Tell me, friend, when did a bipartisan super-majority abandon reason for madness?

July 7, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So welcome back from your Independence Day holiday break, glad you are still ready to get your wonk on, so let’s talk a little academic transparency. The forces of light and darkness are on the march in this Middle Earth.

A few months ago I had the chance to meet with Bill Jackson from Greatschools here in Phoenix. At that meeting Bill told me something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around ever since- that more than half of parents visited Greatschools last year.

My instant reaction was to pick my jaw off the table and then mumble incoherently about probably far less than that percentage of parents had visited the Arizona Department of Education website ever, and of those that did only some unknown fraction did so to learn information about particular schools.

So then I decided to compare the Great Schools rating system with that of the state of Arizona on schools in my neighborhood. I started with Arcadia High. Arcadia High is a large high school south of Camelback Mountain. You may have heard of a prominent former student by the name of Spielberg- local legend has it that the architecture of the school inspired the space ship design in Close Encounters. The NCES put their FRL % at about half the statewide average at 25% back in 2010.

Great Schools gives Arcadia High a 7 out of 10, while easy grading Arizona gives it an “A” grade. So Greatschools essentially gave the school a C-minus, while the state of Arizona gave it an A. Which one is more accurate? Well one can never be certain (the same school can work very differently for different kids) but the Arizona Board of Regents tracked the academic progress of the entire public school Class of 2006 and found that 39% of the Arcadia High cohort finished a four-year degree within a six-year window.

Hmm, if 39% = “A” then what does a “B” look like? Well Shadow Mountain High School, near where I used to live a few years ago, got a “B” from the state, but saw 29.7% of their Class of 2006 get a BA in six years. The more discerning Greatschools ranking system gave the school a 6 out of 10 rating, which one can reasonably translate to “D-minus” and which seems to fit much more comfortably with the school’s higher education outcomes.

I could go on beating this horse into horseburger, but it misses the point. The (main) point is not that Arizona’s grading system needs a lot of work- although it clearly does- but rather that Greatschools provides an invaluable public service by providing a more rigorous ranking system. In addition, Greatschools also provides a source for student, parent and teacher reviews of schools. Mike McShane cited research showing that parents rate this reviews highly in their decision-making (see page three). This makes it all the better that Greatschools gets more traffic than the state website- it has more of the information they desire. It’s worth noting that the state of Arizona recently took a couple of year time out on school grades as they transition to a new state test. There is precedent for this, as the Arizona Department of Education just stopped publishing school report cards for several years within the last decade. Fortunately Bill Jackson and company have no need for timeouts, and parents are frequenting his website anyway.

Greatschools is performing a very valuable service in a fashion clearly superior to that provided by my state government-may God and His Angels bless Bill Jackson and all of his descendants. Greatschools gives highly valuable information to parents for free in helping them make difficult education decisions here in Arizona, and elsewhere. Greatschools however must make use of public data, and therein lies a growing threat to this invaluable parental choice resource.

It is with great sadness that news has reached my ears that an Arizona Congressman plans to offer an amendment to the ESEA reauthorization bill that would fundamentally undermine Greatschool’s ability to provide comparable data between schools for consideration by parents. The amendment would create a parental opt-out of testing. This would create what seems like a fatal blow to data comparability between schools, and a rather powerful perverse incentive for schools to nudge their weaker students to “opt-out.” Parents and researchers would have little to no way of knowing the rates of strategic “opting out” and thus compatibility between schools would be utterly compromised.

In the midst of anti-testing hysteria being fanned by the unions (the NEA for instance has model opt-out legislation) and others I fear this amendment will in fact pass. I had a front row seat to watch Texas dispatch a 30+ year bipartisan consensus in favor of testing and transparency in a distressingly casual fashion. If it can happen in Austin, it can happen anywhere.

Yes you can argue the federal government should have no role at all in financing schools and/or bossing them around. So why should you care? Notice however that the option of getting the feds out of the schooling business will not be seriously considered anywhere in the process. The federal government will still be sending money, will still be bossing schools around, but just would not get data reliable enough for Greatschools to even pull an Arizona-style rescue manoeuvre, or to consider student learning gains in making more rational retention and tenure decisions. In other words, federal policy will have been entirely captured by adult interests- funding will continue to flow, but transparency will suffer a train wreck.

In fact, if Congress were to pass a law with a parental opt-out, it doesn’t take a very active imagination to foresee a veto by President Obama. If you lead with your chin you should expect your opponent to break your jaw. A veto would allow Secretary Duncan to complete the last two years of rule by lawless administrative fiat in technocratic peace. Some of the latest waivers, by the way, have already stretched into the term of the next administration. They’ve already done waivers for states and districts- why not have the Department of Education hire some seasonal workers and offer waivers to individual schools if they are willing to pant, beg and roll over as commanded? Congress may lack the seriousness to actually put a stop to it.

Jay will argue that reformers brought this down on themselves with naive overreach. If the House votes to kill academic transparency it should indeed be a cause for education reformers to stare long and hard in the mirror. They won’t however be alone. The broad bipartisan consensus that created some level of academic transparency in return for federal funding and bossiness, warts and all, had a better idea than our contemporaries who would provide federal funding and bossiness in return for approximately nothing.

Who can stand against the union of the two towers, when far-left meets far-right at far-gone? Any chance Bill Jackson can take a long hike and throw the One Ring into the lava of Mount Doom?