers lose their license each year for sexual misconduct.

As Jay points out, “Given that we are comparing license revocations for teachers to allegations for priests, the rate of misconduct among male teachers may be considerably higher than among male priests.”

Even worse, some prominent intellectuals in the field of education maintain that it’s OK for schools to cover up abuse.

In explaining why traditional public schools handle scandals better than relatively transparent charter schools, Arizona State University Regents Professor Gene Glass, one of the leaders in my field, writes that “poor performance and illegal behavior exist in the traditional public school sector, and they are frequently dealt with. But they are usually dealt with in subtle ways that protect the dignity of the individuals involved while protecting the integrity of the school.”

It seems to me that this is just the sort of thinking that got the Catholic Church in trouble, yet reporters are silent. What gives?

In part, the notion of a priest propositioning minors simply ranks higher on the creepiness scale than that of a teacher doing so. And well it should. We expect more from our priests.

But that’s not the whole story.

As Penn State professor Philip Jenkins argues in “The New Anti-Catholicism,” the secular media and cultural elites hate the Catholic Church’s teachings on matters like abortion and marriage, and so are only too happy to take down what they see as a puritanical, regressive institution. Selective reporting is a front in the broader culture war.

To me, the answer is not to begin an attack on public schools any more than it is to continually denigrate the church.

Rather, those on all sides of this particular social conflict should ground their views in data rather than prejudice.

That would represent a real victory for the children.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. With Richard E. Redding and Frederick M. Hess, he co-edited “The Politically Correct University” (AEI, 2009).

Keeping Them Honest, Part LXXXVII

March 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Andrew Coulson’s got the skinny on a shocking story of education officials in the UK arbitrarily revising students’ test scores to shape the political narrative they would create.

It’s the latest in a long line of cautionary tales about the kind of thing that happens when anyone other than parents is ultimately in charge of the system. Fans of Common Core, take note.

I am shocked – shocked! – to discover that political manipulation of education is going on in here!

Your federal grant for participating in Common Core Standards, monsieur.

PJM on Colleges – and PJM Column Authors – Who Lack the Guts to Punish Cheating

December 3, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You may have heard about the Texas prof who was fired for publicly disclosing the names of students he caught cheating. Pajamas Media carries a somewhat confessional column today in which I discuss the role of the Internet (which, contrary to popular opinion, makes cheating harder rather than easier) and the rise of educational lawsuits (which colleges have responded to by abdicating their traditional disciplinary role), but also reflect, without satisfaction, upon my own experience dealing with a cheater:

The fear of lawsuits only compounds the difficulty of what is already a difficult decision. Even with the strongest possible intellectual conviction that it’s the right thing to do, actually imposing a punishment on a fellow human being takes a certain amount of moral courage. It takes some guts.

The isolation of the teacher as the lone defender of honesty in the classroom only makes it much more difficult to do the difficult but necessary thing when the time comes. And this, again, is something I can testify about from personal experience.

I regret to say that when I confronted my cheater, I chickened out.

What I ended up doing in the end, instead of what I had resolved to do and then didn’t have the courage to do, actually might be a good model for how to deal with a cheater. Of course, I’d rather have discovered it through intelligence rather than cowardice. As C.S. Lewis says, only fools learn by experience, but at least they do learn.

Dallas ISD Caught Faking SS Numbers – And Keeps Doing It

November 14, 2008


HT Scot Free

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that Dallas ISD was caught making up Social Security numbers for illegal immigrants in order to get them on the payroll quickly, especially as bilingual ed teachers.

Specifically, they were caught in 2004. And told by the state that it was illegal. And naughty. And they should stop.

And they’re still doing it right now.

But remember, public schools are transparent and accountable to the community, while private schools are unregulated and dangerous, and don’t have strong civic values!

Like most websites, the Dallas Morning News site automatically provides links to related stories. Here’s what comes up as related to this one:

“Unused Workbooks Are Tossed Out at Dallas School, Violating Policy”

“Dallas ISD Announces $64M Budget Shortfall”

Maybe they could make up that shortfall if they hired some of the geniuses here in Wisconsin who invested all the school funds in shady securities. None of them is going to face any kind of disciplinary or legal ramifications for their malfeasance with public funds, so there’ll be no smudges on those resumes that might make it hard for another school system to hire them and benefit from their services.

Just the People You Want Managing Schools

November 6, 2008

Five school districts in Wisconsin have sued their investment advisors after losing $1.5 million on a $2 million investment in collateralized debt obligations.  That’s a 75% loss.  According to the lawsuit, the investment was “complex, convoluted, and opaque, and as Stifel and RBC then well knew, beyond the investment knowledge or experience of the School Districts . . . , their school board members, and their administrators.” 

Complex?  Convoluted?  Opaque? That sounds like just the thing that school officials should put the public’s money in.

But don’t worry.  It’s not their fault that they did something foolish.  It was the fault of the people who sold it to them and they are asking the courts to return the money.  And if that doesn’t work, they’ll just take it from you in future taxes.

I wonder if school officials can do the same if they select foolish educational policies.  If that faddish whole language reading curriculum didn’t work can they sue the people who sold it to them to get their money back?

This all reminds me of a great Shel Silverstein poem:


My dad gave me one dollar bill

‘Cause I’m his smartest son,

And I swapped it for two shiny quarters

‘Cause two is more than one!

And then I took the quarters

And traded them to Lou

For three dimes—I guess he don’t know

That three is more than two!

Just then, along came old blind Bates

And just ‘cause he can’t see

He gave me four nickels for my three dimes,

And four is more than three!

And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs

Down at the seed-feed store,

And the fool gave me five pennies for them,

And five is more than four!

And then I went and showed my dad,

And he got red in the cheeks

And closed his eyes and shook his head—

Too proud of me to speak!

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