Sorry Science Standards

August 4, 2011

“This is the most blatant case of false advertising
since my suit against the movie The Neverending Story.”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

National standards advocates keep asserting that the standards they’re touting are rigorous and demanding. I’ve noticed that they tend to be strong in assertion but weak in analysis – as though their strategy is to say “These are rigorous standards!” so many times that it becomes true.

In fact, when standards are set across an entire sector they tend to reflect the lowest common denominator. (One word: Betamax.)

Keep that in mind as you read Ze’ev Wurman’s takedown of the science standards recently published by the National Academies. Money quote:

Suddenly it all became clear. This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.

Now I finally understood the wisdom of our government in easing the immigration of skilled professionals even in the midst of the largest unemployment in almost a century. When even our congressionally-chartered National Academies, and their most prestigious National Research Council, have lost their belief that American students can compete with their foreign peers, what else can a lowly government department do?


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.


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