Duncan and the Abuse of Research (As Well As Power)

February 24, 2012

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s press statement on South Carolina was a bizarre display of the opposite of what it intended.  As Greg pointed out, the statement’s harsh and threatening tone did nothing to support the claim that  Common Core national standards and assessments are a purely voluntary consortium of the states.  Instead, the statement was a not so veiled threat that South Carolina would lose out on the opportunity for federal grants like Race to the Top and lose the opportunity to receive waivers from impossible to satisfy NCLB requirements if it followed through with a proposal to withdraw from Common Core.  If it is purely voluntary, why the need for threats and intimidation from the Education Secretary?

In addition to this abuse of power given the legal prohibitions on the US Department of Education from establishing national standards, testing, and curriculum, Duncan’s statement also displayed an abuse of research.  He distorted the findings of a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analysis to suggest that South Carolina had particularly weak performance standards when the research had not shown that.  Duncan claimed:

[Prominent Republicans] have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.

South Carolina did significantly lower its performance standards between 2005 and 2009. But they did so because they had earlier raised those performance standards to well-above the national average.  In the end, South Carolina had math and reading performance standards that were close to the national average and close to the NAEP standard for Basic.

One of the potential benefit of state control over performance standards is that they can raise or lower them so that they are not too easy so that everyone passes or so hard that everyone fails. You have to hit the sweet spot between these points to motivate students and educators to improve without crushing them. Each state may have a different sweet spot and needs the flexibility to adjust in case they miss the mark (as SC initially did) or in case achievement improves (as has occurred in FL).

We actually had Jack Buckley, the Commissioner of NCES, out to give a lecture in Arkansas during which he presented this analysis. You can see a summary and the slides here.

Compared to what we could have had as an education secretary, Duncan has been pretty good.  He’s shown some independence from the teachers unions and supported some promising reforms, like charter schools.  But he’s ignored his own department’s research in seeking (multiple times) to kill the DC voucher program.  And he seems oblivious to the limits of power that he and the federal government have over education policy.  When people abuse their power they may also be more likely to abuse research.


This Deal Is Getting Worse All the Time

February 23, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Shorter Arne Duncan: The U.S. Department of Education is not pressuring states to adopt Common Core. However, any state that takes action to resist Common Core will be immediately singled out by the Education Secretary for an extremely harsh public denunciation of its education system – which will obviously make it effectively impossible for the Department to look favorably upon that state when doling out grants and waivers for the foreseeable future.

The Solyndra of Digital Learning

September 19, 2011

Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and Netflix CEO, Reed Hasting, have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that starts out great but then goes dramatically downhill.  They begin by recognizing the amazing potential of digital learning:

In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.

But then they advocate for a federal government-backed corporation to realize digital learning’s potential:

Too often, the market for educational technology has been inefficient and fragmented. The nation’s 14,000 school districts, more than a few of which have byzantine procurement systems, have been inefficient consumers and have failed to drive consistent demand. And a robust R&D base for improving and refining educational technology has been sadly lacking.

To help remedy those gaps, the Department of Education is launching a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise.

The last thing digital learning needs is a government funded outfit to develop it.  The government is particularly bad at picking technological winners and losers.  And if the government pours money into Digital Promise and signals to states and districts that they should adopt what Digital Promise endorses, they will stifle a developing vibrant marketplace that will experiment with different technologies and approaches to learn what work best.

If you don’t believe me that the government is particularly incapable of picking winners and losers in technology, just look at the example of Solyndra.  The government poured more than half a billion dollars of stimulus money into Solyndra’s technology for solar energy, believing that it would be the wave of the future.  As it turns out, they backed a more expensive technology that failed to win in the marketplace.  Solyndra recently declared bankruptcy, laying off more than 1,000 workers and blowing more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money.

In addition to blowing taxpayer money by backing the wrong technology, Digital Promise is the digital learning equivalent of mandating Betamax.  If we privilege the wrong technology we will crowd out better solutions and productive innovation.

Giving taxpayer money to certain outfits also runs the risk of corruption, since political connections may well influence which company and technologies get backed.  This leads to Crony Capitalism, or crapitalism.

For the sake of digital learning, Mr. Secretary, please stop “helping” it with a government backed organization, like Digital Promise.

(Correction: Digital Promise is a Non-Profit Organization, but all the points still apply)

Sen. Rubio Letter to Sec. Duncan on National Standards

September 14, 2011

Arne Duncan, Suuuuuuuuuper Geeeeeeenius!

August 12, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he goes ahead with the plan to set himself up as America’s first one-man legislature, Arne Duncan might want to read this detailed, devastating takedown by Rick Hess.

This is pretty much what I was trying to get at in the comments earlier this week, except a whole lot better both on substance and humor value. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I also couldn’t stop crying.

(Although I do think I should get points for working in an Iron Chefs reference.)

If Duncan doesn’t pick up the clue Rick is putting out on the table for him, here’s how his tenure might be remembered:


Arne Duncan on Atlanta Cheating Scandal

July 21, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Political scientist Donald Campbell postulated that “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The Army of Angry Teachers has seized upon the Atlanta cheating scandal as proof that the whole process of testing and transparency is destructive and ought to be done away with.

Arne Duncan weighs in on the Atlanta cheating scandal as a part of a roundtable at the WaPo. Duncan provides a bit of much-needed perspective on the problems of testing, noting that although the Atlanta scandal is the worst uncovered, that it involves 44 schools out of thousands in Georgia.

Secretary Duncan goes on to acknowledge a number of problems in state academic testing, including the far larger problem of states dummying down their cut scores in order to proclaim improvement.

One elephant in the room: test security. It isn’t difficult to infer that while the state of Georgia performed erasure analysis on the tests (thus uncovering the cheating) that they failed to let it be known that they would be doing so on a large-scale (and thus failed to deter the cheaters, who thought they could get away with it). States need to not only employ these techniques, they need to employ them as deterrents.

People are quite clever, however, and constantly develop new ways to cheat if provided incentives to do so. It seems possible that a system of third-party administration of tests will need to be developed as we attach greater consequences to test scores, including school ratings and merit bonuses. This could be a simple as the way you took the SAT test, or it could have a more high-tech look to it.

Another Campbell’s Law problem that strikes me as more serious than systematic answer changing by staff is the practice of teaching to test items. I fear that this is quite widespread, although it is difficult to quantify. The idea behind the standards movement is to teach to a set of academic standards, and to use testing to measure success. If teachers instead teach to a set of test items then the whole process can devolve into a farce.

A skillfully managed system of student testing can and has played a leading role in improving student outcomes. It’s difficult to pull off, and easy to foul up. We should be concerned about staff led cheating. We should be even more concerned about low cut scores, item exposure and test study guides.




Heading to the Heart of Cygnus, Headlong into Mystery…

July 7, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Week reports that a growing number of states have signaled their intention to ignore the 2014 deadline. USDoE threatens action against these states, and is hoping to leverage the 2014 deadline to spur Congress to act on reauthorization. Congress seems disinterested. Tennessee and others have announced that they will seek waivers, which Secretary Duncan is willing to grant in return for reform, but which Chairman Kline seems to oppose. Duncan wants a reauthorization, but it isn’t in the cards.

Where is all this heading?

Actually, a full-blown train-wreck is not inevitable there is still time to reauthorize ESEA, even if they wait until after the election. Seeing states engage in what could either be described as civil disobedience or lawlessness does send a clear signal that Congress and the administration need to deal with the 2014 event horizon, and that the Safe Harbor loophole is insufficient.

Closer…..move a little closer….a little more….GOTCHA!

Reauthorization beats waivers, and waivers beat the status-quo, which runs the risk of a great cut score dummy down. Washington would be awfully dull without some brinkmanship every now and then, so let’s see how they work this out. Something that would allow states with a system to nudge improvement out of their schools (which NCLB is doing very little of) to run their own testing systems still seems like a sensible idea to me.