Tag: academic standards

Race to Domination

Today’s the day that states must submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Education to compete for round-one “Race to the Top” grants. But no worries if your state’s a little behind: Not only will there be another application round for the $4.35-billion dash-for-cash, but as President Obama announced today, he wants a $1.35-billion sequel to what was supposed to be a one-time, stimulus-funded contest.

The important question, of course, is whether sponsoring this race is worthwhile for federal taxpayers. The clear answer is no.

Sure, in response to RttT states have been raising charter-school caps, allowing teachers to be evaluated using student performance, and instituting other changes, but they’ve done little of real substance. Just raising caps won’t make it much easier to get good, competitive charter schools since most of the charter-supply problem revolves around over-regulation and painful authorization processes. And while states have eliminated prohibitions on using student test results to evaluate teachers, they haven’t done much to actually base teacher evaluations on student performance or other meaningful metrics.

What has RttT done that is of substance? Unfortunately, push yet more power into federal hands, forcing  states and districts to jump through all manner of hoops for a chance to get back some of their citizens’ money. Indeed, it is becoming painfully clear that President Obama intends to put Washington firmly above the states in the hierarchy of education power.

For his $1.35 billion RttT expansion, President Obama plans to allow districts to directly compete for federal funding, bypassing states completely. And then there’s his crusade for national curricular standards. His administration has been talking up “common” standards since almost day one, and in the ”fact sheet“ accompanying the RttT expansion announcement the first bullet states that RttT emphasizes “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards.” 

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the “states” working “jointly” thing, or utterly unbelievable administration denials. If the feds are paying states to adopt common standards then those standards will be de facto federal. Either that, or the feds will let states adopt any old joint standards and still get paid. Six of one bad thing, half dozen of the other…

Thankfully, there is resistance to Obama’s bribe-to-the-top scheme. Texas, most notably, has refused to participate in RttT, with Gov. Rick Perry declaring that ”we would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.” And Texas is not alone: According to a New York Times article appearing yesterday, states and districts around the country are refusing to put on their track shoes and run for the federal funds. 

Still, federal money – taxpayer money – can be a tough thing for any elected offical to turn down. Sooner or later, if we let him, Obama will almost certainly find an amount that no state or district can resist.

National Standardizers Just Can’t Win

I’ve been fretting for some time over the growing push for national curricular standards, standards that would be de facto federal and, whether adopted voluntarily by states or imposed by Washington, end up being worthless mush with yet more billions of dollars sunk into them. The primary thing that has kept me optimistic is that, in the end, few people can ever agree on what standards should include, which has defeated national standards thrusts in the past.

So far, the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a joint National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers venture that is all-but-officially backed by Washington – has avoided being ripped apart by educationists and plain ol’ citizens angry about who’s writing the standards and what they include. But that’s largely because the CCSSI hasn’t actually produced any standards yet. Other, that is, than general, end of K-12, “college and career readiness” standards that say very little.

Of course, standards that say next to nothing are still standards, and that is starting to draw fire to the CCSSI. Case in point, a new post on Jay P. Greene’s blog by former Bush II education officials–and tough standards guys–Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. They are heartily unimpressed by what CCSSI has produced, and think its already time to start assembling a new standards-setting consortium:

The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI….

Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.

Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.

Evers and Wurman’s piece is an encouraging sign that perhaps once more national standards efforts will be torn apart by fighting factions and spare us the ultimate centralization of an education system already hopelessly crippled by centralized, political control. Unfortunately, the post also gives cause for continuing concern, illustrating that the “standards and accountability” crowd still hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson: that democratically-controlled government schools are almost completely incapable of having rich, strict standards.

Evers and Wurman’s piece offers evidence aplenty for why this is. For instance, the authors theorize that a major reason the CCSSI standards appear doomed to shallowness is that the Obama administration has made adopting them a key component for states to qualify for federal “Race-to-the-Top” money, and states have to at least say they’ll adopt the standards in the next month or so to compete. In other words, as is constantly the case, what might be educationally beneficial is taking a distant back seat to what is politically important:  for the administration, to appear to be pushing “change,” and for state politicians to grab federal ducats. Political calculus is once again taking huge precedence over, well, the teaching of calculus, because the school system is controlled by politicians. We should expect nothing else.

Here’s another example of the kind of reality-challenged thinking that is all too common among standards-and-accountabilty crusaders:

CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.

Evers and Wurman assert that if standards are going to be of “high quality” the process of drafting them must be transparent. But the only hope for drafting rigorous, coherent standards is actually to keep the process totally opaque.

Phonics or whole language? Calculators or no calculators? Evolution or creationism? Great men or social movements? Transparent standardizers must either take a stand on these and countless other hugely divisive questions and watch support for standards crumble, or avoid them and render the standards worthless. Of course, don’t set standards transparently and every interest group excluded from the cabal will object mightily to whatever comes out, again likely destroying all your hard standards work.

In a democratically-controlled, government schooling system, it is almost always tails they win, heads we lose for the standards-and-accountability crowd. This is why these well-intentioned folks need to give up on government schooling and get fully behind the only education system that aligns all the incentives correctly: school choice.

Choice lets parents choose schools with curricula that they want, not what everyone in society can agree on, establishing the conditions for coherence and rigor. Choice pushes politicians, with their overriding political concerns, out of the education driver’s seat and replaces them with parents. Finally, choice lets real accountability reign by forcing educators to respond quickly and effectively to their customers  if they want to get paid. In other words, in stark contrast to government schooling , school choice is inherently designed to work, not fail.

We’re Paying Attention!

In a new column waxing poetic about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration’s efforts to transform American education, Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift suggests that the “right” is not paying attention to the looming “federal takeover of education.” If they were, they’d be screaming their heads off.

Au contraire! We at Cato are paying close attention and screaming (well, raising our voices) about it. In a recent New York Daily News op-ed, Andrew Coulson inveighs against national academic standards. In Cato’s latest Daily Podcast, I give the down and dirty on the so-called “Race to the Top” fund controlled by Duncan. And there are many other people on what Clift probably considers the right - libertarians and conservatives lumped together - who are most certainly paying attention. Unfortunately, many on the conservative side actually favor a federal takeover - whether they’ll admit it or not - which might be why Clift doesn’t hear the clamor from the right she’d expect. If anything, she might actually hear some modest - and mistaken - applause.

The Best Defense against National Standards? Hearing about National Standards

I’ll admit it: When I go to an event intended to tout an idea I think is wrong, I get a little nervous. What if I hear an argument that’s so convincing it forces me to totally reevaluate my position? All my work will have been for naught! Well, I had just such worries as I headed toward the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “International Evidence about National Standards” conference yesterday.

I needn’t have worried. What I heard made me even more certain that imposing national academic standards – whether through state compacts, or worse, “incentivized” with federal dollars – is doomed to failure, just as I have been saying for years.

First, there’s likely political failure. Yes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other high-profile education folks have recently been talking about the need for common standards – or at least the folly of having 50 different state standards – and many people think national standards would be great. But though people may love the idea of national standards, when it comes to actually creating and implementing them, love quickly turns to anger.

The second panel of the day, featuring Dane Linn of the National Governors Association and Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers – whose organizations are working together to create national standards – made this abundantly clear. While people at the conference might have agreed that national standards are peachy in theory, they couldn’t agree at all on who should write them. Indeed, they couldn’t even agree on their general shape: While Linn and Wilhoit stressed the need for higher and narrower standards, the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who moderated the panel, said that his group, the conference convener, could very well find itself opposing narrow standards that include too little.

If you can’t get people who really believe that we need national standards to agree on even their basic shape, why would anyone think that they could get a majority of Americans to agree on a single standard?

Of course, this was a conference supposedly about the international evidence concerning national standards. Even though the domestic political outlook for national standards appears poor, surely the evidence from abroad would conclusively demonstrate the need for national standards.

Hardly. If anything, the international evidence panel was the least persuasive part of the conference.

The hub of the panel was Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, who argued energetically against the illogical, weak standards of most American states – certainly a valid point. But he offered no compelling reasoning or evidence whatsoever to suggest that national standards would be any better than state standards. Indeed, moderator Ben Wildavsky knocked out Schmidt’s entire argument with just two punches, asking if there is empirical evidence that national standards produce better outcomes, and why Canada – which doesn’t have national standards – does very well on international comparisons. Schmidt’s answers: Almost every country participating in international exams has national standards, so it’s impossible to credit those standards with either good or bad outcomes, and Canadian provinces are kind of like countries.

If that’s the best evidence one can muster for national standards – essentially, no evidence – then there is absolutely zero good reason to support national standards.

Unfortunately, that really does seem to be all the evidence. At least, it’s all that was brought out yesterday. Which is why, though the conference didn’t force me to change my views, it did make me reach some very disheartening conclusions. Primarily, that many people support national standards simply because they are easier to conceptualize than multiple standards, and because they think that they – not people they dislike – will get to write the new, inescapable, standards for all.

People Are Discovering A Beautiful Read

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley’s new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world’s poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I’m ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley’s work the moment they heard about it.

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Clive Crook blogged about Tooley’s book, calling Tooley “an unsung hero of development policy” for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world’s poorest children. And there’s the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.

In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley’s findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book’s major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.

It needs to be.

The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is  government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it’s always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.

Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley’s work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.