Controlling Math Curriculum

July 1, 2016

(Guest Post by Ze’ev Wurman)

Recent weeks saw a welcome attention to the groupthink that saturates what is mellifluously called the “education reform” community. I thought Rick Hess’ (School Reform Is the New Ed. School) and Jay’s (Ed Reform is Animal Farm) were particularly powerful, but their main focus was – as it should be – on the systemic and structural aspects of school reform that has become the new orthodoxy, and on the reform movement character becoming essentially a power struggle for control, not much different from what ed schools and teacher unions already do.

Here I want to focus on a particular aspect of this change by school reformers – the effort to  impose their curricular ideas based not on what works but on their interest in centralized control, and about their efforts to silence objections and dissent.

Last week the Fordham Institute published its 2016 look at Common Core math implementation in the classroom. Fordham has been a big Common Core supporter from early on so it is not surprising that despite finding skepticism and frustration among parents and students, and despite finding enthusiasm among elementary teachers (who largely know little math) but a negative response among middle school teachers (who actually know some math), Fordham still is supportive:

For the first time in our nation’s history, there is a high level of consistency regarding what’s taught in American elementary and middle school math classrooms. Fewer teachers appear to be closing their classroom doors and doing their own thing.  … [S]tudents are being exposed to fewer topics in more depth, spending significant time on applications.” (p. 44)

What struck me was the praise for the “high level of consistency,” justified by students spending “significant time on applications.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by Fordham’s love of consistency. After all, it was Checker Finn who signed the 2011 Shanker Manifesto that called for uniform national standards – not only in math and English, but also in civics, the sciences, and health and physical education. Clearly, centralized uniformity has been a high priority for Fordham for quite some time.

But what about the praise for “significant time on applications” brought by Common Core, supposedly Fordham’s  justification why it is OK to impose Washington’s will on the country? Just three days before the Fordham report was published, a new large study of students found that the “difference between the math scores of 15-year-old students who were the most exposed to pure math tasks and those who were least exposed [and exposed instead to real-world problems] was the equivalent of almost two years of education.” Surely if Fordham was driven by research evidence rather than by faddish support of centralized education it would have at least restrained itself from blindly supporting one-size-fits-all model, when a year old study clearly says:

[G]iven the pervasiveness of the belief in a conceptual-then-procedural sequence despite the lack of empirical evidence, would additional research convince those who hold the belief? In fact, widespread endorsement of this belief among mathematics education researchers may help to explain why so little research has directly evaluated it. Thus, it seems important to briefly consider nonempirical reasons that might support this belief and which could impede progress in addressing it … [C]ulture may play into the persistence of this belief. The directionality of developing conceptual and procedural knowledge seems to only be debated in the USA. This may be because in the USA and some other Western cultures, practice is not believed to aid the development of understanding. In many Asian countries, by contrast, practice is viewed as a route toward understanding, where there is a public perception that only through a great deal of practice can true understanding be developed. Our anecdotal interactions with mathematics education researchers in non-Western countries suggests that they are confused by the debate in the USA. Elsewhere, it is taken as obvious that procedural knowledge can lead to conceptual knowledge (and vice versa).

I wanted to comment on Fordham’s site about this, and then I realized that … Fordham has eliminated reader comments. I guess it was tired of even those few dissents that found their way to their pages. So no more of that! Now that I think of it, Education Next, the journal that “will steer a steady course, presenting the facts as best they can be determined, giving voice (without fear or favor) to worthy research, sound ideas, and responsible arguments” also decided recently that giving voice to sound ideas does not include readers’ (moderated) comments and shut them off without warning. So much for openness to dissent, so much for the voice of the parents and the unwashed masses, so much for being research driven.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

We Win! NEPC & Lubienski Admit Choice Improves Outcomes

June 30, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As long as we’re talking about ridiculous hit pieces, the servants of the edu-blob at NEPC have published a hatchet job by Christopher Lubienski attacking the new edition of my Win-Win report reviewing the evidence on school choice, as well as another recent research review by three authors at U.Ark.

Guess what? Both Lubienski and (in their press release) NEPC now admit that school choice improves educational outcomes!

Don’t believe me? Check out how the press release opens:

The degree to which students benefit from voucher programs, which allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools, has been debated for years. Most studies have found only modest benefits, at best. Two new reports claim to offer empirical support for the effectiveness of vouchers.

That’s right – what’s debated is not whether school choice improves students’ academic outcomes but the degree to which they improve outcomes.

It’s over, folks. Just like Jay said years ago…






Let’s also note that they shamelessly ignore four of the five sections of my report. The research on how school choice affects outcomes in public schools (it improves them), taxpayers (it saves money), segregation (it breaks down racial barriers) and civic practices (it strengthens democracy) is dismissed without notice:

While the report weighs in on a number of outcomes from voucher programs, including the competitive and fiscal impacts on public schools, the effects on civic values, and on racial segregation, these issues have not been seen as central to questions of voucher efficacy, and are not always illuminated by randomized studies.

Segregation and impact on taxpayers hasn’t historically mattered in choice debates? That will come as a surprise to a lot of legislators and activists I know!

The hit piece itself is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, as we’ve come to expect from the all-hat-and-no-cattle Lubienski and NEPC. They make a lot of noise about “misrepresentations of the research literature,” but if you actually read their report (which they’re counting on you not to do) they bring no substantial allegations that might back that up – only pedantic interpretive quibbles that aren’t even worth responding to here.

Their only real accusation is the old “cherry-picking” routine. As always, they say we cherry-picked the research that supports our conclusions. Of course we didn’t; in my report I bent over backward, methodologically speaking, to ensure I didn’t exclude anything. Doesn’t matter. Whatever method researchers use to discover studies, they say it’s “cherry picking.” If they saw me walk right past a cherry tree without touching it, they’d accuse me of cherry picking.

Lubienski and NEPC know that most reporters don’t understand or even read research reports, so they can say what they want and get away with it. I’m content to let my work stand for itself; anyone who reads my report will see that the cherry-picking accusation is false, and none of Lubienski’s other accusations adds up to much beyond quibbling over issues where reasonable people can disagree, none of which (singly or jointly) affects the overall finding of my report.

My personal favorite part of the hatchet job was this gem. My method is to count a study as having found a positive effect if any of its reported results were positive, and to count it has having found a negative effect if any of its reported results were negative. I do this to avoid cherry-picking which of the results “really count” and which don’t. Lubienski complains, in the context of discussing a report that was put into the positive column under my method:

Nevertheless, the Friedman Foundation classifies this report as demonstrating “positive effects” if it has any single positive estimate, even when a “study typically includes multiple analytical models — sometimes many of them, occasionally even more than 100.” (While a single negative estimate could also place a study in the “negative effect” category, there are no such instances of this in the Friedman Foundation report.)

Got that? There were no studies of this kind that had any negative findings reported, at all, and that somehow tells against my positive finding because it means my method never put one of those studies in the negative column.

If that doesn’t discredit Lubienski, I’m not sure what would.

Watching the Media Watchmen: NYT Edition

June 30, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, Jay took apart the factually challenged hit piece the Gray Lady ran on charter schools in Detroit. Matt added his two cents and I piled on as well. Additionally, Tom Gantert of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy identified another dozen or so errors, distortions, or omissions of key facts.

But the most illuminating part of this whole imbroglio was the following Twitter exchange with the NYT reporter:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 8.51.32 AM.png

Jay and others, including Prof. Martin West of Harvard, explained how the article misrepresented the findings of CREDO’s research on charter schools. The NYT reporter, Kate Zernike, defended her piece by noting that she contacted CREDO about the charter she highlighted, which CREDO had found to be low performing. However, Jay pointed out that she cherry-picked that one bad charter and failed to note that CREDO found overall positive results.

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Zernike  apparently forgot the First Law of Holes: when you find yourself in one, stop digging.

Jay also took her to task for relying only on “claims and anecdotes” instead of data, so she cited data from Excellent Schools Detroit.

Twitter exchange over NYT's misleading reporting on charter schools

However, as Jay explained, those data do not allow for direct comparisons. Zernike is right that the data show the citywide averages in each sector, but looking at the averages is misleading. Zernike seemed to think Jay was objecting to the standardized tests, but the real problem he identified was not the tests themselves but rather how she tried to compare the students taking those tests.

Twitter exchange over NYT's misleading reporting on charter schools

As I noted in my blog post:

The charter schools tend to be mission-based schools that open in the toughest areas and serve the most at-risk students. Comparing city-wide averages fails to take that into account. It would be like comparing the New England Patriots against a championship high school team and concluding that the teenagers are superior athletes because they scored more touchdowns per game.

The appropriate comparison is between the charters and the district schools that serve the same or similar student populations. That is what the CREDO study attempted to do by matching students with similar characteristics and initial test scores in each sector, then tracking and comparing them.

Amazingly, Zernike then claimed that CREDO did not find that Detroit charters had a positive effect overall. In fact, that’s exactly what CREDO found in both its 2013 report on charters in Michigan and its 2015 nationwide charter report.

Twitter exchange over NYT's misleading reporting on charter schools

Twitter exchange over NYT's misleading reporting on charter schools

As Matt noted, the 2013 CREDO study on Michigan found: “on average, charter students in Michigan gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math over their [traditional public school] counterparts. The charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.” [emphasis added]

Nevertheless, Zernike persisted in claiming that CREDO found results that it didn’t find.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 9.07.53 AM.png

That’s right. Zernike says CREDO “does not consider Detroit stellar” — but page 33 of the 2015 CREDO report calls Detroit’s charter sector “a model to other communities.” See for yourself:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 9.10.05 AM.png

“models to other communities”

But apparently some reporters don’t like it when people point out that what they wrote is factually incorrect. Here was her response to my Tweet correcting her:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.21.32 AM.png


If the New York Times has any integrity, it will issue a correction.

Is Political Control Over Charter Schools Wise?

June 29, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In a recent essay, Andy Smarick proposed democratically controlled charter authorizers:

If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district.

Smarick’s “middle path” approach is an interesting idea that’s worth consideration, but education reformers should have serious reservations about it. In particular, it’s not clear what the problem is that this approach is trying solve or why this approach wouldn’t lead to the same problems that political control over traditional district schools has caused.

Smarick’s case rests on the claim that “communities” are “demanding more democratic control.” But are they? Which communities? Or, more precisely, which voices in those communities? After all, it’s exceedingly rare that everyone in a given community speaks with one voice. And what are these voices saying? Smarick name-checks a few cities but cites no evidence that would answer any of these questions. He merely asserts that “authority that is both local and democratic has also been in demand.” Okay, sure, maybe. But it’s still not clear why ed reformers should accede to these (anonymous) demands.

Smarick continues:

A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected.

Are any of these claims necessarily true?

  • Is it true that democratic control is necessary for communities to pass on their culture and traditions? Aren’t most mediating institutions — churches, private schools, non-profits, sports leagues, museums, farmer’s markets, small businesses, professional organizations, etc.  — decidedly not subject to political control? And to the extent that some of these organizations employ some measure of democratic decision-making, isn’t it only the members of those organizations (and not the community at large) that have the right to vote?
  • Is there such a thing as “the public will”? At best, this means merely the will of the majority, which often comes at the expense of the will of the minority (or several types of minorities). Moreover, as Terry Moe and others have detailed, political control often means control by well-organized special interests like teachers unions. In any case, political control entails citizens fighting against each other to have their preferences reflected rather than each being able to have their preferences met in a market. To the extent that a “public will” exists,  it is multi-faceted, hence a system of decentralized choices better reflects the public will than a centralized system.
  • Is it true that there is more transparency when institutions are subject to political control? Forget Clinton’s emails — elected school boards regularly lack transparency.
  • Do people feel more agency in political systems? Perhaps the majority does, but do the minorities? Wouldn’t those minorities prefer options that weren’t subject to majority control?
  • Is it true that political decisions are “more respected and durable”? 2016 is an odd year to be making that argument.

On Twitter, Smarick claimed that a democratically controlled charter board’s “incentives [and] ability to interfere [with] schools drop dramatically when board authorizes but does not operate schools.” Possibly. But as Jay pointed out yesterday, traditional school boards don’t “operate” the district schools either, yet there is plenty of room for mischief. After all, Smarick himself argued that these boards should decide what “types” of schools exist and what constitutes a “good” school. That’s an awful lot of control.

As Smarick himself recognizes, elected boards shift power away from families to “the community” (i.e., whichever group can seize political control). As he explained:

Today’s decentralized systems of choice empower families and enable a wide array of options, but they inhibit the community’s ability to shape the contours of the local school system.

It seems that Smarick — who is generally quite conservative — is embracing the progressives’ preference for political control over mediating institutions that Yuval Levin has so insightfully described:

Progressives in America have always viewed those mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the government with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness or as power centers lacking in democratic legitimacy. They have sought to empower the government to rationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest. This clearing away has in some cases consisted of crowding out the mediating institutions by taking over some of their key functions through direct government action. In other cases, it has involved turning elements of civil society and the private economy into arms of government policy — by requiring compliance with policy goals that are foreign to many civil-society institutions or consolidating key sectors of the economy and offering protection to large corporations willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers’ priorities.

I hope that Smarick will reconsider his support for empowering the government at the expense of school autonomy and families’ preferences. Perhaps the angel on his right shoulder will whisper Yuval Levin’s counsel into his ear:

Conservatives have always resisted such gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions — from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that vital space between the individual and the government is at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation.

As I noted above, I do believe that Smarick’s proposal merits serious consideration. Although I don’t think he has made a strong case for a democratically controlled charter board, I do think he’s onto something when he says that there is strong demand for democracy, at least in some quarters. That said, I think the more viable “middle path” is down a different road. There are numerous mediating institutions in society that engage in democratic decision-making, but only members have a vote. Instead of giving a vote to everyone in the community — wolves and sheep alike — perhaps charter schools could give a vote to parents of students who are enrolled there. This way, parents who want democratic agency can enroll their children in democratically run charters, while other parents can choose schools that have different missions, and in no case will outside special interests be able to seize control.

I’m sure there are other arrangements that could also achieve the balance that Smarick seeks. But please: don’t give power to the wolves!

Ed Reform is Animal Farm

June 28, 2016

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

When I became involved in education reform more than two decades ago, the movement was about empowering parents to make choices for their own children rather than having choices made for them by well-meaning but distant bureaucrats and professionals.  At its heart, ed reform was about decentralization of control.

In the last quarter-century this effort to expand choice in education has been amazingly successful.  We’ve gone from the first charter school in 1990 to more than 4% of all students enrolled in charters.  We’ve gone from two, century-old voucher programs in Maine and Vermont to having private school choice in more than half of the states.  And the beauty of expanding school choice is that it generates its own advocates as families that benefit from these programs lobby to protect and expand their choices.We are almost at the point where ed reform organizations don’t have to do very much other than to coordinate choice families pushing for more choices.

But just as choice is achieving escape velocity, a groupthink gang of petty little dictators are grabbing the reins of ed reform organizations to advocate for greater restrictions and regulations on choice. They are beginning to make arguments and advocate policies that are essentially the same as the ones favored by the traditional education establishment. Like their rivals in the traditional ed establishment, this new ed reform establishment mistrusts parents to make choices.  Parents, in their view, are not capable of making good choices without the guidance and restrictions imposed by experts and policymakers. And children need to be protected by regulations and bureaucrats against the errors and abuses of their parents or schools.

It has gotten to the point where, like in Animal Farm, it is difficult to tell the difference between the nanny-statism of the old ed establishment and the new ed reform establishment.  The new ed reformers are no longer fighting for parental empowerment, they are just struggling with the old establishment over who will be in control.  Will it be the smart and righteous reformers, as they imagine themselves, or the stupid and self-interested old establishment, as they imagine the unions and their allies? The reformers are convinced they can do it better, but the arrangements they favor are not all that different from those championed by the old guard.

Reformers are currently gathered in a groupthink frenzy over the need to regulate how charter schools discipline their students.  You know who else issues detailed policies on school discipline? Traditional school districts.  Last year they were in a frenzy over the need to force charter schools to “backfill” so that they can take more students in more grades that are assigned to them. You know who else is pre-occupied with filling seats in schools with assigned students? Traditional school districts.

It is currently the fashion among reformers to favor portfolio management, in which a single super-regulator would control which schools open, which close, and issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters.  We’ve even heard proposals recently to have the entity responsible for opening, closing, and regulating schools be elected democratically.  Let’s see if you can guess what all of this sounds like.  That’s right — traditional school districts.  They are also democratically elected.  They also decide which schools should open and close.  They also issue policies regarding transportation, special education, discipline and other matters.  I have looked from portfolio management to districts, and from districts to portfolio management, and from portfolio management to districts again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.

The advocates of portfolio management or democratically elected authorizers say that the difference is that traditional districts actually operate schools, while their proposed entities only concern themselves with opening, closing, and regulating while avoiding interference in operational matters.  We were assured that things would be fine with portfolio management in New Orleans despite the takeover of that role by the Orleans Parish School Board because the district is prohibited from interfering with school operations.

I may not be able to read the continually revised commandments on the barn wall much better than Boxer, but I’m pretty sure that issuing policies with respect to school discipline, special education, admissions, and transportation necessarily interfere with school operations.  And it is only a hop, skip, and jump from telling schools whether they can suspend kids to telling them which methods best teach reading or how many minutes they should be on the playground.  Anyone who is not hypnotized by the reform groupthink would recognize that school boards do not “operate” schools any more than portfolio managers do.  Boards just develop policies to govern schools, just like portfolio managers do.  They contract with others to operate schools under those regulations, just like portfolio managers do.  And they decide which schools should be opened and which should be closed, just like portfolio managers do.

The ed reform crowd enamored with portfolio management and issuing a host of regulations dictating how schools must operate and what parents may choose has become almost indistinguishable from the traditional education crowd with whom they are vying for control.  I say a pox on both their houses.  I got into this line of work because I was excited about empowering parents to make decisions, not imposing my superior brand of control on them.

(edited for typos)

Paul Peterson on Parents over Bureaucrats

June 24, 2016

In today’s Wall Street Journal  Paul Peterson makes a personal and compelling argument for why deference should be given to parents over the false-expertise of distant bureaucrats.

Paul’s adult son is autistic and sometimes engages in potentially life-threatening self-injurious behavior, such as banging his head and shoving his hands down his throat.  After many years and much searching, Paul and his family found an effective intervention that checks this self-injurious behavior and enables his son to live a better and safer life. The intervention involves skin electric shocks, which essentially grab his son’s attention and interrupt his self-injurious activities.

The shocks do hurt, but the pain is relatively mild and fleeting relative to the serious harm his son might do to himself otherwise.  And his son receives plenty of positive rewards for avoiding self-injury.  The shocks are a back-stop when things get out of control.

But bureaucrats at the FDA think they know better and want to prohibit the type of intervention benefiting Paul’s son.  They believe that there are drug therapies that are more effective.  Unfortunately, even if those drug therapies work on average, there is a distribution of results and Paul’s son has tried the drugs without success. No matter, declares the FDA, everyone should get what we think works best for the average person even if your circumstances differ.

You should read Paul’s entire piece.  When doing so keep in mind that this isn’t just about the FDA and people with autism.  This is about who knows best.  Should families and care-providers who possess more contextual information decide what to do or should distant bureaucrats impose on everyone.  And, of course, this is the heart of my support for choice in education.  Who should decide what is best for children — their families and the educators they select or regulators, portfolio managers, and other over-bearing bureaucrats?

People Don’t Like to be Meddled With

June 23, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So it’s official- Brexit passed. It looks to me that there were villains and heroes on both sides of this debate, and it will cause a huge amount of disruption. In the end it seems to me that you would much rather be ruled by people you can turn out of office in “elections” rather than distant meddlers who never face the voters- no amount of fear should dissuade anyone from this position. Difficult days lie ahead but perhaps Britons never will be slaves after all.


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