Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. As You Like It Act 2, scene 1, 12–17
Barone however unpacked the arcane “Safe Harbor” provision on NCLB. Safe Harbor basically gives you a pass on AYP so long as you can reduce the number of children scoring below proficient by 10%. If this represents an obtainable standard, then presumably states would not feel overly pressured to drop their cut scores.
So, I decided to put safe harbor to a test- a very forgiving one. I looked at data from Florida’s 67 school districts over the past six years on 4th grade Reading and Math. The NAEP shows that Florida has been making solid progress on both subjects.
So what happens if you assume that we are at the 2014 100% requirement, an apply safe harbor to the overall performance of Florida districts? Judging them solely on 4th grade math and reading, and without judging any of the required student subgroups– like the various ethnic groups, free and reduced lunch kids, special education children, etc- Florida’s districts failed to make safe harbor 71% of the time based on the overall results alone.
I’ll leave the debate over whether public schools should be able to routinely reduce their passing rates by 10% year after year to others. The point I am making is: they don’t.I am confident that if required to break down results by various subgroups, that not a single Florida district would have made AYP during these six yearsunder safe harbor. The number of individual schools making safe harbor is also likely to be negligible.
This, during a period of strong statewide improvement in both reading and math.
The sad reality is that, unless changed, NCLB will create a tremendous and perverse pressure on the state of Florida and others to dummy down their state accountability exams. In the greatest of ironies, a bill which aspired first and foremost to create transparency in public education contains the seeds of its own destruction in encouraging states to lower passing standards.
Gene Hickok and I endorsed Senator Cornyn and De Mint’s A-Plus concept as a way out of this looming train wreck. Under it, states could negotiate a single set of testing with the feds: preferably one better designed than a one-size-fits-all system with the mother of all perverse incentives built in. The Department would have discretion as whether to accept a state model rather than AYP, so no one is proposing to burn down the Department of Education.
The administration was not enthused. Nor, to my knowledge, have they ever acknowledged that 2014 is a problem. Nor to my knowledge have they ever embraced anything that could be considered a solution. Refusing to recognize a problem and thus failing to take action against it while it is still relatively manageable- ring any bells?
The Democrats will run the department and Congress, and powerful constituencies in their coalition want to vastly increase federal funding and replace testing with “portfolio assessments.” Now would be an outstanding time for all who believe in public school transparency-Democrats and Republicans- to pull their heads out of the sand on this issue. Safe harbor is not a solution. If you don’t like A-Plus- fine, propose another solution. Pretending like there isn’t a problem is a recipe for disaster.
Following Wall Street and Detroit, the nation’s governors have joined the growing line on Capitol Hill—begging Congress to save their states from looming fiscal shortfalls. The National Governors Association sent a letter to Congressional leaders asking states to be included in the next economic stimulus package.
New York Governor David Patterson made the plea in person before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday: “As part of a comprehensive second economic stimulus package, states need direct and immediate fiscal relief.”
But not all governors are looking for a federal handout. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford offered Chairman Rangel’s committee a different view—begging Congress not to give states more federal dollars. Instead, he called for greater freedom and flexibility from federal mandates.
In his testimony, Governor Sanford warned that a federal bailout would only fuel further out-of-control state government spending:
Essentially, you’d be transferring taxpayer dollars out of the frying pan – the federal government – and into the fire – the states themselves. I think this stimulus would exacerbate the clearly unsustainable spending trends of states, which has gone up 124 percent over the past 10 years versus federal government spending growth of 83 percent…
…State debt across the country has also increased by 95 percent over the past decade. In fact, on average every American citizen is on the hook for $1,200 more in state debt than we were 10 years ago. There seems to be no consequence, and indeed a reward, for unsustainable spending growth by states. In effect, sending $150 billion more to states would produce another layer of moral hazard – already laid bare at the corporate, individual and federal levels in recent years.
Rather than a bailout, Governor Sanford urged Congress to give state greater freedom and flexibility from government mandates and regulation:
Give us more flexibility. Give us more in the way of control over the dollars we already have and less in the way of costs. Give us more options, not more money with federal strings attached.
Among the costly mandates Governor Sanford referenced was No Child Left Behind. Designed to help improve learning opportunities for students, NCLB comes with a heavy compliance burden. According to the Office of Management and Budget, NCLB increased the annual paperwork required of state and local governments by 6,680,334 hours (or $141 million). That means it would take one person a miserable 762 years to complete just one-year worth of NCLB compliance!
The result of this red tape is that more dollars are consumed by the bureaucracy and less is actually available for use in the classroom.
There is a better approach. Governor Sanford and leaders in other states should call on Congress to adopt policies like the A-PLUS Acts, which would let states opt-out of No Child Left Behind and receive their share of funding in a block grant with less regulation. Doing this would give state and local leaders the freedom and flexibility to use scarce tax dollars on local initiatives to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children.
Giving states more flexibility in how federal funds are used makes more sense than another federal bailout.
Having learned these lessons the hard way, Mike warns that Sara and Andy are falling into old traps despite the best of intentions. Mike argues that giving money to favored organizations, such as KIPP charters and Teach For America to “Grow What Works” will suffer from the same flaws as the Bush administration’s efforts to give money to favored organizations, such as Reading First. Even if the favored groups are doing great work, giving money to them will be portrayed by opponents and the media as cronyism and pork.
In addition, Mike notes that expanding Teach For America and KIPP requires cooperation from state and local agencies to lift caps on charters, equalize funding for charters and traditional public schools, and relax certification requirements. The problem is that state and local agencies have perfected the art of subverting federal mandates. At best unwilling state and local agencies will minimally comply with federal requirements while eviscerating their spirit. At worst they will defy the requirements and dare the federal government to withhold funds. The feds generally lack the political nerve to risk the political fallout from actually applying a sanction to a local or state education agency.
Let me expand Mike’s observations to draw lessons for the future of No Child Left Behind. Like Mike, I once believed that the federal government could use the carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) in NCLB to motivate local and state education agencies to improve. Since I was convinced by evidence that incentive systems worked, why shouldn’t the federal government do what works?
My mistake and the mistake of NCLB was in not considering how much implementation of those incentive systems matters. The federal education bureaucracy lacks the familiarity with local circumstances, the nimbleness to respond to changing circumstances, and the political will to apply sanctions to properly implement an incentive system. Incentive systems are good for education reform but the federal government is too big, slow, far-away, stupid, and cowardly to do it right.
The same is likely to be the case when the federal government tries to expand Teacher For America and KIPP under an Obama administration. As Andy and Sara will soon discover and as Mike has warned them, the federal government will be obstructed by unwilling local and state actors. And the mandates the Feds issue to overcome that resistance will trample upon or fail to anticipate local circumstances.
So what can the federal government do right? First, they can continue to improve the availability of information about the school system. NCLB deepened and entrenched the testing requirements that 37 states had already adopted before NCLB was adopted. Improving transparency facilitates better policy evaluation and the development of effective state and local accountability systems.
Second, the federal government can facilitate “redistributive” efforts that localities cannot pursue without being punished by collective action issues. For example, no locality can operate a substantial special education or English language learner program without attracting more students needing services, which then drives up the costs of the programs and drives away the local tax base that pays for those programs. (See Paul Peterson’s The Price of Federalism for a great discussion of this). To the extent that we want redistribution, we need the federal government to mandate it. And I fully confess that I depart from my Cato colleagues in that I think we need some (but very limited) redistribution.
Third, the federal government can fund pilot programs to experiment with new ideas and approaches. But I should emphasize that I think the federal government has no business evaluating or paying for evaluations of those efforts. The evaluation process in the US Department of Education and the small number of contract-research firms is far too politicized to be reliable. Instead, the federal government should play its role of improving transparency by making data on the pilot programs it sponsors available to any qualified researcher rather than to a favored research firm. The Feds should heavily be in the data collection and distribution business, much as the Department of Commerce makes economic data available, but they should leave analyses of those data to the market of ideas.
The failures of the Bush administration have been a humbling experience. But we are doomed to repeat their mistakes if we do not learn from them and limit the federal role in education to what the Feds can actually do well.
I didn’t bother watching the debate, but from the comments around the web it looks like my prediction that there would be nothing really worth watching was accurate.
Cruising through the commentary, though, I came across this from Mickey Kaus:
Palin sounded like she was campaigning in Iowa for the teachers’ union vote when she talked about education. We need to spend more money. Pay teachers more. States need more “flexibility” in No Child Left Behind (“flexibility” to ignore it). I didn’t hear an actual single conservative principle, or even neoliberal principle. Pathetic.
So much for all that talk about how the McCain staff was overcoaching her. It’s remarkable – yet few seem to be remarking upon it, which is also remarkable – that Barack Obama is more of an education reformer than Palin. (At least, on paper he is. In practice they’re probably both about the same, which you can take as a compliment to Obama or as a criticism of Palin according to preference.) At any rate, her approach to education is pretty hard to square with McCain’s.
The lack of attention to this rather glaring contradiction, even by Palin detractors (and McCain/Palin detractors) who presumably have a motive to pay attention to it, shows just how irrelevant education has become as a national issue, at least for this cycle. Remember how big education was in 2000?
Good thing real reforms like school choice are winning big at the state level. The movement was wise not to bother showing up in DC for the big NCLB hulaballoo eight years ago. Now they’re not tied to NCLB or in general to the fortunes of education as a federal issue. I’ve heard some conservatives bash NCLB because it lacks serious choice components. But NCLB was never about choice. It seems clear that the choice components in Bush’s original proposal were only there to be given away as bargaining chips. The important question is, where would the school choice movement be now if it had tied itself to NCLB?
In actuality NCLB demands very little. It only requires that states wishing to receive Title I funds have to establish goals for student success, select tests for measuring progress towards those goals, and report results from those tests broken out by subgroups.
The sanctions for failing to make progress toward those goals are almost non-existent. Schools failing to make progress have to offer tutoring or allow students to transfer to better-performing public schools in the same district (if one can be found). But, as we have previouslydiscussed on this blog and in thisarticle, there is widespread non-compliance with even these minimal sanctions. Too often schools fail to inform parents properly of their options under NCLB or direct students into their own tutoring programs, resulting in very few students taking any resources out of their local school, let alone district. Without placing school funds in jeopardy, the only possible sanction is public embarrassment. And that plus $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks.
I do not believe that a single tenured teacher out of the more than 3 million teachers currently working in public schools has been fired, experienced a pay-cut, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned because of NCLB. I do not believe that a single student out of the 50 million enrolled in public schools has been held back a grade, been denied a diploma, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned as a result of NCLB. (Some states have retention and graduation requirements as part of their state accountability systems, but those policies are not required for NCLB.) Yes, chronically failing schools might eventually face “restructuring” but that is likely to be yet more bark and no bite. Next they’ll be put on double secret probation.
The most important future policy that the higher volume of squealing is meant to influence is increasing education spending. A center-piece of the complaints about NCLB is that it is an unfunded mandate. Let’s leave aside the fact that federal spending on education has increased 41% since passage of NCLB. And let’s leave aside that NCLB is not actually a mandate, since states do not have to comply with NCLB if they do not want Title I funds (which have increased 59% since 2001).
Besides neither being unfunded nor a mandate, the argument that NCLB is an unfunded mandate is especially odd because it makes one wonder what all of the funding that schools received before NCLB was for. It’s as if the unfunded mandate crowd is saying: “The $10,000 per pupil we already get just pays for warehousing. If you actually want us to educate kids, that’ll cost ya extra.” Remember, that NCLB just asks states to establish and meet their own goals. Didn’t they have goals before NCLB?
While NCLB demands much less than the overwrought rhetoric about it suggests, it does not demand nothing. Most importantly, NCLB entrenched the idea that we should take regular measures of student achievement and report the results, including results for subgroups. Even this is a smaller thing that it may seem at first glance since 37 states had already adopted state testing and accountability systems before passage of NCLB. But NCLB brought the laggard states on-board to this growing national consensus that we ought to have some systematic measures of how our students are doing. It also made reversal of this growing testing and accountability culture more difficult by placing it in federal as well as state law.
Greg Forster has already made the case for why this shift under NCLB has been important, so I will not repeat it here. I would just emphasize that the controversy over NCLB is not really about what NCLB does, but about the broader policy shift that it represents and the extra funding that folks hope they may get as they acquiesce to that policy shift.
I would let it slide, but the man also called me a “lefty,” so now my honor is at stake. (And even while delivering this shiv to the ribs, he calls me “our friend Greg Forster.” Beware the smiling mamba!)
Pistols at ten paces being illegal, I must content myself with another blog post.
1) Mike, writing with Checker, claimed that in the NCLB era the kids at the bottom had made good progress while the kids at the top remained unchanged.
2) They said this meant that NCLB had sacrificed “excellence” in order to promote “equality.”
3) I responded that if it’s true the kids at the bottom are getting better while the kids at the top are staying the same, it sounds like we’re making progress toward both more equality and more excellence.
Well now Mike throws this at me:
Is the whole population getting “more excellent”? No, the whole population is making incremental progress. That’s surely good. But excellence is something else entirely. According to Webster’s, it’s the quality of being “superior, eminently good, first-class.”
So the improvement in learning among the lowest-performing students is “incremental progress” but it is not an improvement in excellence. Well then, incremental progress toward what, exactly, if not toward excellence? If they keep making incremental progress until they’re all as smart as Einstein, wouldn’t that be excellence? And doesn’t that mean that the progress they’re actually making now is progress toward excellence? So if that’s not an improvement in excellence, what is it?
Then he delivers the shiv:
Greg’s definition equates “excellence” with a narrowing of the achievement gap. That’s breathtakingly radical. Who knew that Greg had become such a lefty!
Mike, I said we were making progress toward both equality and excellence. I didn’t say that progress toward equality was progress toward excellence. If I say that my daughter is getting both taller and smarter at the same time, does that mean I equate height with intelligence?
If we want to parse definitions, I would define narrowing the achievement gap between groups as an improvement in “equality,” and any raising of the level of achievement – whether across the board or in a particular group – as an improvement in “excellence.” And obviously you can have both of those at the same time without collapsing the distinction between them.
Meanwhile, by Mike’s definition, if some students improve while others stay the same, we have made no progress toward excellence. I don’t think that’s the way the word “excellence” is normally used.
If I wanted to respond to Mike’s final paragraph in kind, I could say this:
By Mike’s definition, no matter how much improvement the other kids in the class make, only the kids at the top of the class can ever be capable of “excellence.” That’s breathtakingly reactionary. I had no idea he was such an elitist!
But I would never do something like that to a friend.
While I’ve been debating the merits of the DC voucher study with Matt this morning, I’ve also noticed Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli have a colunmn attacking NCLB on NRO. They cite John Gardner’s question “Can we be equal and excellent too?” and argue that NCLB sacrifices excellence for the sake of equality – neglecting education for the top students in order to raise those on the bottom.
Their evidence? Students in the lowest decile have made big gains in the NCLB era, while those at the top have flat achievement scores.
The broader question of the tradeoffs made under NCLB I’ll leave for another day, but it seems worth pointing out that Checker and Mike’s evidence doesn’t back their argument; in fact, it backs the reverse.
Question One: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more equal or less equal?
Question Two: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more excellent or less excellent?
I’ve always agreed with NCLB critics that universal excellence is an unreasonable goal. But if it’s unreasonable, why are Checker and Mike holding that out as the goal by which NCLB should be judged?
On the other hand, if the current system is badly dysfunctional, then by correcting its worst flaws it may be possible to increase equality while also increasing excellence. Eventually we must reach a point where the two goals will start to diverge and we have to make tradeoffs. But that doesn’t mean we’re already at that point – as Checker and Mike’s evidence suggests.
Can we increase equality while increasing excellence? Yes, we can!
It is possible to meet the requirements of the much-maligned, perennially debated, and frequently mau-maued federal No Child Left Behind Act. No really, it is—in fact, last spring third and fourth grade students at Ocean City Elementary School in Ocean City, Maryland accomplished this feat. Here, let me help you pick your chin up off the floor.
The Washington Post reports this school is the first in the state apart from some special education centers to have every student proficient in reading and math. This news is cause for celebration, of course; however, if you read the Post‘s article to the very end, you are given an almost backhanded reminder in the last full paragraph that Ocean City Elementary has to keep this up until 2014, according to the law. Ouch–six more years.
Back to celebrating, though. Two questions come to mind whenever I read about a school’s remarkable success: First, how did they do it, and, second, how could their approach be replicated elsewhere? The Post helpsus answer the first question, as reporter Daniel de Vise says the school has an “unusually structured, relentless, and consistent” approach and a skilled and motivated principal, Irene Kordick. De Vise provides the principal’s inspiring story of how she immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and was passed along in the public education system until the fifth grade before she learned to read and write in English. Kordick was determined not to let that happen to anyone else, and the rest is history.
As to my second question, if I had the answer or if I could put Ocean City Elementary’s method in a bottle and sell it, I would have a better haircut and wear more expensive shoes. Things being what they are, though, I have to refer to larger issues regarding the federal government’s involvement in public schools.
For starters, we taxpayers spend nearly $2 million educating whales. Specifically, for years our representatives in Washington have funded the “Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners” to the tune of $2 million or more (so I guess we fund “whalers,” not whales, or “exchanges with whalers,” whatever that is—for details check out this page on OMB’s web site; why this doesn’t have Greenpeace protesting on the Capitol steps I don’t know). In addition, OMB’s handy earmarks database shows, in nine pages of small type, mind you, that in committee deliberations in January everything from the Brooklyn Public Library to the Houston Zoo to the School Board of Broward County, Florida was on the dole.
In searching this document, I didn’t find “Ocean City,” or better yet, “doing what Ocean City does” anywhere. I did find nearly $400,000 for jazz instruction in New York City and a similar amount for a parent training program in San Diego, though. Most of the programs listed on these nine pages of small type sound wholesome and like great ideas (“homework assistance,” “mentoring programs,” “after-school programs,” etc.), but I’ll ask the same question free market, small-government types have been asking for decades: why should Ocean City care about New York City’s jazz program?
Now, I realize it is routine for right-of-center observers to bang the drum for fiscal responsibility in government—and I realize this drum is old and worn and some are tired of it. But considering the success of folks like me who dwell on this stuff, it makes me wonder if I shouldn’t be talking about it more (because it hasn’t worked so far) or if I should just pick another issue.
The danger in suggesting that our government is spending money on pet projects instead of on spreading successful programs is that it is another way of saying, “Gee, if we’d only spend money on the right thingsmaybe we could get something done around here….” So I won’t suggest this. Instead, I recommend we all move to Ocean City. Or New York City, if you like jazz. Because either one seems to be about as effective at getting government spending to produce more Ocean City Elementaries as my drum.
Take every opportunity to praise exemplary students, schools, and school leadership. Spread the word about them. Celebrate them. But when somebody says, “Let’s take this same approach here! And here!” be ready for the question of “Why isn’t Washington doing more to help spread programs like this?” And then tell them about the whales.
In an attempt to keep viewers tuning-in after many years on the air, the sitcom Happy Days produced an episode where Fonzie jumped a Great White shark on water-skis. This episode brought the phrase “Jumping the Shark” into the pop-culture lexicon. Jumping the Shark denotes a tipping point in which something becomes absurd and suffers a noticeable decline. Arizona once was a leader in the standards and accountability movement, but those days are long gone. Days ago, Arizona lawmakers dispensed with AIMS as a graduation requirement, making the sad decline of AIMS into farce complete.
The credibility of Arizona’s K-12 testing has suffered the death of a thousand cuts. In 2004, Arizona schools faced a problem in that No Child Left Behind requires schools to be judged by ethnic subgroups, and Hispanic scores were all but certain to force many schools to be ranked failing under federal guidelines.
Instead, the state simply made AIMS much, much easier to pass. Presto-chango, Arizona Hispanic students (and others) were transformed from having been projected to fail the federal standards in almost all subjects at all grade levels in 2005 to passing almost all of them. A study by Peterson and Hess noted that Arizona’s dummy-down was the largest in the country.
Hop on over, the water’s fine!
Around that same time, the Arizona Department of Education recommended replacing the Stanford 9 exam with an Arizona version of the Terra Nova to imbed into AIMS. Happily, the new “Terra Zona” exam found that Arizona students are above the national average in every grade and in every subject tested.
One small problem: the results aren’t the least bit credible. The Arizona Department of Education recently mailed out the latest state report card, and the evidence of the farcical nature of this home-grown exam can be found in ADE’s own booklet.
On the one hand, the ADE touts the above average Terra Nova scores, but in the same booklet, it presents an analysis from the RAND Corporation showing that if you control for student demographics, Arizona’s scores on the Nation’s Report Card are average instead of rock bottom. The Nation’s Report Card- or NAEP- represents the nation’s most highly respected source of K-12 testing data.
The RAND report is entirely credible. Arizona has a far more difficult to educate student body than the national average- with a much higher percentage of low-income students, English language learners and minority students than the national average.
Controlling for demographic factors is a huge step to take. For instance, Arizona has a percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced price lunch more than twice as large as the national average. Our ratio of children who are English Language Learners is almost four times the national average.
If you pretend that Arizona has an ELL population one fourth its actual size, and about half the number of low-income children that we actually have, and some similar heroic assumptions, Arizona’s adjusted scores near the Minnesota middle instead of close to the bottom.
Arizona’s Terra Nova, however, does not control for demographics at all but somehow finds our students above the national average in every single subject without any adjustment whatsoever. If you are willing to buy that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you in Brooklyn.
Finally, AIMS has suffered what ought to be its final indignity. The legislature passed “AIMS Augmentation” in order to allow 6,000 high school seniors to graduate despite an inability to pass what at most amounts to a test of basic skills.
If you can’t pass a 10th grade level test, the original thinking went, you don’t deserve to graduate. A diploma should mean something. After delaying the graduation requirement several times, the augmentation bill has effectively killed it.
State policymakers should rethink our entire system of testing. Research shows that children who fail to learn to read in the early grades later drop out in huge numbers. Using AIMS as a graduation requirement addresses the problem at the back end. Arizona should look to Florida, which uses testing to require students to repeat grades if they don’t learn to read in the early years. Florida’s 4th grade reading scores used to scrape the bottom with Arizona, but now they greatly exceed us. Florida’s system set kids up to succeed, rather than to fail.
Parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers all require a credible and transparent system of student data. The AIMS/Terra Nova exam is not delivering. ABC eventually cancelled Happy Days and replaced it with another program. Arizona policymakers should do the same with AIMS.