Are National Standards Conservative?

July 23, 2010

Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli seem to think so.  As part of their Gates-fueled pro-standards juggernaut, they have a piece on National Review Online arguing that conservatives should support the current national standards effort.  They write:

Conservatives generally favor setting a “single standard” for everybody. Setting different standards for different people — think affirmative action, for instance — is an idea most associated with the Left.

If by “conservative” we mean people who think that decisions should be decentralized, Finn and Petrilli have it exactly backwards.  National standards are a centrally-imposed, one-size-fits-none approach that would make most conservatives shudder.

Let’s be clear — national standards are being centrally imposed because states are financially punished if they don’t adopt them because they would receive lower scores on their Race to the Top proposals and almost certainly lose out on getting their share of those tax dollars.  National standards are “voluntary” in the same way that federal highway funds are voluntary.  You can disobey the federal dictate as long as you don’t mind having the tax dollars your residents pay go to other states.

Let’s also be clear that conservatives do not generally favor a “single standard” for everyone.  Conservatives do not think everyone should meet a single standard of fashion by being required to wear the same clothes.  Nor should everyone be compelled to meet a single standard of nutrition by being required to eat the same foods.  On what basis would we think conservatives would want every school child to be required to learn the same thing at the same time?  To the contrary, conservatives generally favor allowing consumers (of food, clothing, education, or anything else) to decide how best to serve their own needs by having choice among competing providers with differing products.

It’s true that there are some people who are called conservatives who tend to favor centralization over choice and competition, but those people tend to have more of an authoritarian streak than a liberty-loving streak.  It is one of the weaknesses of our language that the same word — conservative — is used to describe both Benito Mussolini and Milton Friedman.  But no one should be fooled into thinking that policies favored by a “conservative” like Mussolini would also be favored by a “conservative” like Friedman.

The real divide here is between people who think that policies are best when decisions are decentralized and choice and competition are enhanced versus people who think that there is a “right way” that should be imposed centrally and should constrain choice and competition.

Nor are Finn and Petrilli accurate when they assert that national standards are being supported broadly by conservatives except for “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.” Is the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which came out against national standards, just a handful of libertarian crazies?  Is the Heritage Foundation, which also opposes national standards, just a handful of libertarian nut-jobs?  Or how about the Pioneer Institute?  And look who’s supporting national standards — fine conservatives like the American Federation of Teachers.

Just because the education bureaucracies in a bunch of red states have signed up for national standards doesn’t mean that the idea has conservative support.  It just means that their budgets are really tight and they want to be in the running for federal Race to the Top dollars as well as gobs of Gates “planning” grant dollars.  The fact that there has not been more active conservative opposition can mostly be explained by the speed with which this is being crammed through in the midst of a severe state budgetary crisis.

But conservatives who favor decentralization, choice, and competition should take heart.  Many of those states will change their minds if they don’t get federal dollars to stay on board.  And the grand national coalition for these standards will probably fall apart as the airy-fairy standards are converted into actual practice in the form of national assessments.  We’ll see how well the Linda Darling-Hammond led national assessment, which I can only imagine involves the testing of drum-circle collaboration, suits conservatives like Finn and Petrilli who so far have supported this enterprise.  And with more time and greater imposition on actual practice, rank and file conservatives will become more mobilized in opposition.

There is a risk that the Obama Administration will link larger amounts of federal dollars, like Title I funds, to full adoption of these standards and a national assessment, in which case conservative opposition may be too little too late.  But if the Obama Administration and the AFT do triumph no one will think it will be a conservative victory.

“Voluntary” Standards

June 4, 2010

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

Your NCLB and RTTT grants for supporting national standards, monsieur.

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke and Jennifer Marshall warn that the Obama administration is finding even more ways to use federal influence to push “voluntary” national standards on the states.

So much for Checker’s apparently serious assertion that the standards “emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary.” Bwa ha ha!

Who’s Fickle?

March 19, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new Gadfly opens with Mike Petrilli’s article “Fickle on Federalism.” At the head of the article he juxtaposes these two quotes:

“[This plan] will fundamentally change the federal role in education. We will move from being a compliance monitor to being an engine for innovation.”

–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 17, 2010, before the House Education and Labor Committee


“In coming weeks and months…we will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities.”

–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama

Good one!

But I’ve got a better one. Scroll down to the next article in the Gadfly and you’ll find Checker’s NRO piece, in which he twists himself into even tighter pretzel knots on the new national standards train wreck. Here’s what he was writing about that on Feb. 23:

This is enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic, since nobody yet has any idea whether these standards will be solid, whether the tests supposed to be aligned with them will be up to the challenge, or whether the “passing scores” on those tests will be high or low, much less how this entire apparatus will be sustained over the long haul.

But in the March 10 New York Times, he was singing a different tune:

I’d say this is one of the most important events of the last several years in American education… Now we have the possibility that, for the first time, states could come together around new standards and high school graduation requirements that are ambitious and coherent. This is a big deal.

Now, in the new Gadfly, he’s careful to weasel around without actually taking a clear position. He opens by saying “conservatives should take seriously the potential” of the standards. “Take seriously the potential”? What does that even mean? Should we support or oppose?

And at the end he concludes that the standards are “light years better than we had any right to expect.” So’s the health care monstrosity currently winding its tortuous way through the House; compared to what I thought they’d get, I’m shocked at how little they’ve ended up with. But that doesn’t mean passing it wouldn’t be a huge disaster; it just means it wouldn’t be as huge a disaster as I had feared (or, more likely, that the huge disaster will be longer in coming to fruition).

In between, he lists five surprisingly weak reasons to support the standards – and then four even weaker warnings about “risks” involved in the enterprise. Check out this howler:

Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it’s now using.


Or take the example of hijacking. The Dr. Jekyll Checker from February sounded warnings that the standards, once imposed, could subsequently be hijacked by the Dark Side. The Mr. Hyde Checker in the Times seems to have forgotten all about this. Here’s the new, pretzel Checker in the Gadfly:

Third, the long-term governance of these standards–and of the assessments to follow–is unknown. Something more durable will need to be found or created than the consortium of states that produced the present draft. (Fordham is developing ideas and options for this, and others will surely weigh in as well.)

So yes, hijacking is a danger. But don’t worry, Checker’s clarion call for somebody to do some sort of something that will do something about this problem will no doubt be heeded and acted upon with dispatch!

What really galled me was the closing line:

Remember, it’s liberals who believe that people should be held to different standards.

Right. Because if Johnny learns long division in fourth grade and Suzy learns it in third grade, that’s the moral equivalent of a racial quota.

Let’s be clear. Conservatives believe that everybody should play by the same rules. That’s different from saying everybody should be forced to conform to the same model of life. It’s liberals who believe that – as Jonah Goldberg has shown so clearly in Liberal Fascism.

Personally, I agree with Checker that too many children have not had access to a solid academic education. The solution to that is not to impose the One Right Way on every child, but to smash the oppressive power structure that has stood in the schoolhouse door for a hundred and fifty years, preventing those children from getting the education they need. Checker wants to make the oppressor even bigger and more powerful, in the hope that he can bend it to his will. Good luck.

Checker’s Journey toward Enlightenment Begins

February 24, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I see Checker is belatedly starting to realize that any national standards for curricular content will be produced by a horribly politicized sausage-making process that will inevitably be hijacked by the Dark Side and produce a result that does more to serve political agendas hostile to students’ interests than to promote better curricula.

He’s only just starting to realize the truth. He still thinks the process can be gotten back on track if only people would just be reasonable and work together and keep the good of the children in mind. So clearly he remains in the Vale of Illusion. But his journey on the path to Enlightenment has begun.

Have Fun Storming the Castle!

August 6, 2009

Miracle Max & Gilda

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Checker Finn, just returned from a vacation during which he apparently read something about the Constitutional Convention, writes on NRO today that “we need a revolutionary refounding” in education. Reformers should direct their efforts toward scrapping the existing education system entirely and creating a new one from scratch.

Think it’ll work? It would take a miracle.

“Can we afford not to try?” he asks at the end. Well, in fact, yes.

Checker either does or does not want reformers to divert effort and energy away from goals that are more gradual, more incremental – in other words, more achievable. If he does, he’s urging us to sabatoge efforts that achieve significant tangible results, in order to join him on a fool’s errand with no chance of success. If he doesn’t, he’s wasting our time with a lot of pointless hot air.

Unless, of course, the Fordham Institute has a holocaust cloak.

But if it does, why didn’t he list that among their assets in the first place?

A Real Education Bailout

January 8, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Petrilli, Finn and Hess note that yet another radical expansion of federal education funding is reportedly being considered for inclusion in the “stimulus” package, e.g. in addition to building lots of roads and bridges, we’ll build lots of schools.

PFH (as I’ll call them for short) note that more spending has not only proven itself an ineffective way to improve schools, but may actually even harm them:

Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers delay difficult decisions. Tough times come to serve as a healthful (if sour) tonic, forcing leaders to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.

So instead of more money, they advocate less:

Education, then, cries out for a good belt-tightening. A truly tough budget situation would force and enable administrators to take those steps. They could rethink staffing, take a hard look at class sizes, trim ineffective personnel, shrink payrolls, consolidate tiny school districts, replace some workers with technology, weigh cost-effective alternatives to popular practices, reexamine statutes governing pensions and tenure, and demand concessions from the myriad education unions.

And while we’re at it, I’d like a pony, and a spaceship, and a million dollars.

One thing they don’t point out is that “stimulus” spending, like all pork, is notorious for going to politically useful projects rather than to projects that serve the public interest. Just because you spend more money building bridges doesn’t mean you get the bridges that you actually need. Never mind the “bridge to nowhere” – remember that big bridge collapse in Minneapolis a while back? In the immediate aftermath, some liberals rushed to blame the deaths on hard-hearted budget cutters. But it later came out that plenty of money was being spent on road and bridge repair, but it didn’t go to the bridge that needed it, despite the bridge having been rated “structurally deficient” for two whole years.

PFH then go on to ask:

Is there a way to make the impending bailout actually help those kids as well as the nation? Team Obama and its Congressional allies could take a page out of the Troubled Assets Relief Program playbook and require the various education interest groups to “take a haircut,” just like auto workers, investors, and shareholders have had to do. As the auto bailout required the U.A.W. to forfeit its beloved “jobs bank,” states taking federal dollars could be required to overhaul their tenure laws, ban “last hired, first fired” rules, experiment with pay-for-performance, make life easier for charter schools, and curb unrealistic pension promises.

I’m not in a position to throw stones since I’ve advocated the same thing, but I’m not holding my breath.

Next on their wish list, inexplicably, is a big pile of money for summer programs. If there’s any research showing that summer programs are a good investment, they don’t cite it. To their credit, they insist that solid empirical evaluation should be a condition of the money. But if we want to set up big new federally funded pilot programs for educational innovations, why not do it for an innovation that is solidly proven to work in many limited trials but has never been tried on a larger scale?

They also wish for better data systems (who doesn’t?) and, as always, whether it’s relevant to the topic or not, “national standards.” About the latter, our own Matt Ladner has already given us what I think is really the last word.

(link added)

The Proficiency Illusion

November 13, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had a chance to see John Cronin from the Northwest Evaluation Association present on the Fordham Foundation’s study The Proficiency Illusion at the Arizona Education Research Organization conference last week. It was more than interesting enough to have me check out the study. From the forward by Checker and Mike:

Standards-based education reform is in deeper trouble than we knew, both the Washington-driven, No Child Left Behind version and the older versions that most states undertook for themselves in the years since A Nation at Risk (1983) and the Charlottesville education summit (1989). It’s in trouble for multiple reasons. Foremost among these: on the whole, states do a bad job of setting (and maintaining) the standards that
matter most—those that define student proficiency for purposes of NCLB and states’ own results-based accountability systems.

In short, the accountability and standards reform strategy has morphed into a pig’s breakfast. We’ve all known for some time that most states have failed to set globally competitive standards, and have monkeyed about with their cut scores. One of the revelations of the Proficiency Illusion (to me) is that many states have proficiency standards lacking internal consistency. For example, some states have incredibly low cut scores in the elementary grades, only to amp them way up in 8th grade. Parents will receive multiple notices saying that their child is “at grade level” only to shocked to learn later that they are well short.

Other types of problems exist as well. Two years ago at the same AERO conference, I saw a presentation showing that Arizona writing AIMS test had bell curves that stacked on top of each other rather than being horizontally linked across grades. In short, it was impossible to tell whether 4th graders were writing any better than 7th graders with the state exam.

Cronin’s presentation contained other insights- including just how arbitrary AYP can be. It depends hugely on the N requirement for subgroups state by state- some schools wind up with lots of subgroups and some don’t. This means that some relatively high performing schools miss AYP. In fact, Cronin demonstrated what I take to be a fairly common scenario where middle schools miss AYP but in which they perform at a higher level than all of the public school transfer options in the vicinity.

Checker and Mike go on to argue for national standards as a solution to these problems, but concede that it doesn’t seem likely. My modest suggestion on this front would be to adopt the A-Plus plan, and as states sought alternatives to AYP, to have the US Department require the creation of internally consistent standards as a starting point for negotiations. Given that the states would be able to determine their own set of sanctions (or lack thereof) I can’t see why an increase in rigor would be outside the realm of these discussions for states with absurdly easy to pass tests.

Deeply wedded to inconsistent standards? Fine- have fun with AYP and the 2014 train wreck.

In other words, if the feds would abandon Utopian nonsense like 2014 and the high quality teacher provision, they might be able to play a productive role in providing technical guidance and nudging states into better directions with their testing programs.

I am not a fan of NCLB, but even I will concede that it has to date had a net positive impact increasing transparency in public schooling. This will be lost, however, if the 2014 problem isn’t addressed, or if we go down the absurd road of portfolio assessments, and I do view transparency as vitally important.

The Proficiency Illusion shows us that much of the data we’ve been getting from state testing programs isn’t nearly as useful or reliable as imagined. This is a problem, and it must be addressed.


Lefty? You Take that Back!

June 25, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike Petrilli has completely misunderstood my response to his and Checker Finn’s NRO piece last week.

I would let it slide, but the man also called me a “lefty,” so now my honor is at stake. (And even while delivering this shiv to the ribs, he calls me “our friend Greg Forster.” Beware the smiling mamba!)

Pistols at ten paces being illegal, I must content myself with another blog post.

To recap:

1) Mike, writing with Checker, claimed that in the NCLB era the kids at the bottom had made good progress while the kids at the top remained unchanged.

2) They said this meant that NCLB had sacrificed “excellence” in order to promote “equality.”

3) I responded that if it’s true the kids at the bottom are getting better while the kids at the top are staying the same, it sounds like we’re making progress toward both more equality and more excellence.

Well now Mike throws this at me:

Is the whole population getting “more excellent”? No, the whole population is making incremental progress. That’s surely good. But excellence is something else entirely. According to Webster’s, it’s the quality of being “superior, eminently good, first-class.”

So the improvement in learning among the lowest-performing students is “incremental progress” but it is not an improvement in excellence. Well then, incremental progress toward what, exactly, if not toward excellence? If they keep making incremental progress until they’re all as smart as Einstein, wouldn’t that be excellence? And doesn’t that mean that the progress they’re actually making now is progress toward excellence? So if that’s not an improvement in excellence, what is it?

Then he delivers the shiv:

Greg’s definition equates “excellence” with a narrowing of the achievement gap. That’s breathtakingly radical. Who knew that Greg had become such a lefty!

Mike, I said we were making progress toward both equality and excellence. I didn’t say that progress toward equality was progress toward excellence. If I say that my daughter is getting both taller and smarter at the same time, does that mean I equate height with intelligence?

If we want to parse definitions, I would define narrowing the achievement gap between groups as an improvement in “equality,” and any raising of the level of achievement – whether across the board or in a particular group – as an improvement in “excellence.” And obviously you can have both of those at the same time without collapsing the distinction between them.

Meanwhile, by Mike’s definition, if some students improve while others stay the same, we have made no progress toward excellence. I don’t think that’s the way the word “excellence” is normally used.

If I wanted to respond to Mike’s final paragraph in kind, I could say this:

By Mike’s definition, no matter how much improvement the other kids in the class make, only the kids at the top of the class can ever be capable of “excellence.” That’s breathtakingly reactionary. I had no idea he was such an elitist!

But I would never do something like that to a friend.

More Equal and More Excellent? Yes, We Can!

June 19, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While I’ve been debating the merits of the DC voucher study with Matt this morning, I’ve also noticed Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli have a colunmn attacking NCLB on NRO. They cite John Gardner’s question “Can we be equal and excellent too?” and argue that NCLB sacrifices excellence for the sake of equality – neglecting education for the top students in order to raise those on the bottom.

Their evidence? Students in the lowest decile have made big gains in the NCLB era, while those at the top have flat achievement scores.

The broader question of the tradeoffs made under NCLB I’ll leave for another day, but it seems worth pointing out that Checker and Mike’s evidence doesn’t back their argument; in fact, it backs the reverse.

Pop quiz!

Question One: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more equal or less equal?

Question Two: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more excellent or less excellent?

I’ve always agreed with NCLB critics that universal excellence is an unreasonable goal. But if it’s unreasonable, why are Checker and Mike holding that out as the goal by which NCLB should be judged?

On the other hand, if the current system is badly dysfunctional, then by correcting its worst flaws it may be possible to increase equality while also increasing excellence. Eventually we must reach a point where the two goals will start to diverge and we have to make tradeoffs. But that doesn’t mean we’re already at that point – as Checker and Mike’s evidence suggests.

Can we increase equality while increasing excellence? Yes, we can!