Fordham vs. Fordham on Private Choice Transparency

January 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Fordham Institute has a new white paper out on accountability in private choice programs.  The headline will be that Fordham supports requiring students participating in voucher and tax-credit programs to participate in state accountability testing.  Adam Emerson, the author of the study and the new charter school chief in Florida (congrats btw Adam) wrote:

Surely there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that
downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in choice programs of this kind.

The two key words in this sentence: risk and if.

Emerson believes that the risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available to parents can be managed by state officials being smart. Even the most insulated policymakers on the planet (say the Federal Reserve Board, which can more or less print its own budget) make decisions on far more than a technocratic basis. Even to the extent they do stick to their best judgement, they sometimes get things wrong in a spectacular fashion. Democratically elected lawmakers drift in and out of what Edmund Burke described as delegate and trustee roles of representation. The results, far from smart, are sometimes very messy and even counterproductive.

To gain an appreciation of the limited influence of technocrats in K-12 testing policy, I would suggest reading some of the Fordham Institute’s voluminous work making the case of what a complete hash a great many states have made of their testing systems for public schools. Here is a useful quote from the Proficiency Illusion:

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.

Something far more than the I.Q. of policymakers seems to be at work here. The theme goes on in another brilliant Fordham report, the Accountability Illusion (emphasis added by yours truly):

As currently implemented, NCLB is not a discriminating system. A tremendous amount of money and energy has been spent to create the impression that there is accountability, and there are large numbers of schools throughout the United States that are in some phase of sanctions. But the accountability is not coherent. We found states where most schools failed to make AYP and others where nearly every school made it. We found demonstrably good schools that failed to make AYP far too often, and some pretty mediocre ones that slide by in some states.Thus what seems like accountability is an illusion. Good schools get sanctioned, bad schools get off, and ultimately students get shafted, since maintaining this illusion has a cost. When good schools get sanctioned, resources are wasted and we risk causing quick-fix, panic driven, counterproductive change in schools that may ultimately hurt students. When bad schools get off, their students are denied opportunities (what we unfortunately now call “sanctions”) that might lead to a better education, including the chance to attend a different school, or receive supplemental services, or simply obtain assurance that the workings of a perennially dysfunctional school will be addressed and corrected.

If those policymakers had been “smart” then thing may not have turned out this way. Many of the state testing systems that Fordham is now anxious to impose on private choice students have been previously described as costly frauds by, well, Fordham itself.

I don’t have a problem with private schools choosing to take the state test if it is done voluntarily.  Personally I wouldn’t want anything to do with a private school that lacked the self-confidence to have their own curriculum, but to each their own.  I like national norm reference testing as a light-touch method of providing transparency while leaving curricular choices up to schools.  If policymakers are so inclined, using such data to exit bottom-feeder schools could be undertaken without imposing state tests.

The whole idea of creating a parental choice program however is to provide parents with the broadest possible array of meaningfully varying options so that they can choose a great fit for the needs of their child. Accordingly, we should never make the mistake of viewing the job of a private school participating in a choice program as teaching the state’s curriculum or giving their tests. Rather their job is to satisfy the individual needs of the student to the satisfaction of parents. Parents will find schools following the state’s curriculum and giving the state’s test in abundant supply.  The whole purpose of private choice options is to create a diversity in the menu of choices available to parents and students.

It isn’t the lack of I.Q. that created the mess in state testing systems, rather the natural limitations of technocrats operating within a pluralistic democracy.   We would be wise to recognize these limits and to craft our choice programs accordingly.

Defending the Ohio Reading Guarantee

October 31, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Tracy Craft from BAEO, Terry Ryan from Fordham and yours truly from the Foundation for Excellence in Education have teamed up to push back on attacks on Ohio’s reading guarantee policy. Just as a quick reminder of just how radically successful this effort has been in Florida, the chart below shows the trend of students reading at the lowest level of reading achievement (FCAT 1) at the 3rd grade level:

Edited for Clarity

The Fordham Report is Here. Time to Party!

April 19, 2011

The Fordham report on renewal of ESEA has been released and it is time to party!

Following the rules of our Fordham report drinking game you will have to consume 7 shots of your choice; one for each time “tight-loose” is used in the report.  33 times you will need to consume whatever the Gates Foundation and U.S. Department of Ed mandate while declaring “I do this of my own free will;” one for each usage of “Common Core” in the report.  You need to shotgun a Pabst Blue Ribbon for the 1 usage of “race to the bottom” in the report and consume 8 Milwaukee’s Best for the 8 times “Race to the Top” is used.  That’s 42 total “consumptions.”

I whiffed on predicting the usage of “smart-[blank].”  I’m sorry to say that there was nothing very smart in the report.  I also entirely failed to expect the repeated usage of the phrase, “reform realism.”  It has alliteration!  What could be more persuasive than that?  I guess that is why it appears 21 times in the report.

Greg did accurately anticipate a slew of hemisphere fallacies, where they compromise between the view that the world is a sphere and the world is flat by saying that the world is a hemisphere.  The particular manifestation of the hemisphere fallacy in this report is that they repeatedly frame the debate as saying that some people think that the federal government should mandate something (standards, cut scores, etc…) and some people think that the federal government should mandate nothing in exchange for the resources it provides.  Fordham takes the middle ground of saying that the feds should mandate standards, cut scores, etc… or allow states to prove to a panel of experts that their alternative approach is at least as good.

Where to begin?  First, in practice the Fordham approach is equivalent to the feds mandating standards, cut scores, etc… If I told you that you had to eat the food the government provides or prove that your choices were equally nutritious, most people would end up just eating whatever the government provided.  The burden of proving the merit of your alternative choices would effectively compel you to comply with the mandate.

Second, if there is one thing we do not need in education policy, it is more committees of so-called experts.  Fordham proposes a bizarre procedure by which the expert panelists could be selected.  States would choose two members, the secretary of education would propose two more, and those four would choose an additional three panelists.  And if that is not convoluted enough, the panels would need 5 votes to decide anything.  This doesn’t sound like a committee of experts.  This sounds like politics by other means.  And given how complicated and bizarre this procedure is, it is even more likely that states would simply comply with the mandate, as suggested above.

Third, as is usual with hemisphere fallacies, Fordham frames the alternative “extremes” as caricatures so that their middle position seems like the only sensible alternative.  It isn’t.  I support a limited role of the federal government in education to facilitate the education of students who are significantly more expensive to educate, such as disabled students, English language learners, and students from very disadvantaged backgrounds.  Only the federal government can ensure this type of “redistributive” policy in education because if localities attempted to serve more expensive students they would attract those expensive students while driving away their tax base.  As Paul Peterson described in his classic book, The Price of Federalism, this is the only appropriate role of the federal government in education.  So, the federal government mandates that schools serve these categories of students while also providing additional resources to facilitate that the services will be provided.  This redistributive effort describes the bulk of what the federal government has done (and should do) in education.

If we are concerned that local schools are failing to serve these categories of students adequately we can address (and have imperfectly addressed) that through legal remedies.  Families, at least in special ed, can go to the courts if their schools fail to provide an appropriate education with federal funds.  We could expand that model to the other categories of federal involvement, but I think that approach is unwise.  Instead, I would favor providing the federal funds directly to students in these redistributive categories so that they would have economic leverage over schools to ensure the provision of appropriate services.  If schools fail to address student needs, they should be able to take those federal funds to another school, public or private.

The other phrase that I should have included in our drinking game is “college and career readiness.”  That concept is referenced 44 times in the new Fordham report.  It is the criterion by which expert panels need to judge standards, cut scores, etc… It is the goal of the entire Fordham approach (and remarkably in sync with the Gates Foundation in using a phrase dozens of times that was virtually unheard of a decade ago).

The only problem is that I have no idea what “college and career readiness” means.  The Fordham folks have no idea what that phrase means.  No one knows what college and career ready means.  It has no clear, technical, objective definition.  It is yet another political slogan substituting for an idea with actual substance, sort of like “reform realism” or “tight-loose.”

And yet this empty slogan is the entire purpose of the nationalization project on which Fordham-Gates-AFT-U.S. Dept of Ed are embarked.  Only in the D.C. bubble of  power-hungry analysts who provide no actual analysis could we launch a radical transformation of our education system with little more than a series of empty slogans.  It’s enough to make you drink.  Er, I mean consume.

(edited for clarity)

Tight-Loose Travel Agency

April 18, 2011

To illustrate how repeating a slogan like “tight-loose” does not necessarily mean that a policy will be tight on the ends while loose on the means, we are featuring ads for our new Tight-Loose line of businesses.

In this post we feature the Tight-Loose Travel Agency.  When you are required to get from New York to London in less than 6 hours, we can arrange to get you there in any way you like.  You can take a ride on a rocketship, jump through a kink in the time-space continuum, ask Scotty to beam you there… whatever you prefer.  When you are tight on ends, we make sure that you are loose on means.

Think about this as you read the new Fordham report, being sure to “consume” each time tight-loose is repeated.  If we nationally mandate standards, curriculum, and assessment, how much meaningful choice over means will people really have?

UPDATE — Or, as is more likely, if you are required to walk across the street rather than travel to London, the Tight-Loose Travel Agency can still handle all of your travel needs.  We know that you’ll voluntarily and without reward or compensation want to travel around the entire world before arriving across the street.  Our rocketship, time-space continuum kink, and Star Trek beam will all be here at your disposal.  Remember even with really low ends we are still loose on means.

Hemisphere Fallacy! Drink!

April 15, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fordham hasn’t even released its new report explaining why all sensible people favor the creation of an unstoppable national juggernaut to safeguard the decentralization of America’s federal system of government, and we already have to drink up.

In the new Gadfly, Mike Petrilli writes:

Speaking for the anti-“tight” right, Greene argues that “dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means.” (And, to be fair, he did so in a witty and amusing blog post, in which he proposed a “drinking game” for readers of Fordham’s forthcoming ESEA proposal, due out next week.)

But it’s unclear why he finds the concept of “tight-loose” so preposterous. Consider this: Here are the most likely potential mandates that Congress might attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

  1. States must adopt rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.
  2. States must test students annually in English and math.
  3. States must build assessments and data systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.
  4. States must develop standards and assessments in science and history, too.
  5. States must rate schools according to a prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP).
  6. States must intervene in schools that fail to make AYP for several years in a row, or in schools that are among the lowest-performing in the state.
  7. States must develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.
  8. States must ensure that Title I schools receive comparable resources—including good teachers and real per-pupil dollars—as those received by non-Title I schools.

The way Greene argues it, Congress has to either choose “none of the above” or “all of the above.” But of course it doesn’t. We at Fordham would select items one through four off this a la carte menu, and leave the rest for states to decide. That, to us, would be “tight-loose” in action.

Hemisphere fallacy! Drink!

Mike continues:

Does Jay believe none of these should be required? And if so, isn’t he arguing for federal taxpayers to just leave the money on the stump? Why not make the principled conservative case and say that Title I and other federal funding streams should simply be eliminated?


Let’s quit with all the over-the-top rhetoric. Give the list of eight mandates above a good look. Congress is likely to move ahead with the first few and will definitely reject the last few; the real debate is about the ones in the middle. In other words, we’ll be arguing over the precise definition of “tight-loose,” regardless of what the anti-“tight” right or the anti-“loose” left have to say about it.

I’m not Jay, but I think the answer to all this is obvious:

  • Mike is wrong to question Jay’s integrity by arguing that “principle” requires him to either support federal education mandates or support repeal of Title I;
  • Mike is wrong to imply that it’s unserious or “over the top” to debate the merits of anything other than the hemisphere-style middle ground that is likely to be the locus of congressional debate in the immediate term; and
  • Mike is self-contradictory to do both in the same post.

Oh, and by the way – “tight/loose”! Drink!

The Fordham Report Drinking Game

April 12, 2011

Next week the Fordham Institute is supposed to release a report that will attempt to explain their support for a nationalized set of standards, curriculum, and assessments while also embracing local control and federalism.  If past is prologue, I expect that they will attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable with a variety of oxymorons and otherwise empty phrases.

As a public service, I will try to ease the pain of reading this sort of DC edu-babble by suggesting a drinking game. Every time you see one of the phrases below in the forthcoming Fordham report, just follow the instructions:

Tight-Loose — The Fordham folks will say that they favor being tight on the ends of education, but loose on the means.  Never mind that dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means.  My instruction for the drinking game is that every time you see the phrase “tight-loose” you can take a shot of your choice.  We are loose about the means but tight on the requirement that you numb yourself to this edu-babble.

Smart-[Blank] — Every time you read a phrase beginning with the word “smart” such as “smart regulation,” “smart options,” or “smart accountability” (all phrases that have actually been used by Fordham) you will need to consume a Smartini, which is 1 part vodka, 1 part vermouth, and a splash of ginseng and gingko biloba.  The smart drink ingredients, ginseng and gingko biloba, don’t really make you smarter, but then again neither do empty slogans in think tank reports.

Common Core — Common sounds so nice and co-operative, as if all states happened to have the same standards in common by an amazing and voluntary set of circumstances.  In keeping with the true nature of the Common Core, down whatever drink the U.S. Department of Education and the Gates Foundation financially coerce you to consume while declaring “I do this of my own free will.”

Race to the Bottom — Fordham imagines that states and localities only “race to the bottom,” while we all know the national government guarantees that everyone is equally close to the bottom.  Every time you read this phrase “shotgun” a Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is as darn near the bottom as you can get.

Race to the Top — If only titles made things true, Race to the Top would be the opposite of racing to the bottom and would ensure the very best.  To remember the Orwellian manipulation of phrases like Race to the Top, drink a Milwaukee’s Best every time you see RttT.  It says it is the best, just like RttT says it is the top.

Marble Cake — This well-worn metaphor for the blurred responsibilities between federal, state, and local levels of government is likely to make an appearance in next week’s report.  Just to remind yourself that the Constitution does not contain such a blurred description of state and federal responsibilities, have a black and tan.  Yum.

Since we only suggest that you get loose without getting too tight, you may have to be lax in following the rules of this drinking game. Remember, drink and make education policy responsibly.

In the comment section please give me your over/under on how many times each of these phrases will appear. Nothing goes with drinking like some gambling.

Fordham Zig-Zags Again

March 3, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Back on September 9 of last year Jay told you to mark your calendars so you’d remember exactly when Fordham began its inevitable backtracking on the rush to fix education through the iron fist of federal power.

Check this out from the latest Gadfly. Here’s the key part:

But as the two federally funded assessment consortia go about their work and flesh out their plans to develop tests aligned to the Common Core, danger lurks. One big challenge arises from their enthusiasm for “through-course assessments”—interim tests that students would take three or four times a year in lieu of a single end-of-year summative assessment…[O]nce a state adopts a new testing regimen that compels instructional uniformity, only private schools will be able to avoid it. This is particularly problematic for public schools—like charters—that were designed to be different. We still favor the Common Core effort and the trade-off of results-based accountability in return for operational freedom. (We also favor the development of high-quality curricular materials that help teachers handle the Common Core.) But it’s time to ask whether the move to high-stakes interim assessments will make that trade-off untenable.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Fordham position now appears to be:

  • A single national standard is OK.
  • A single national curriculum is OK.
  • A single national assessment test at the end of each year is OK.
  • Attaching “high stakes” to that single national test is OK.
  • Having the federal government fund and “co-ordinate” all the above is OK.
  • But if you give the national high-stakes test more than one time per year, THE WORLD IS ENDING and the whole package of national standards/curricula/assessments may need to be called off entirely!

Those of us who saw all this coming and were called cranks and paranoiacs for predicting it are still waiting for our apology.

Hemisphere Fallacy Sighting

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a new Flypaper post, Checker and Mike argue that the federal government takeover of schools implementation of common standards can follow one of three paths:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In other words, our options are:

  1. Too big, strong, and heavy handed.
  2. Too weak, limited and complacent.
  3. Just right!

Guess which one they favor. No hints!

JPGB readers will recognize Fordham’s longstanding addiction to the hemisphere fallacy – making themselves look good by oversimplifying the landscape into two extreme errors held by the extreme extremists on either side of them, and the reasonable middle ground occupied by reasonable middle grounders like themselves.

Some people say the earth is flat and others say it’s round, so the reasonable middle ground is to say it’s a hemisphere.

Personally, I’d rephrase those three Fordham options as follows:

  1. So big and bold that the federal government takeover of schools becomes obvious, provoking an inevitable backlash from Americans who have repeatedly made it clear they don’t want any such thing.
  2. So weak and limited that the federal government won’t actually be able to take over the schools.
  3. Just strong enough to hand all schools over to federal control, but not so strong that the handover becomes obvious.

While we’re on the subject, Neal McCluskey notices something interesting in the new Fordham report:

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

I’m not sure I would take it as an apology. If Checker wanted to apologize, he would. But he hasn’t.

Which leads me to wonder why he’s suddenly so anxious to make sure there’s something out there in print that shows him expressing exactly the same doubts we do. Something he could point to later, perhaps?

Mark Your Calendars

September 13, 2010

Mark your calendars.  September 9 was the date that Checker Finn and the Fordham Institute began to turn against the national standards movement they so enthusiastically championed.  We’ve been predicting this reversal on JPGB, but who knew it would happen so soon?

Last week Checker noticed that the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which directs the current national standards push fueled by Gates Foundation money and financial rewards and threats from the U.S. Department of Education, is merging with P-21, the 21st century skills nonsense organization.  Checker noted that the incorporation of P-21 into CCSSO could provide “additional traction for the organization’s current agenda [which] would be bad for the country, bad for the new ‘Common Core’ standards and the assessments being developed around them, and possibly bad for CCSSO as well.”

Checker also suddenly became aware that even good standards may well be undermined by bad assessments:

Indeed, P-21 isn’t the only risk here. At least one of the two new assessment-development consortia could—probably in the name of “performance assessment” and “career readiness”—easily drown in the soft stuff, in which case the tests it is building may not do justice to the academic standards with which they are meant to be aligned. Which would also mean that implementation of the Common Core by states and districts could be distorted in the direction of the soft stuff that will be on the tests and for which schools and educators will be held to account.

And Checker has finally focused on the fact that the federal government might make mischief with the national standards machinery for which he and Fordham provided right-wing cover:

One hopes that Secretary Duncan is mindful of this risk, but his big assessment speech last week wandered all over the 21st century terrain. And those straying off the cognitive reservation can also invoke Duncan’s boss, whose March 2009 denunciation of “bubble tests” called for a new generation of assessments that would address not only “problem-solving and critical thinking” but also “entrepreneurship and creativity.” Yes, there is reason to believe that President Obama has drained more than a few steins of P-21 propaganda. Maybe his education secretary has, too.

Of course, Checker still holds out hope that vigilance could keep these negative forces at bay.  But he is clearly laying the groundwork for his complete reversal, which will come as these negative forces gain control over the national standards infrastructure that Checker and Fordham helped create by down-playing these very dangers.

National Standards Nonsense

March 10, 2010

The national standards train-wreck is pulling into the station, again.  This time it is a completely voluntary set of national standards in the same way that complying with a 21-year-old drinking age is completely voluntary for states to receive federal highway money.  States had to commit to a rushed and largely secretive national standard setting process as part of the Race to the Top application.

Well, now the draft standards have been released for a hurried public comment period before they try to cram them into place.  In the end they’ll probably fail to get all the states on board for anything meaningful, but it won’t be for lack of arm-twisting.  The Gates Foundation has sprinkled money on just about every education policy organization to ensure their support or at least muted opposition.

Even people and groups that should have no interest in these national standards and even expressed skepticism of them in the recent past are now embracing them.  Barely two weeks ago Checker Finn wrote:

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 today he is quoted in the New York Times expressing his enthusiastic support:

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.

What gives?  Nothing in the draft standards should have put Checker at ease about their rigor.  And nothing has happened that has addressed his earlier concerns about aligning tests, setting high cut scores, or sustaining rigor over time.

Similarly the folks over at Core Knowledge have decided to drink the Kool-Aid.  Just a few months ago I expressed frustration with national standards advocates:

Every decade or so we have to debate the desirability of adopting national standards for education.  People tend to be in favor of them when they imagine that they are the ones writing the standards.  But when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards.  What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone.  There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.  Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder.

At the time Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio linked to that post and added “I’m inclined to agree.”  But today he is the press contact for a statement from Core Knowledge declaring that the new draft national standards are a “not-to be-missed opportunity for American education.”

What’s even more amazing is that the draft national standards are being guided by the same 21st Century Skills nonsense articulated by Tony Wagner.  Core Knowledge supporters should recoil in horror at this approach unless they fantasize that they will “somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place” without the edublob noticing and blocking them.  Good luck.

I’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well.  The standards will inevitably be diluted and made even more 21st century skill-like to gain sufficiently broad support.  The standards-based reformers at Fordham and Core Knowledge will end up renouncing the final product, but will continue to believe that if only the right standards were adopted all would be well.  And we’ll start this all over again in about a decade.

Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

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