Check Out Our All-Star Lineup!

May 9, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We couldn’t land Troy McClure, but the manifesto we released today opposing nationalization of K-12 education, Closing the Door on Innovation, did land a lot of big stars – Abby and Stephan Thernstrom, Shelby Steele and Richard Epstein among them. Big names in the education world include Blouke Carus, John Chubb, and Herb Walberg – on top of our very own Bill Evers, Jay Greene, and Sandra Stotsky, of course.

Moments ago, we added our first new batch of additional signers, bringing the total to 144. Among the new signers: Princeton’s Robert George.

In his coverage of the manifesto, titled Now It Gets Interesting, Rick Hess runs down some of the rest of the original lineup:

Signatories include legislators who chair or vice-chair of education committees in Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas; state board members from Colorado and Alabama; two former general counsels at the U.S. Department of Ed; and a grab-bag of Republicans like former California governor Pete Wilson, former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, former U.S. House member Pete Hoekstra, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, and Spellings Commission chair Charles Miller. They also include William Estrada of the Home School Legal Defense Association; Bob Enlow, president of the Foundation for Educational Choice; the heads of a number of state-level conservative think tanks; and academics including Shelby Steele, U. Chicago’s Richard Epstein, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, and, intriguingly, progressive icon Joel Spring.

Shout out to Bob Enlow for being big enough to make the marquee!


Closing the Door on Innovation

May 9, 2011

Today a Manifesto was released opposing the effort by the U.S. Department of Education-Gates-AFTFordham to develop a set of national curriculum and assessments based on the already promulgated Common Core national standards.  Centralization of education is bad for everyone except the central planners.

The Manifesto is being announced with 118 original signatories who come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.  The list includes former Attorney General Edwin Meese, education professor Joel Spring, law professor Richard Epsein, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, and many more.  To see the Manifesto and a full list of those who have endorsed it, click here.  Now that the document is public more names will be added as people add their signatures.

Greg has already penned a short essay on the manifesto, which you can read here.

UPDATE : Catherine Gewertz at Education Week also has this piece.

And here is the text of the press release:

For Immediate Release (May 9, 2011)
For further information, please get in touch with:
Bill Evers, bill@k12innovation.com, (650) 380-1546
Jay Greene, jay@k12innovation.com 
 
Broad Coalition Opposes National Curriculum Initiative by U.S. Dept. of Education
Over 100 leaders sign manifesto against nationalization of schooling
 
Stanford, Calif. & Fayetteville, Ark. – A broad coalition of over 100 educational and other leaders representing diverse viewpoints released a manifesto today opposing ongoing federal government efforts to create a national curriculum and testing system.
 
The manifesto, entitled “Closing the Door on Innovation,” is available at www.k12innovation.com. It argues that current U.S. Department of Education efforts to nationalize curriculum will stifle innovation and freeze into place an unacceptable status quo; end local and state control of schooling; lack a legitimate legal basis; and impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students.
 
Congress is now preparing to debate renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main law authorizing federal aid to K-12 education. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been quietly funding efforts by two assessment groups to develop a national K-12 curriculum, along with a national testing system that tests every public-school student multiple times each year. This federal initiative will create a national system of academic-content standards, tests, and curriculum. It is in line with the goals of a manifesto released on March 7, 2011, by the Albert Shanker Institute that calls for a single nationalized curriculum in every K-12 subject.
 
“A one-size-fits-all national curriculum based on mediocre high-school standards will stifle the educational innovation essential to closing the racial gap in academic achievement,” said Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in a joint statement on why they signed the new manifesto. Abigail Thernstrom is vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education; Stephan Thernstrom is a professor of history at Harvard University.
 
“Closing the Door promotes what is for high schools the most important innovation in a century,” said signatory Blouke Carus, leading children’s magazine publisher, math and reading textbook developer, and chairman of the Carus Corporation. Our schools need to offer each student a choice among six or more challenging and rigorous high school curricula, as do other, higher-performing countries.
 
“The federal government’s effort to impose a national curriculum on all schools spells trouble for the educational system,” said Richard Epstein, law professor at New York University, also a signatory. “No one in Washington can craft a curriculum that works well throughout this diverse nation. Once errors are built in at the national level, corrections will be ever more difficult to make at the local level. Only decentralized control over education can prove nimble enough to root out errors and spur innovation. Washington bureaucrats should not trumpet their own omniscience, but should become more cognizant of their own fallibility.”
 
“To some, a national curriculum sounds like a redemptive cure-all for the shame of our public schools’ failures,” said signatory Shelby Steele of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “And a national curriculum gives the education establishment elite a powerful warrant for ‘doing good.’ But we must not discard the proven constitutional discipline of our federalist system. Decentralization has been the engine of educational innovation. We shouldn’t trade our federalist birthright for a national-curriculum mess of pottage.
 
“National curriculum becomes, in effect, a nationalization of what teachers teach,” said former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, another signatory. “We must always evaluate policy proposals in light of principles like rule of law and the logic of our constitutional system. The Education Department’s sponsoring and funding of national curriculum runs counter to both laws of Congress and the wisdom of the Founders.”
 
The coalition of leaders releasing its counter-manifesto today opposes both the Shanker Institute Manifesto and the U.S. Department of Education initiative on a variety of grounds:
 
  • These efforts are against federal law and undermine the constitutional balance between national and state authority.
  • The evidence doesn’t show a need for national curriculum or a national test for all students.
  • U.S. Department of Education is basing its initiative on inadequate content standards.
  • There is no research-based consensus on what is the best curricular approach to each subject.
  • There is not even consensus on whether a single “best curricular approach” for all students exists.
 
With federal education law coming to the top of Congress’s agenda, the U.S. Department of Education’s push to create national curriculum and assessment is becoming a hot topic.
 
The manifesto opposing a national curriculum was organized by Bill Evers, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; Greg Forster, senior fellow at the Foundation for Education Choice; Jay Greene and Sandra Stotsky, professors at the University of Arkansas; and Ze’ev Wurman, executive at a Silicon Valley start-up.
 
(Here and in the list of founding signers, all affiliations are given for identification only.)

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?

And:

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!


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.


Mandating Betamax

March 29, 2011

I just returned from the Association for Education Finance and Policy annual conference in Seattle, which was a really fantastic meeting.  At the conference I saw Dartmouth economic historian, William Fischel, present a paper on Amish education, extending the work from his great book, Making the Grade, which I have reviewed in Education Next.

Fischel’s basic argument is that our educational institutions have largely evolved in response to consumer demands.  That is, the consolidation of one-room schoolhouses into larger districts, the development of schools with separate grades, the September to June calendar, and the relatively common curriculum across the country all came into being because families wanted those measures.  And in a highly mobile society, even more than a century ago, people often preferred to move to areas with schools that had these desired features.  In the competitive market between communities, school districts had to cater to this consumer demand.  All of this resulted in a remarkable amount of standardization and uniformity across the country on basic features of K-12 education.

Hearing Fischel’s argument made me think about how ill-conceived the nationalization effort led by Gates, Fordham, the AFT, and the US Department of Education really is.  Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized.  No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation.  Parents didn’t want to move from one district to another only to discover that their children would be repeating what they had already been taught or were  inadequately prepared for what was going to be taught.  To attract mobile families, districts informally and naturally began to coordinate what they taught in each grade.  Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That’s how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry.  VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it.  If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country, even though market competition would have shown that approach to be inferior.  Sony was the industry leader and if a government-backed committee were in charge they almost certainly would have had the most influence.  The Fordham folks might want to keep this in mind.  A government-backed committee is almost certain to prefer what the AFT wants over what Fordham may envision since the teacher unions are like Sony except only 100 times more powerful.

Even worse, once government-enforced standardization occurs it becomes extremely difficult to change.  If we had a government-backed panel decide on Betamax, we may have been stuck with that format for decades.  We almost certainly would have stifled the innovation that led to DVDs and now Blue-Ray.  Once Sony had entrenched their format, what incentive would they have had to change it?

Similarly, once the Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE coalition settles on the details of nationalizing standards, curriculum, and testing, it will become extremely difficult to change anything about education.  Terry Moe and Paul Peterson’s dreams of technology-based instruction may never leave the dream stage because it may fail to comply with certain provisions of the national regime.  If I were the AFT, I’d almost certainly insert those details into the regime to prevent the reductions that technology may bring to the need for teaching labor.  No one should be naive enough to think the Edublob won’t figure out how to use nationalization to block that and other threatening innovations.

I’m also sure that Bill Gates would have preferred being able to get a government-backed committee to enshrine Microsoft-DOS or Windows forever.  But thanks to market competition we have Google innovating with cloud computing.  And I’d bet that Google would love to get government backing for their approach if they could.  Dominant companies almost always favor government regulation.

So I understand why the AFT, USDOE, and Gates favor the current effort to nationalize education.  The mystery to me is why Fordham is protecting the right-flank of this movement or why some conservative governors have gone along.  Don’t they realize that it will enshrine arrangements that favor the teacher unions and are bad for kids?


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.


How to Avoid Dumbing High Schools Down in Re-authorizing ESEA

February 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

President Obama wants all states to adopt Common Core’s standards for mathematics and English language arts and reading . He also wants states to use tests based on these standards in the re-authorization of ESEA. The feds are also funding development of not only these tests but also curriculum and instructional resources tied to these standards.  Despite the questionable legal basis for all of this, it is hard to find legislators commenting on the implications of the language the feds want in a re-authorized ESEA, perhaps because they have been mesmerized by the glib phrase that states should use standards “that prepare all students for college and career”?  Who would oppose that?  Yet, there are good reasons why Congress should remove wording in the re-authorization of ESEA that implicitly requires states to adopt or use Common Core’s standards, or leaves states no choice but to adopt or use them.

At present, states must report student scores yearly to USDE to show Adequate Yearly Progress.  States now use scores from state assessments based on their own state standards and cut scores.  However, most states’ standards and tests are of poor quality, embed low academic expectations, and do not allow comparison of results.  As a result, about 44 states have already adopted CCS as their own state standards (some enticed by the prospect of RttT funds), even though many fear the loss of local control of curriculum and instruction, and are worried about the costs they will incur from administering the high-tech tests USDE wants.   Beggars can’t be choosers.  USED promises to make the tests free to all states (though not the costs of administering them).  Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, and a few other states have not officially adopted the CCS because they judge their own state standards in math or reading to be better or also fear losing  local control of curriculum and instruction.

The USDE makes a reasonable case for standardizing academic expectations across all states and using the same tests across states to enable us to compare results. We have a highly mobile school population.  Having national standards and assessments sounds like the way to address 50 sets of mostly low quality standards and tests. However, national standards and tests do not necessarily lead to high academic expectations and a high-achieving population. Most countries already have national standards, but most do not have high-achieving students.  Much depends on the quality of their national standards and tests (as well as the quality of their teachers).  If standards and the tests based on them are not first-rate, they guarantee mediocrity for the whole country at the same time that they remove local control of curriculum and instruction.

The blackest mark CCS gets is for the low level of the academic expectations built into their definition of, and standards for, college-readiness.  Besides the legal questions, Common Core’s “college- and career-readiness standards” are not rigorous enough to prepare American high school students for authentic college-level coursework.  Nor can they make this country competitive in mathematics and science.  Despite the claims of the many organizations that were funded by the Gates Foundation to develop, praise, promote, and evaluate them positively, CCS are neither internationally benchmarked nor research-based.

Readers can find this out in critiques by independent researchers or content experts, such as Diane Ravitch and William Mathis’s report for the National Education Policy Center on the lack of a research base for CCS, R. James Milgram’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, he could not sign off on Common Core’s mathematics standards; and (3) Sandra Stotsky’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on Common Core’s secondary English language arts and reading standards (all public documents).

It is not surprising that CCS do not prepare high school students for authentic college-level, credit-bearing freshman courses. They were shaped chiefly by the same special interests that gave us the poor state standards they were designed to replace. CCS were deliberately not built on the best state standards, those once in California, Indiana, or Massachusetts. The people who had shaped those standards were purposely kept at arm’s length.

Language for a re-authorized ESEA has not yet been finalized, but it will be hard for legislators to oppose using scores from tests based on “standards that prepare all students for college and career” for accountability.  How many legislators know that the only set of standards that would satisfy this wording would be Common Core’s?  Who remembers that state high school standards have never been designed to prepare students for credit-bearing college freshman courses.  Their legitimate mission has always been to prepare students for a meaningful high school diploma.

By law, a state test must be based on state standards. ERGO, those states that have not adopted CCS would be compelled to do so in order to use tests based on standards with such a description.  On the other hand, those 44 states that have already adopted CCS would feel compelled to use the common tests for financial reasons because the standards on which these tests are based are now their state standards and there are no other tests readily available. If states must use tests based on standards claimed to “prepare all students for college and career” in order to get their Title I money, USDE would end up in control of public education in every state in this country.

ESEA should give states a choice of the high school standards and tests they use for accountability–but insist that those they use are internationally benchmarked and research-based. Language could be inserted wherever needed to allow all states to use standards  and tests based on them that satisfy state high school graduation requirements so long as they are internationally benchmarked and research-based.  Such a qualification could be used instead of language requiring use of standards “that prepare all students for college and career.”  In this way, states would maintain control of curriculum and instruction and decide what tests satisfy their high school diploma requirements.  They may prefer objective end-of-course tests in algebra I, geometry, algebra II, U.S. history, chemistry, physics, and biology instead of “performance-based” subjective tests.  Policies built  into ESEA wording should strengthen, not weaken, the high school curriculum and prevent federal control of the content of public education.


Education in Obama’s State of the Union

February 2, 2011

(Guest Post by Bill Evers)

President Obama said the United States is currently having a Sputnik moment and wants to rally us to support his education programs and spending on that basis. With that in mind, it is worth recalling that the launching of the pioneer Russian space satellite back in the late 1950s had a quite important impact on American school curriculum.

American panic over Sputnik led directly to the unteachable New Math of the 1960s – an approach (set theory, number systems not based on 10) that baffled parents, teachers, and students alike and was wittily satirized in a song by comedian Tom Lehrer.

President Obama’s Sputnik moment has led his administration to push untried national academic-content standards and national tests on American schools.  For example, these standards would impose methods of teaching key components of geometry (similar and congruent triangles) that have never succeeded in any country, state, or local district.

These national standards, which the President promoted in his State of the Union address, have retreated from the decades-long consensus that we should strive to match top-performing countries by teaching Algebra I in eighth grade to as many students as we successfully can.

In contrast, the new national standards endorsed by Obama’s Education Department expect Algebra in ninth-grade and have, for example, thrown a monkey wrench in California’s longstanding effort at eighth-grade Algebra (now reaching 64% of students). California’s eighth-grade math teachers will in future be impossibly burdened with trying to teach two years of subject-matter content in one year — No thanks to President Obama’s Sputnik moment.

In the State of the Union address, President Obama misleadingly described his administration’s heavy stimulus spending on education. He said that his administration didn’t “just pour money” into the existing system that, as he said, is “not working.” But in fact, that is exactly what Congressional Democrats and Obama’s administration did. Close to eighty percent of that stimulus spending has been spent to shore up the status quo and relieve states and districts from having to make changes – under financial pressure – in ways that would improve productivity.

The Obama Education Department has awarded reform grants to states, and these grants deserve credit for encouraging states to remove caps on the number of charter schools and for encouraging school districts that need to improve to look at test scores of low-performing students and at who their teachers have been.  But his reform grants plainly went to some states that didn’t deserve them (Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio) and didn’t go to some states that did (Louisiana and Colorado). The formula for choosing the winning states was weighted in favor of teacher-union “buy-in” and thus was a formula for maintaining the status quo.

Before the State of the Union address, Republican U.S. House Speaker Boehner endeavored to test President Obama’s calls for bipartisanship by asking the President to join in a bipartisan effort to continue the opportunity scholarship program in Washington, D.C, — a program that rigorous studies have shown is improving the schooling of African-American students. But President Obama did not take up this offer.

In sum, the President set forth many of his old, usual rhetorical themes in education, pushed more spending and dubious reforms (national standards and tests), and missed an opportunity to advance reform in new and substantive ways.

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Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’ Hoover Institution and member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.  He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 2007 to 2009 and was a member of the California Academic Standards Commissions in the late 1990s and again in 2010.


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