I Only Know One Truth- It is Time to Discuss AZ School Letter Grades on NPR

October 20, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly did a interview with our Arizona NPR station on Arizona’s preliminary school grades.  I explain why we have school grades, why grades can be better than fuzzy descriptors, why the preliminary Arizona grades lack face validity imo, and mistakes made in other states. Oh and why technological advances and revealed consumer preference may be making the process of state determined grades antiquated.

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I Only Know One Truth-It is Time for Bossy McBossypants Testing to End

September 5, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last spring I was on my bike and came across this in front of a local middle school. I found it striking enough to take a picture with my phone:

In case you are squinting at your iPhone, the sign says “AZ Merit Testing 4/17-5/3.” Now mind you that the test that these students take to determine whether or not they go to college, and if so what sort of college, takes 4 hours. Comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. took me three days. Somehow in the awesome logic of 2017 it came to pass that it would make some sort of “sense” to disrupt schools for two weeks to give…AZMerit.

I think we all know what tends to happen to the school year starting (in this case) 5/4.

Weeks later I had the opportunity to observe a number of focus groups held on parental choice policy. The groups were from different parts of the country, and included parents, teachers and opinion leaders. Despite the fact that the topic of the convening was never testing, everyone made their feelings on the subject clear during conversations. All groups everywhere deeply dislike the current practice of standardized testing.

I can’t emphasize the next point strongly enough: I never once heard anyone use the phrase “Common Core” or burst into a fit of conspiracy mongering. Rather what I saw repeatedly was that people feel that schooling has become overly fixated on test preparation. People have a rather strongly held belief that schooling is supposed to be more than test prep. Something has gone terribly wrong with education in their view, and they want it to stop. Across the groups I saw, the consensus seemed to be that we should drive a stake through the heart of the current system, fill the mouth with holy wafers, and then burn the sarcophagus to fine ash.

I have seen remarkably little evidence that today’s heavy-handed, standards based testing system is of much utility. There is some suggestive evidence that states that had been doing nothing on the testing front before NCLB got a modest bump in results when they started testing. They may however have received a similar bump from a system with a much lighter footprint. Moreover no less than Hanuskek and Loveless have concluded that the heavy-handed Common Core project resulted in approximately nothing in the way of improved student learning. Given that we live in a democracy, a lighter footprint system seems like a fine idea.

So here is mine:

Preserving campus level academic transparency should be the central goal of testing. The Demos would apparently be happy to sacrifice it in return for slaying the testing vampire, but it would be a terrible loss in my view. States can adopt whatever standards they want (I suggest the old Massachusetts standards) but give their students a three-hour national norm reference exam on the second to last day of school. The last day rather than last month of school can now be the write-off. Do a good job teaching the MA standards, your students will do well/show progress on the nnr test.

Some will want to have their state officials grade or otherwise label schools based on the results. Have at it-but it is worth noting that the defacto accountability system in this country has become the Greatschools rating system given that is where the eyeball traffic resides. State ratings have become little more than an obsession internal to the system. Some will want to continue on the troubled path of trying to move the number of teachers fired for low performance from 1% to 1.5%. My view is that this is an unworkable path to hold schools accountable, but if some state or locality wants to keep it up feel free.

I know some of you continue to feel motivated by the idea that standards are going to lead us to profound improvement and narrower achievement gaps.  Decades into the project it is time to ask- where’s the beef? If you are willing to impose a deeply unpopular system of testing upon American families I must ask why? The burden of proof lies with you. If you (like me) would like to preserve campus level transparency I ask what is your plan? My plan is to adopt a system that is less intrusive and prescriptive and hold for dear life to campus level data-now tell me your plan. If your plan is to hold onto dear life to a system that the public abhors, I want to suggest that you need a new plan.

In my view, voting with your feet represents the most robust form of accountability by a very wide margin. I would like to have those voting decisions informed by test scores, and a great many other things including parent reviews (score another touchdown for Greatschools). Watching the focus group discussions made me realize that the United States House’s decision to enact a deeply misguided federal opt-out was not a fluke, but rather fit with the democratic sentiments of their constituents.

Opt-outs lead to nudge outs which leads to completely unreliable and thus worthless data. They will be passing at the state level soon unless transparency supporters pull their heads out of the sand. As Corwallis wrote to Clinton before the Battle of Yorktown “What is our plan? If we don’t have one, what are we doing here?”

Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. If so, the comment section awaits.


Bedrick BOOOOM at Bradley

May 1, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the inevitable breach between technocratic and choice reforms looms larger and larger, seems like a great moment for an ICYMI on Jason’s appearance at the 2017 Bradley Symposium. Jason argues that – well, that a breach between technocratic and choice reform is inevitable, and we ought to embrace choice fearlessly. Check it out!


Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.


Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!


Trump and School Choice

December 14, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.


The Next Accountability: Choice, Polity and a New Definition of Reform

November 30, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today EdChoice has released the final installment of my series on The Next Accountability. A while back Matt said he was curious how I would “land the plane” after the lofty heights to which the early installments soared – canvassing big questions about the meaning of life and the future of democratic pluralism.

Well, here’s how I land it: The next accountability should be grounded in:

  • Empowering parents through school choice and local information systems
  • Devolving polity so principals and local districts govern schools close to communities
  • Reforming our movement’s principles to describe education the right way

The last one will probably be the hardest for the movement to grasp but may be the most important in the end:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Of course, this series is only a down payment on what needs to be a long-term change in the way we think and speak about accountability. But I had a huge amount of fun writing it and I’m convinced that something like this direction is the only real hope for educational accountability after the coming collapse of technocracy.

As always, I’d love to hear your responses. Thanks for reading!