The Already Existing Chaos in Student Testing

April 11, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt complains about “coming chaos in student testing” because opponents of Common Core don’t agree on what should replace it. As I’ve been arguing in the comment thread, the American political system is designed to allow messy, chaotic coalitions to form quickly among people who don’t agree about much but want to oppose something that they all dislike, even if they don’t agree about why they dislike it or what should replace it.

You want to know why that’s happening in the case of Common Core testing? Stuff like this:

I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.

Imagine how that sounds to parents. Jim Geraghty comments in his email blast:

We live in a world where Ed Snowden’s revealed all of our biggest national-security secrets, but parents in New York State can’t know what’s on the tests the kids are taking. What, are they trying to design a system with as little accountability as possible?

Yes, they are.

You would not have this huge anti-CC coalition drawing together people who agree about nothing else if CC were not being done in such a way as to generate huge opposition from a very diverse set of constituencies. And the CC coalition has proven that it is not willing to bend even an inch to accommodate those concerns.

As long as the CC coalition behaves the way it does, no one has any right to complain about the coalition that has formed against it. They are right to work together to oppose CC without waiting for consensus to emerge on an alternative.

I will keep on saying it and saying it: The core issue is trust. Nothing else matters. The system has lost the trust of parents, not because the parents are paranoid but because the system actually does not deserve their trust. Nothing else is going to go right until the system earns back the parents’ trust.

And the only plausible path to restoring trust is school choice without a common standard.

Update: More analysis of testing concerns from Rick Hess: “Four years after these testing consortia launched, I still can’t get answers to practical questions about whether the results will provide the kind of valid, reliable data needed to support transparency, accountability, and informed competition.”

It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.

Starring Matt Ladner as the Difference Principle!

January 16, 2013

Hippies on stage

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Are you ready for this? A Theory of Justice: The Musical!

No, really:

In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels back through time to converse (in song) with a selection of political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick, and his objectivist lover, Ayn Rand. Will he achieve his goal of defining Justice as Fairness?

Wait, I thought they already made that show. It was called Hair.

Here’s a publicity photo from the production – Matt Ladner in costume for his co-starring role as “The Difference Principle”:


HT David Koyzis

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!”

School Choice Researchers Unite in Ed Week

February 22, 2012

Pictured (L to R): Rick Hess, Jay Greene, Greg Forster, Mike Petrilli and Matt Ladner

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today, Education Week carries a joint editorial signed by nine scholars and analysists. We came together to agree that Mom and apple pie are good, Nazis and Commies are bad, and the empirical research supports the expansion of school choice:

Choice’s track record so far is promising and provides support for continuing expansion of school choice policies…Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact…Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive…

In addition to effects on participating students, another major topic of research has been the impact of school choice on academic outcomes in the public school system…Among voucher programs, these studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools. The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large. No study has found a negative impact.

We have diverse viewpoints on many issues, but we share a common commitment to helping inform public decisions with such evidence as science is legitimately able to provide. We do not offer false certainty about a future none of us knows. But the early evidence is promising, and the grounds for concern have been shown to be largely baseless. The case for expanding our ongoing national experiment with school choice is strong.

This may well be the most important part:

The most important limitation on all of this evidence is that it only studies the programs we now have; it does not study the programs that we could have some day. Existing school choice programs are severely limited, providing educational options only to a targeted population of students, and those available options are highly constrained.

These limitations need to be taken seriously if policymakers wish to consider how these studies might inform their deliberations. The impact of current school choice programs does not exhaust the potential of school choice.

On the other hand, the goal of school choice should be not simply to move students from existing public schools into existing private schools, but to facilitate the emergence of new school entrants; i.e., entrepreneurs creating more effective solutions to educational challenges. This requires better-designed choice policies and the alignment of many other factors—such as human capital, private funding, and consumer-information sources—that extend beyond public policy. Public policy by itself will not fulfill the full potential of school choice.

Although I also feel particularly strongly about this:

Finally, we fear that political pressure is leading people on both sides of the issue to demand things from “science” that science is not, by its nature, able to provide. The temptation of technocracy—the idea that scientists can provide authoritative answers to public questions—is dangerous to democracy and science itself. Public debates should be based on norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.


Kenneth Campbell is the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, in Washington.

Paul Diperna is the research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in Indianapolis.

Robert C. Enlow is the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Jay P. Greene is the department head and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in education reform at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville, and a fellow in education policy at the George W. Bush Institute, in Dallas.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, as well as a blogger for Education Week.

Matthew Ladner is a senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Michael J. Petrilli is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington.

Patrick J. Wolf is a professor and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville.

Our color-coordinated mechanical lion battle chariots that join together into a giant robot are still under construction.

Defender of the empirical research universe!

Al Copeland Award: Supplemental

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have an update to Matt’s oustanding nomination of Herbert Dow for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award. Dow, you will recall, is nominated for having used entrepreneurial ingenuity to circumvent corrupt political restrictions on his ability to serve his fellow human beings and improve the human condition.

Now comes this word from Reuters:

Siegfried Rotthaeuser and his brother-in-law have come up with a legal way of importing and distributing 75 and 100 watt light bulbs — by producing them in China, importing them as “small heating devices” and selling them as “heatballs.”

To improve energy efficiency, the EU has banned the sale of bulbs of over 60 watts — to the annoyance of the mechanical engineer from the western city of Essen.

Rotthaeuser studied EU legislation and realized that because the inefficient old bulbs produce more warmth than light — he calculated heat makes up 95 percent of their output, and light just 5 percent — they could be sold legally as heaters.

On their website (, the two engineers describe the heatballs as “action art” and as “resistance against legislation which is implemented without recourse to democratic and parliamentary processes.”

Costing 1.69 euros each ($2.38), the heatballs are going down well — the first batch of 4,000 sold out in three days.

Yeah, I’ll bet they did.

And here’s some food for thought for all you green-green lima beans out there:

Rotthaeuser has pledged to donate 30 cents of every heatball sold to saving the rainforest, which the 49-year-old sees as a better way of protecting the environment than investing in energy-saving lamps, which contain toxic mercury.

The spirit of Herbert Dow lives on!


Sowell Points Out What Is, in Fact, Funny about Peace, Rawls and Understanding

February 11, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Thomas Sowell lays out one of the many underlying problems with Rawlsianism: the information problem. The traditional rules of interpersonal justice, which Rawls called “formal fairness” – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t defraud, fulfill contracts, etc. – are a feasible basis for policy because they only require knowledge of a limited number of discrete acts. Within reasonable limits we can usually get a pretty clear idea of who did what to whom. But Rawls’s desire for a more comprehensively “fair” society presupposes that we have information on the whole state of facts across all reality, and not just in a snapshot but dynamically over time, and not just in the actual course of events but also in all possible anticipated courses of events depending on what policies we enact. This fallacy was also identified by Hayek as “the fatal conceit.”

Required reading for those tempted by the Rawlsian fallacy.

The Credibility of the Obama Administration Is on the Line

April 7, 2009

The gap between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and action on education policy is growing larger each day.  I’ve written previously that Obama and Duncan talk a lot about charter schools, merit pay, and getting rid of bad teachers, but those rhetorical priorities are almost completely absent as legislative priorities. 

And, as Matt has pointed out in NRO this week, Obama declared that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”  Again, those lofty words do not match their actions.  When the DC voucher program produced positive results, they failed to release them in time to inform the congressional debate over killing the program, they buried the release on a Friday afternoon, and they attempted to spin the results as somehow disappointing.  Their actions were not guided by their rhetoric about ignoring ideology and doing what works.

Neal McCluskey captured the remarkable impotence of Obama’s “tough talk” on education:

So the Obama Administration is hostile to school choice. What, then, is its plan for reform? Here’s what Secretary Duncan recently told the Washington Post after dismissing DC’s voucher program:

The way you help them [all kids] is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.

Oh, challenge the status quo and deliver “dramatically better schools”! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” I mean, that’s powerful stuff, along the lines of how do you get to Mars? You fly there! Obviously, the important thing is howyou challenge the status quo and provide better schools, and for decades we’ve been trying sound-bite-driven reform like Duncan offered the Post, and exhibited in his recent declaration that he will “come down like a ton of bricks” on any state that doesn’t use waste-rewarding “stimulus” money effectively. And how will we know when a use is ineffective? Why, we’ll make states report on test scores, teacher quality, and other things, and then threaten to withhold money if outcomes don’t get better. Of course, we know how well that’s worked before. Simply put, tough talk from politicians has delivered pretty much nothing good for kids or taxpayers.

Many of of the rhetorical points made by Obama and Duncan have been great.  But now it’s time to prove that those words can be matched by action.  The credibility of the Obama administration is on the line.

Jeb for National School Grades

January 23, 2009


“Everybody do the FCAT! Yeah!”

HT Orlando Sentinel

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Jeb Bush comes out for a national school grading system on NRO.

What he’s proposing is a federal grade A to F for each school, based on both performance level and improvement – kind of the way Florida schools are graded under the A+ system (though Jeb doesn’t propose federal sanctions for poorly performing schools, just a grading system). He justifies the move on grounds that the NCLB system encourages states to lower standards.

Jeb doesn’t discuss this in the article, but readers of JBGB know that a clash has been brewing between Florida’s A+ program and NCLB. Florida, which has had success with the A+ program (where improvement in performance is a factor alongside performance level), is going to run into the 2014 “everybody must be proficient” wall along with everyone else.

No doubt our own Matt Ladner, chronicler of the looming conflict in the posts linked above, will have more to say about this (hopefully including some more classy artistic illustrations), but just to put my own two cents in, I’m not clear on why there needs to be a national grade.

For that matter, I’m not even convinced we need a national test, since that sacrifices the merits of interstate competition. At both the state and federal levels, the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo and thus will be looking for opportunities to dumb down the test or manipulate the scoring to make schools look better. But if one state dumbs down while another (under political pressure from reformers) stays the course and makes real improvement, that creates pressure on the dumb state to get with it.

The impetus for a single national test, it seems to me, is because federal rewards and punishments create an incentive to dumb down. If we’re not going to have rewards and punishments based on the scores, what’s the need for a single national test? Why not just require each state to maintain a transparent testing system of its own devising – or, if that’s not good enough, require each state to purchase and use one of the major privately developed national tests?

But we can leave that aside. Let’s stipulate the case for a national test. Still, if you’re not going to hold schools accountable with rewards and penalties, then why issue grades along with the test scores? Why not just give a test and report the results numerically, and let private organizations put together their own grading systems? That way people can decide for themselves what aspects of performance measurement matter most, rather than turning the job over to a federal bureaucracy that has an incentive to make schools look better.

Cascade Canyon

October 23, 2008

Matt and I went hiking in Grand Teton National Park last summer.  Here we are on the Cascade Canyon trail.  We made it all of the way from the trailhead at Jenny Lake to the western end of the canyon, about a 9 mile round-trip.  I thought the hike was going to kill a sleep-deprived Ladner, but it was nothing that buffalo burgers and drinks at the Cadillac Grille couldn’t heal. (edited for clarity)




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