Whose Tribe Wanted This?

January 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week on NRO Kathleen Porter Magee wrote what reads like a lament for the death of the center-right education reform coalition:

(W)e must resist the centrifugal forces that threaten to pull apart the core policies that together have made the conservative reform movement so successful. Narrowing the scope of this tradition by removing standards and accountability from the theory of change would be a remarkably shortsighted decision, with far-reaching consequences for everyone seeking reform.

I also regret the current controversies, but one has to expect a fight under the tent here and there.  Since actions speak louder than words, I’m guessing it is going to take more than broad expressions of regret to stop this one, even after the current Common Core controversy fades from relevance.

My recollection of how this fight under the tent started would begin with this self-indulgent attack followed by more expression of poor reasoning by the standards tribe like this. Quoting Hirsch:

The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on markets to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools should be teaching. Such guidance would go against the “genius of the market” approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference with curriculum. Stern shows—rightly, I believe—that this is a fundamental failing of the choice movement.

Ironically enough, Dr. Hirsch fails to recognize that a great many schools that have opted in to his benevolent guidance are choice schools of various sorts.  This seems truly odd given that these schools are listed on his own website.  More than a few leading lights of the standards movement, while undoubtedly learned, seem to lack a basic understanding of pluralistic interest group competition. Who drove the classics out of the American public school curriculum in the first place? Why would you expect it to be different in the future?

Here in Arizona the Great Hearts schools have revealed an almost insatiable parental demand for a rigorous classical education- they have 6,000 students, 10,000 students on waiting lists, and every time they open a new school their waiting list grows rather than shrinks.   If you are having trouble understanding why the districts were basically oblivious to this demand before the advent of the dastardly “structural reform” some remedial course work in political science is in order. To the limited (but growing) extent that a classics based approach is proceeding in Arizona districts it is because the combination of parental demand and (**gasp**) charter schools and even more wildly liberal home-schooling movement has created the incentive to move in that direction.

KPM to my knowledge is not responsible for any of this, and this is all in the past. More recent stuff like this however certainly does not help. State testing may be a near total disaster in a great many states, but that’s no reason not to apply it to choice programs. Egads.

The tension between the standards and choice movements boils down to one between centralization and decentralization. It is not impossible to reconcile these urges, but a necessary if not sufficient step on the part of the standards tribe will be to show greater respect for diversity and self-determination. Until such time, remember whose tribe wanted this fight.

Fordham Responds on Nationalizing Education

March 30, 2011

Over at Flypaper, Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee responds to my post yesterday about the mistake of the current Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE effort to nationalize key aspects of our education system.  She writes:

Of course, many people agree that Betamax had the superior technology (the picture was sharper, the cassettes were smaller, it was better at high-speed duplication, etc.). So, in effect, market forces standardized the inferior technology.

But rather than belabor the VHS-Betamax analogy, let’s talk about the actual case of state standards. Is Greene correct in his contention that the market was on its way to standardizing high-quality state standards? Not even close.

In fact, for more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

That said, I do agree with Greene that too much government intervention will stifle innovation. That’s precisely why I think government “standardization” should begin and end with standards. Let the government define what students should know and be able to do.  Then let market forces determine which curricula and pedagogy will best help students master that essential content.

To which Ze’ev Wurman replies:

I have a lot of respect for Kathleen and hence I am stumped.

She writes that the results of the NCLB’s “natural experiment” with states setting their standards are clear: “A swift and sure race to the bottom.”

Yet just a few years back no other than the Fordham Institute itself examined this exact issue,the behavior of proficiency standards under NCLB, and declared:

“These trends do not indicate a helter-skelter ‘race to the bottom.’ They rather suggest more of a walk to the middle.”

Perhaps Kathleen meant to write about the rigor of content standards rather thanproficiency standards. But there, too, many states have improved their standards, rather than lowering them. This can be clearly visible in — yet again — Fordham’s own recent “State of the Standards” report that shows that in 2010, 27 state ELA standards were graded worse than in 2005 and 11 improved (with 12 grades unchanged). In math only 10 state standards were graded worse and 29 improved, with 11 graded the same. I might add that grading criteria in 2010 were more demanding than in 2005 as can be clearly seen from Massachusetts’ standards that did not change between 2005 and 2010, yet were graded lower in 2010 than in 2005. In other words, by Fordham’s own analysis — of which Kathleen must be aware as she co-authored it — state content standards have improved somewhat over the years.

So which one is it? Is there a race to the bottom, or isn’t there? Based on Fordham’s own research there was an improvement in content standards and no race to the bottom in proficiency standards. Yet Kathleen is unequivocal in claiming a race to the bottom. Is it a simple error, or has Fordham started to twist its own findings in its push to support national standards?

And I add:

In addition to the misleading claim of “race to the bottom” that Ze’ev notes, Kathleen’s post is in error on two other points:

1) VHS was not the “inferior technology.” It was cheaper, had longer tapes, and the market clearly preferred those things over whatever qualities Betamax possessed. Kathleen’s conviction that she and some central government-backed committee of like-minded people know what is best for the country regardless of what the market says is precisely the problem with the Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE effort to nationalize key aspects of education policy.

2) The claim that Kathleen and Fordham want no more than to nationalize standards without touching curriculum, pedagogy, or assessment is simply disingenuous. For example, Checker once again made common cause with the AFT, Linda Darling-Hammond, etc… in backing the Shanker Manifesto, which calls for “Developing one or more sets of curriculum guides that map out the core content students need to master the new Common Core State Standards.” Checker may claim that this effort is purely voluntary, but that would only be credible if he and Fordham clearly and forcefully opposed any effort by the national government to “incentivize,” push, prod, or otherwise require the adoption of national curriculum based on the already incentivized national standards. And of course, USDOE (without any opposition from Fordham that I have noticed) is already moving forward with developing national assessments even before national curriculum has been developed. One does not need to be from one of “the more feverish corners of the blogosphere” to recognize the odd coalition of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE as coordinating an effort to nationalize key aspects of our education system.