Parents to Technocrats-mind if I cut in?

February 9, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike Petrilli published a piece on charter school authorizing and oversight in response to Jason and Jay. Before the fun starts, let’s just note the following:

  1. State authorities are going to occasionally close charter schools whether I, Mike, Jay, Jason or anyone likes it or not. Let’s therefore not worry about whether or not we should close a charter school caught having students sacrifice goats to Baal out on the playground- it’s going to happen.
  2. Whether or not this is going to happen or even should happen is not terribly relevant. Mike cites a 3% estimate for charters closed by authorities over academics. I’m personally comfortable with a far higher closure rate. So long as parents take the lead, I’m not going to sweat some authority jumping in front of the parade to close the Baal school.
  3. Ultimately therefore the debate should be about how to get to a policy environment where parents are taking the lead on quality control.

The reasons for this are ultimately very practical. Technocrats make mistakes and many do not develop the close relationships and sweat the details behind test scores the way Mike describes. More to the point all of these schools have access to the legal system, can lawyer up, engage in delaying tactics, get their parents riled up to resist closure etc. It is genuinely worth asking whether the juice is worth the squeeze in many cases.

Meanwhile, when parents close a school there is no resistance, no lawsuits, no delaying tactics. This is the most potent and brutally efficient form of accountability by a very wide margin. Now…breather deeply…

…close your eyes…

…channel your inner Rick Hess and think broadly about what sorts of policies and practices can get you there…

…do you see it?…yes….

Now…you are back on the green…nicely done….yes and now you are doing it again…

Good…very good…yes both of those states scored a 9/33 on NACSA’s ratings but rocked the 2015 NAEP like an 80s hair band trashing a hotel room suite that had it coming. Breathe even deeper…do you see a role for an all-powerful command and control technocrat in this vision?

No? Good-me neither. Light touch stuff inevitable, heavy-handed stuff risky and counterproductive, parent lead highly desirable. I don’t think there is a whole lot to argue about.

Okay open your eyes now. I think we have this all sorted out!


Good Listen/Reads

January 26, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay goes full podcast with Nick Gillispie, putting the Secretary of Ed debate in context and revealing an “anarcho-socialist” youth. Congrats on keeping the more desirable half btw! Reason also covered the ESA push in Texas:

Andy Smarick presses the attack on the massive failure of the SIG program and sees an opening for choice. Mike Petrilli asks you to please ignore the evaluation disasters as he courts the technocratic tribe on the bossy nature of the Louisiana voucher program.

Finally the most interesting thing you will read this month just might be “What Do You Do if a Red State Moves to You?”  Editorial comment on the latter: there are obviously disturbing trends afoot but democracy is designed to develop compromises that people can live if not love. If the Presidency devolves into whose team gets to make imperial diktats from on high to govern by pen and phone expect unending backlash from all sides of every issue.


Centralized and Decentralized Reform Longevity in NYC

May 14, 2014

This is my apprentice Darth de Blasio. He will deal with your beneficial retention policy….

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay’s important post on choice programs developing a stronger constituency than many other types of education reform has an obvious recent example in Mayor de Blasio’s New York City. New York City has a earned promotion policy for improving literacy instruction. The program demonstrated strongly positive results, including not one but two positive evaluations from the RAND Corporation using advanced statistical analysis.  Sadly when this worthy retention policy ran up against Darth de Blasio the result was:

The unfortunate reality is that the earned promotion policy, while demonstrably effective, has a limited constituency to defend it.  A large population could benefit from the continuation of the policy but lacks organization. One of the most basic laws of politics is that organized interests defeat disorganized interests 99 times out of a hundred trials, or thereabouts.

What happened when de Blasio went after charter schools? Oh yeah…

So how did the assault on charter schools turn out for the Darth Randi’s apprentice?

Does this mean we should avoid all top down policies like the plague and focus only on promoting choice? Not in my book, but it is worth noting that policies enjoying little support outside a small group of supporters can be easily reversed. Developing a base of support is essential to policy longevity.  I don’t think that choice is the only K-12 policy reform that has the potential to develop broad support, but it is an equation that few other policies have solved.


Sun Tzu and the Art of Education Reform

May 12, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay recently wrote two excellent posts about policy overreach and the pace of reform. Little Ramona even took time off from whipping her AFT intern pool with a cat o’nine tails to get them to write fake Diane Ravitch tweets faster to write an admiring post regarding Jay’s advice:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’

Jay’s post got me to thinking about my favorite warrior-sage, Sun-Tzu. What might he think about this?

On the one hand, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against long wars:

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In other words win and win fast.  Sun Tzu advises against one of those hours long Rocky vs. Apollo type slug-fests where even the victor goes to the hospital.  He advises something more along the lines of:

Alas the education reform movement finds itself caught in an Ali rope a dope fight rather than an Iron Mike early conquest.  Neither George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, Ho Chi Mihn nor Martin Luther King Jr. had the opportunity for a quick and easy knockout either so you are in good company.  Jay’s point about seeking total victory leading to total defeat finds echoes in Sun Tzu as well:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

As an example of the above, I think it is safe to say that Sun Tzu would have little admiration for the quality of the effort put forward by American abolitionists.  From John Brown to Sherman’s March to Reconstruction these well-meaning people with a just cause seemed overly fond of the full frontal assault.  None of this excuses the actions of southerners at all. Note  however that it would have been rather extraordinary if the justices on the United States Supreme Court had failed to notice that the federal efforts in the south had almost completely backfired by the time of the contemptible Plessy case. Abolish slavery, hello sharecropping!  Amend the Constitution, say hello to Jim Crow. Deeply resentful southern racists eventually took  over the United States House and people in the north grew weary of their occupation of the south much faster, which is what one should expect given that everything they were doing more or less backfired.

Plessy was deeply horrible on many levels, but it essentially ratified the facts on the ground-facts that with sickening irony that abolitionists had helped to create.  Abolitionists did not achieve supreme excellence- they not only did not break the enemy’s resistance without fighting, they failed to break it with hundreds of thousands dead.  Their lack of supreme excellence, along with a great deal of idiocy on the part of southerners, helped usher in an additional century of Southern dark age.  We of course will never know how much of this tragedy could have been avoided, but we do know what actually happened and it was awful.  Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany to protect Poland’s freedom only to see Poland put under the Soviet boot, but at least this only lasted half a century.  In the aftermath of America’s bloodiest war America’s slaves were transformed into sharecroppers without the right to vote and with little decent schooling.  We are still grappling with this sordid legacy today.

As Jay said, seeking total immediate victory often leads to abject failure.

All this is all the more tragic given that American abolitionists could have learned a great deal from the earlier triumph of Wilbur Wilberforce in England in abolishing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.  Notice the crucial elements of success: undaunted effort, indirect means, an eventual embrace of patient incremental policies after the failure of multiple frontal assaults, no bloody war ultimately accomplishing little to nothing.

It’s no mystery why a reactionary like Diane Ravitch would find solace in Jay’s Rx- she is quite happy with the status-quo, and has a lot of K-12 workers hanging on her every word as she tells them what they desperately want to believe. This does not however mean that reformers should ignore Jay’s advice-he’s on to something important regardless of whether Ravitch or other reactionaries hope to make use of it. In fact, reactionaries themselves should fear reformers taking this advice to heart. If they do, defenders of today’s failed status quo will face far more effective opponents.  Jay is yelling reformers a warning from their blind spot.

Last year I spent a lot of time in Texas working on education reform. During the session I got an email from someone whose opinion I highly respect and who told me some things I really, really, really did not want to believe.  The email said in part:

Matt, Some of the efforts to improve ‘choice’ were heavy handed and arrogant. Vouchers always have had common enemies from both the left  and right, from rural and suburban, from minorities who would be the  beneficiaries.

Expectations were too high and ignored several factors—the  finance lawsuit being a major factor, delaying any real reform efforts  until it’s settled.

Some leading ‘reformers’ collected a variety of practices  purported to be effective in other states and proposed those for  Texas without doing the necessary base building for real support.  Even the A through F idea was  never  really sold well.  The battle fought last session over the over-engineered  accountability system was won by proponents but  they ultimately lost the war, exacerbating the growing  anti-testing sentiment.

The business community was split on ‘accountability’ for good  reason. There has been an over emphasis on ‘college ready’ and not  enough focus on ‘job ready’ with the latter having been subsumed by the former.  The resulting curricular pathways will show that for some segment  of employers simply raising standards is no longer enough and some new  designs are needed.

A big part of me wanted to fire off an angry email explaining that illiterate Texas kids didn’t have another day to wait, etc. Instead I let it sit for a day.  The next day I had to confess to myself:

Damn it all to hell he’s right on every single point.

Sadder and wiser I wrote back:

You are totally correct that there are going to be plenty of servings of humble pie to eat at the end of this session. I also fear that we reformers have gotten into the habit of viewing reforms as military conquests over bad guys to the detriment of efforts to inform and persuade. Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where to you ultimately get without it?

Well it is mid 2014 now and the answer from the Texas example is pretty clear- nowhere.  Private choice failed, the commissioner did not implement A-F school grading after having the legislature forbid him to do so, the legislature has left the state’s accountability system as a complete train-wreck.  Sign me up for a double serving of humble pie.  Even the raising of the charter school cap represented only a symbolic victory as there were already ways around the cap and charter holders can open multiple campuses under preexisting Texas law.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that Texas school kids don’t have another damn day to wait for better schools. I must accept however the fact that failed attempts at reform don’t do them any good.  If there is going to be major changes in Texas K-12 education reformers are going to have to convince far more than 76 members of the Texas House, 16 members of the Texas Senate and one governor that they are good ideas. In fact, Texas reformers might be better off thinking of those 93 people as the last on the list to persuade rather than the first. Mere legislative majorities resemble words written into the sand of a beach without broader consensus and support.

If reformers want faster change, we must embrace the need to persuade a broader universe of people on the justice of our cause and the effectiveness of the means by which we hope to achieve them. If mere legislative majorities tempt you into thinking you can proceed without such consensus, think again.  Parental choice supporters should therefore embrace the burden of building a broad consensus while recognizing the danger overreach.  Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where do you ultimately get without it?

Stomp on the gas reformers, but do take a look at the traffic conditions.  Your car won’t do you much good if it gets you and more importantly your passengers killed.

 


Set Your Proton Packs to Ridicule: The First Four Years of Jayblog

April 9, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I remember a few years ago Dan Lips asked me if I would ever consider blogging. My reaction was something along the lines of “Naaaah, why would I want to do that?”

Four years in now, it is hard to imagine doing policy work without blogging. Blogging is a great way to test-drive ideas, get feedback, and have fun doing it. Nothing else moves with the speed of the modern conversation.

The story of this blog can be told using images as guideposts. Some images are associated not with a single post but rather a series of posts, starting with this one:

Blogs of course are the media equivalent of a pea-shooter, but with a careful aim you can put out an eye here and there.

The finest hour of the JPGB, in my opinion, came when Senator Durbin accepted marching orders from the NEA and attempted to pillow smother the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The strategy was to not reauthorize the law, and not to allow new students to enter the program, killing it by attrition. Similar to the British strategy to give arms to bloodthirsty loyalist hillbillies in the American South during the Revolutionary War, this strategy seemed shrewd at the time but backfired badly.

Once the dirty work was (temporarily) done, the Department of Education made a clumsy attempt to deep six the Congressionally mandated program evaluation by releasing it on a Friday with a spin doctored press release. That probably seemed like a great idea at the time as well.

One problem- the study itself was written in English and available online, and Jay reads English and blogs. Jay read the study and leapt into the fray, dubbing the incident “the Friday Night Massacre.” The Wall Street Journal and the Denver Post made inquiries regarding the handling of the study and let’s just say that the administration’s reaction subtracted from their already waning credibility on the matter.

From there, things just kind of got better and better. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages administered regular beat-downs from both the left and the right. NRO’s Jim Geraghty summed up the Obama’s new position on D.C. vouchers:

We know our stance is indefensible; please make this issue go away.”

Eventually President Obama made the issue go away by reauthorizing the program in a budget deal, the best strategic course after bumbling into a sideshow that is costing more than it was worth. Many people deserve credit for saving the program, and Jay is one of them.

In the end, the underdogs won the debate in resounding fashion, kind of like this:

The next image is this one:

Greg’s bet with Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews proved to be great fun. Mathews wrote a piece opining that private choice was simply too politically difficult so he was sticking to charter schools.

Greg bet Mathews dinner that ten legislative chambers would pass either expansions or new choice programs in 2011.

Being a good sport, Greg raised the bar for himself to 7 enactments rather than legislative chambers when he blasted past 10 chambers in 3.6 seconds or so.

Greg ran up the score like John Heisman in 2011. I’m not sure whether he tripled up on Mathews in the end or not. He probably narrowly missed doing so, but the momentum carried over to 2012. So far we have a new tax credit program in Virginia, a tax-credit expansion in Arizona, a tax-credit expansion in Florida, and a major new voucher program in Louisiana. Greg’s original 2011 bet has already been exceeded in 2012, and even his higher bar bet of 7 enactments isn’t inconceivable this year. I now think of Greg’s original bet as the over/under for a good/bad year for the parental choice movement.

No word yet on where Mathews took Greg for dinner nor how much effort it took not to gloat.

Big Think Pieces

I like Greg’s listing of favorite Big-Think pieces, and there are some common threads between them. Greg for instance did an outstanding job laying out why most education reform efforts tend to go nowhere under the current system.

My favorite Jay Big Thinker came when Goldstein-Gone-Wild asked Jay what he would do if he ran the Gates Foundation in the comments section. Jay replied: build new, don’t reform old. If someone appointed me King, I’d make that post required reading for philanthropists as my first official act.

My second official act would probably involve a redirected asteroid and College Station Texas. If they promised to stop the belly aching about the Longhorn Network, I could be persuaded to allow an evacuation.

The Big Thinkers I had the most fun writing both came early in the blog: The Way of the Future in American Schooling and Indiana Jones and the Teacher Quality Crusade. Reasoning by pop-culture analogy got to be a fun habit, which leads us to…

Parodies

A friend of mine once asked me if I had ever noticed that people tend to think of people just to the left of them as communists, and people just to the right of them as fascists. Only the self stands in exactly the correct spot of thoughtful perfection.

I’ve always kept this jest in mind as a pretty powerful argument in favor of being broad-minded and open to the possibility of needing to perform an occassional mental update.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to unleash a good parody now and then certainly can liven up an otherwise dry discussion.

For instance, the desirable degree of state oversight of a private school choice program is an important topic, but usually a bit on the dry side. Okay, more than a bit.

Despite the fact that I have more than a little sympathy for the point of view parodied, I never laughed so hard at a blog post as I did with with Greg’s AWWWW FREAKOUT!!!  post regarding attacks from the Cato Institute on the new Indiana voucher program.

No, I take it back-Greg’s post on the UFT Card Check, while not a parody itself (more like the documentary of the UFT performing an unintentional self-parody) was the inspiration of so many lampoons that it has to stand as the funniest post of the first four years. Jay’s Fordham Drinking is up there as well.

Of the lampoons I have written, Little Ramona’s Gone Hillbilly Nuts, AFT suggests LBO for Public Schools and JK Rowling: The Jeb Bush of NEPC’s Florida Fantasy were the most fun to write.

What’s Next?

Facing a cannon barrage from a gigantic Turkish army, Baron Munchausen declared to his bedraggled henchmen “They are inviting us to defeat them! We must oblige them!”

No one knows what will happen around the next bend, but my advice is to grab your pea-shooter and take aim. It’s been a blast for us so far, and it isn’t like the bad guys show any sign of slowing the rate of demonstrably false claims.


Favorites from Four Years in the Rearview

April 9, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay P. Greene’s Blog turns four years old on April 19. To mark the occasion, Jay, Matt and I are each going to pick our favorites from one another’s posts. I’m glad Jay decided that where there are three major contributors to an accomplishment, all three should be honored – unlike some people I could mention.

It has been a real joy and a huge privilege to be part of all we’ve accomplished in the past four years. And it has been as fun as just about anything I’ve ever been part of.

Picking only these posts out of the dozens I wanted to include was tough. I’m still so, so close to reopening this and adding a couple more. But no – here are my picks.

Greg’s Favorite Jay Posts

Gates Foundation Follies, Part 1 and Part 2, July 25-26, 2011

The fight over national standards has consistently brought out the very best of Jay, both on the intellectual side and the humor side. To me, though, this two-parter is the keystone. More or less all the important issues are touched on here, and in a form that shows the broader applications of these insights for education reform generally. My favorite of my own “bigthink” posts (see below), which ended up bringing together the intellectual strands I had been strugling to integrate over numerous previous posts, was basically just my philosophical ruminations in response to Gates Foundation Follies.

The Dead End of Scientific Progressivism, January 18, 2011

Though occasioned by the fight over national standards (see above re “brought out the very best of Jay”) this post has much wider relevance. The nature of science and how it relates to policy is an issue of perennial importance for those in our line of work.

Al Copeland: Humanitarian of the Year, December 15, 2008

The post that started it all! One of the best things about JPGB has to be the annual Al Copeland award, and all of that got rolling because Jay did such a great job with this initial post. I can’t wait for the fall – I’m already working on my nominees for this year!

We Won!, September 29, 2010

When you get way down into the weeds, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. (Hey, that’s not even a mixed metaphor!) At a moment when many in the movement were starting to lose confidence, Jay saw the big picture. Subsequent events have only vindicated his predictions.

Build New Don’t Reform Old, August 2, 2011

A great statement of an important point. Smart policies and quality personnel are not all that matters – institutions themselves have their own importance. And they’re really, really, really hard to change. I predict this point is only going to become more relevant to the ed reform discussion in the years ahead.

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!, February 17, 2011

“It’s over for the little guy.”

Greg’s Favorite Matt Posts

The Way of the Future in American Schooling, May 12, 2008

Matt has given this blog almost all of its most powerful images: Meg Ryan and “I’ll have what Florida is having”; Jack Black and “Rock star pay for rock star teachers”; Kenneth Branagh and “The Democratic Party of story, myth, and song.” But no image has been more powerful than Leo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes pointing us toward “the way of the future in American schooling.” The thing that has always come back to my mind, even four years later, is Matt’s edu-appropriation of Alan Alda’s sneering senator: “It’s not me, Howard. It’s the United States government. We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?” He’s an entrepreneur. He makes this country. People like you just live in it.

AFT Suggests LBO for Public Schools, December 11, 2008

Matt has also given us some of our most powerful well-deserved mockeries. He dubbed Diane Ravitch “Little Ramona” and kicked off the notorious “Questions for Leo” and “Famous Steakholders” series. But no mockery has ever shamed its target more delightfully than Matt’s appointing of this blog’s first and only Sith apprentice, Darth Leo.

Checker Says RELAX!, July 29, 2010 and The Gates Foundation and the Rise of the Cool Kids, October 28, 2011

As great as Jay’s skewerings of Fordham have been, and as much as I’ve enjoyed my own forrays into that genre, Matt’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” themed post still sticks out in my mind as the leading entry. But Matt also brought some much-needed balance and perspective to the discussion of national standards in his wise reflections on the good work Gates has done and the deeper sources of our anxieties about their role. The final sentence of “Gates and the Rise” took guts and was very well said.

Al Copeland Humanitarian Nominee: Herbert Dow, October 8, 2010

Inspiring tale of a man who stuck his neck out to destroy an exploitative system and make the world a better place for everyone – except the leeches. Goosebumps!

Clousseau vs. Cato (Institute) and Cateaux!, April 22, 2011

Sometimes a pop culture reference fits so perfectly in every way that it’s hard to view it as anything but divinely ordained. “I rescind zee ordeur! CATEAUX?!?!?”

Greg’s Favorite Greg Posts

Command v. Choice, Part 1 and Part 2, July 26-27, 2011

When you get past all the details to look at the big picture, this is the best summary of what I want to say about education reform, nicely wrapped up in a two-part post. It feels good to finally get it off my chest! In my earlier four-part series on “Academics v. the Practical” I was struggling to integrate a lot of intellectual strands that had been developing over four years of writing for JPGB. Then I read Gates Foundation Follies (see above) and pieces began falling into place.


“No, I’m Not Going to Stand Somewhere Else,” October 14, 2010.

What Wim Nottroth did just blows me away. I’m honored to think that I’ve helped introduce more people to his story. And I still hold out hope that somewhere, Molly Norris (who left a comment on my “Nobody Draw Mohommad” post) read it and felt challenged by it. I’m also honored to have submitted a winning entry in the legendary Al Copeland competition! My most important contribution to “The Al” before that was another post I’m really proud of, but one that couldn’t have won because I was explaining why the inventor of the video game, William Higginbotham, was unworthy of the award.

City of the Dark Knight, Issue 0, Issue 1, Issue 2, Issue 3, Issue 4 and Issue 5, July 25-September 5, 2008

Of all the stuff I’ve done on JPGB, my favorites are heavily clustered in my pop culture coverage. Going all the way back to Speed Racer Is Better than Iron Man and including the James Bond posts, Ponyo, All Time Great Summer Movies, and Favorites of the Aughts. Good times! But the Dark Knight series remains my top pick of the lot.

The UFT’s “Cue Card Check,” April 15, 2009

The post that launched a thousand richly deserved mockeries. We’re still getting mileage out of it.

Vouchers: Evidence and Ideology, May 8, 2008

My first “bigthink” post, and emblematic of what would become a major theme here at JPGB – getting into protracted fights with purveyors of nonsense.

Here’s to the next four years of data, logic, deep thoughts, Al Copeland awards, pop culture apocalypses and general hilarity!

“Four more years! Four more years!”


Grade Retention is Common Nationally but Effective in Florida

February 28, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I came across an interesting study from NCES recently concerning the practice of grade retention that creates yet another hole in NEPC boat regarding their Florida theories. In fact, here is a link to a study from the ASU precursor to NEPC by Columbia Teacher College Professor Chatterji (one of the NEPC critics) from 2003 calling on Florida to “rethink sanction and retention policies in light of new and past research showing that retention does not improve student achievement.” 

Now you can look at the below figure and ask yourself just who needs to reconsider what. The red line is FCAT 1 scores for Black students, the Green line is for Hispanic students, and the blue line is for all students.

The NEPC boat is already sitting on the floor of the ocean, but hey, why not drop a depth charge on it?

The main pet theory of the NEPC squad has been that Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores have been profoundly warped by the state’s retention policy. This beats the daylights out of their Harry Potter theory, but there still is far less to it than meets the eye. Problems with this theory include a substantial improvement in 4th grade NAEP scores before the retention policy went into place, a substantial decline in retentions since the onset of the policy, and a substantial improvement in 3rd grade reading FCAT scores.  Oh and the advent of mid-year promotions and a few other things which NEPC has been either unable or unwilling to address. The peak of any aging effect would have come in 2005 and declined substantially, and yet Florida’s scores continued to rise.

An implicit assumption of this theory was that Florida is doing far more K-3 retention than other states around the country. After seeing this NCES study, I am no longer certain this is the case, especially now that Florida retention has fallen so substantially. Let’s dig into the data and find out.

State level data on grade level retention is very difficult to come by outside of Florida. However, NCES included a question about retention in their parent survey. Low and behold, 10% of parents in the NCES survey report that their child has been retained for one or more grade in grades K-8, more than 20% of low-income parents.

NCES: Students retained in one or more grade, K-8

So first off, this is quite a bit higher than I would have suspected and the trend has been rising. Given the hostility that many College of Education Professors have towards grade retention, it seems apparent that many of the teachers and administrators that go through their programs are not buying what they are selling on retention.

Now that we have a measure of retention nationally, we should explore the question of how prevalent the practice is in Florida. The Florida Department of Education provides this handy chart for the statewide numbers for retention for students in grades K-12. The technical term to describe this chart is “falling off a cliff.”

So if you rummage around in the spreadsheet provided by the Florida Department of Education on retention by grade level and add a few cells together, you can calculate that the total retention figure in Florida in 2009-2010 for Grades K-8 was 54,843.

That sounds like a lot, until you go over to the NCES Common Core Data (note to Jay, Greg and MWAB- not the academic standards, please call off the cruise missle strike :-) and learn that there were over 1.7 million students in the Florida K-8 system in 2009-10. When you do the math, it turns out that 3.9% of Florida K-8 students were retained during the 2009-2010 school year. What about the peak of Florida retention the year the 3rd grade retention policy took place in 2003-04? The total retention rate for that year was (waaaaait for it…..) 5.5%- a little more than half of the national rate that the NCES found in 2007.

We don’t have national data for K-3 retention, which is what we would need to do an ideal comparison, but the data we do have certainly establishes that there is a substantial amount of retention going on around the country, which will be having some impact on NAEP scores of states across the nation, not just Florida. Unless a state is doing far more than average, it retention is likely to be white noise overall- blips in the error term. Furthermore, it is not clear that Florida was doing more K-3 retention than the national average, even during the peak of the practice in 2003-04.

Mind you that I make no claim that retention is necessarily a good practice overall. I think there have been terrible retention practices, such as the practice of “redshirting” 9th graders in Texas back when the state gave a 10th grade exit exam. Redshirting was a widespread district level practice not mandated by state law and it was truly an awful policy basically designed to get students to drop out of school in 9th grade and thereby inflate the passing rate for the 10th grade exit exam.

There was nothing admirable about Texas redshirting. I would venture to guess that both a casual and a sophisticated analysis of data would have found it associated with higher drop out rates.

The Florida policy however is the opposite of the old Texas practice in that it is designed to set kids up to succeed rather than to fail. Not only have there been bad retention practices, there has also been a great deal of bad research done on retention that lacked the statistical rigor to establish causality. Do cancer drugs kill people, or is it the cancer? Most of the retention research doesn’t allow us to answer that sort of question.

Jay, Marcus Winters and the RAND Corp however have been applying sophisticated regression discontinuity designs to retention policies in Florida and New York City. They have found positive academic results. RAND found no self-esteem harm to students, and that NYC educators have generally positive views of the policy, to boot.

The question is not whether retention is “good” or “bad”- that all depends on how it is used. The evidence on the overall literacy effort in Florida-which includes retention as a centerpiece-is overwhelmingly positive.