Tag: common core

From Avoiding the National Curriculum Debate, to Smothering It, Just When We Need It Most

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush cares about education. He made major education reforms in the Sunshine State, including many centered on private school choice. He has established the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and dedicates much of his time to education reform. Unfortunately, when it comes to national curriculum standards, it seems his genuine caring has led him to avoid—and now attempt to quash—critical debate on both the dubious merits of national standards, and the huge threats to federalism posed by Washington driving the standards train.

As I’ve complained on numerous occasions, it’s clear that supporters of national standards have employed a stealth strategy to get their way: back-room drafting of standards, content-free Language Arts, and, especially, employing the maddening mantra that national standardization is “state-led and voluntary.” Sadly, you can now add quashing debate to that, even among conservatives and libertarians with longstanding and crucial federalism and efficacy concerns. And according to Education Week, it appears that Jeb Bush—whose foundation just a couple of years ago invited me to participate in a panel discussion on national standards—is taking point on the smothering strategy:

In this space, we’ve been telling you about a few efforts in state legislatures to complicate adoption or implementation of common standards … A move that had the potential to involve many states unfolded last week in New Orleans, but was stopped in its tracks. And none other than former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, revered by many conservatives, was involved in stopping it.

The Education Week report links to a letter that Mr. Bush sent to a subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council that was slated to simply take up discussion of model legislation opposing national standards. Mr. Bush urged members to table the proposal. In other words, he urged them to not even talk about it, because apparently even considering that the Common Core might have dangerous downsides should be avoided, even among people who believe in individualism and liberty.

Unfortunately, quashing debate arguably wasn’t the worst aspect of Mr. Bush’s letter. No, that was the fundamentally flawed pretenses he offered for why Common Core should be embraced without debate. 

For starters, the letter assumes that Common Core represents “rigorous academic standards,” an assumption challenged by several curriculum experts. Underlying that are the illogical  assumptions that there can be a monolithic standard that is best for all children no matter how un-monolithic children are, and that the creators of the Common Core know what the “best” standards are. Add to these things that there is no meaningful empirical support for the notion that national standards lead to better outcomes, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint not only should there be strong, public debate over national standards, there must be.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Bush’s letter, though, is that he repeats the ”state-led and voluntary” falsehood, and does so just as the Obama administration is preparing to force states to adopt national standards if they want relief from the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. Writes Bush:

There is concern that this initiative will result in Washington dictating what standards, assessments and curriculum states may use. But these voluntarily adopted standards define what students need to know without defining how teachers should teach or students should learn.

Adoption of the Common Core is not ”voluntary,” any more than is handing over your wallet to a mugger. The federal government takes tax dollars from taxpayers whether they like it or not, and tells states that if they want to get any of it back they must “voluntarily” adopt federal rules. It’s what the $4 billion Race to the Top did for national standards. It’s what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he, for all intents and purposes, will do with NCLB waivers. And it is how failed, bankrupting  federal education policy has been imposed for decades.  And lest we forget, Washington is spending $350 million on national tests to go with the Common Core, which the Obama administration wants to make the accountability backbone of a reauthorized NCLB.

So no, this is not voluntary. Nor is it state-led: state legislatures represent their people, but the groups that ran the Common Core State Standards Initiative were unelected professional associations—the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

I have no doubt that Jeb Bush has the best interests of children at heart. But even the best of intentions don’t countenance avoiding or snuffing out open debate over public policy, especially a policy as riddled with holes as national curriculum standards. Add to that our standing on the verge of unprecedented, unconstitutional federal control of our schools, and this debate must be had now, and it must be had so that all may hear it.  

 

Standards Garbage In, Standards Garbage Out

Over at Jay Greene’s blog, Sandra Stotsky riffs off an Education Week report about educators around the country not seeing the difference between their old state standards and new, “Common Core” standards. Stotsky offers a theory for why this is: Common Core – as far as anyone can tell because the standards-drafting process was so opaque – was put together largely by the same people responsible for the bad old state standards. As a result, maybe they really aren’t all that different.

The general ignorance about the standards brings up an important point. As Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institute has pointed out, yes, the $4.35-billion federal Race to the Top pushed a lot of states to adopt the Common Core standards, but that doesn’t explain states adopting the standards after RTTT had concluded. It’s a reasonable point. So what else is at play?

Likely one part of the explanation is that many state education officials really don’t know much about either the Common Core or their state’s standards, so they’ve seen no big problem with switching over. This general ignorance has likely been exacerbated by Common Core advocates’ strategy of keeping the whole national-standardizing process out of the public eye, whether it’s been secretive drafting of the standards, or supporters’ constant mantra of “don’t worry, it’s all voluntary” while petitioning for federal adoption “incentives.” And let’s face it: Just going with the flow and adopting national standards furnishes one less thing state officials have to take responsbility for. If the standards turn out to be a disaster – or simply gutted by special interests in Washington – all that state officials have to say is ”sorry, the whole nation was adopting them. Heck, the feds were practically forcing us to adopt them. It’s not our fault.” Add to all this that No Child Left Behind likely had much of the public thinking we already had national standards, and it’s little wonder that the Common Core was able to worm its way into so many states. 

Whether it’s been adoption in response to bribery, passing the buck, or just keeping everything under the radar, the national-standards drive has been a troubling affair.  But there is still hope: Washington hasn’t cemented national standards and testing by attaching them to the big federal dollars flowing through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka, No Child Left Behind. But efforts to revise the law are underway, and if the final version contains any connection between national standards and eligibility for federal taxpayer dough, then there will be no escape.

Punish Me? I Didn’t Do Anything—and Johnny’s Guilty, Too!

It’s hard to pin down what’s more frustrating about Michael Petrilli’s response to my recent NRO op-ed on national standards: the rhetorical obfuscation about what Fordham and other national-standardizers really want, or the grade-school effort to escape discipline by saying that, hey, some kids are even worse!

Let’s start with the source of aggravation that by now must seem very old to regular Cato@Liberty readers, but that  has to be constantly revisited because national standardizers are so darned disciplined about their message: The national-standards drive is absolutely not “state led and voluntary,” and by all indications this is totally intentional. Federal arm-twisting hasn’t just been the result of ”unforced errors,” as Petrilli suggests, but is part of a conscious strategy.

There was, of course, Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, the 2008 joint publication of Achieve, Inc., the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers that called for Washington to implement “tiered incentives” to push states to adopt “common core” standards. Once those organizations formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative they reissued that appeal while simultaneously — and laughably — stating that “the federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation [italics added].”

Soon after formation of the CCSSI, the Obama administration created the “Race to the Top,” a $4.35-billion program that in accordance with the CCSSI’s request — as opposed to its hollow no-Feds “promise” — went ahead and required states to adopt national standards to be fully competitive for taxpayer dough.

The carnival of convenient contradiction has continued, and Fordham — despite Petrilli’s assertion that “nobody is proposing” that “federal funding” be linked “to state adoption of the common core standards and tests” — has been running it. Indeed, just like President Obama’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — better known as No Child Left Behind — Fordham’s ESEA “Briefing Book” proposes (see page 11) that states either adopt the Common Core or have some other federally sanctioned body certify a state’s standards as just as good in order to get federal money. So there would be an ”option” for states, but it would be six of one, half-dozen of the other, and the Feds would definitely link taxpayer dough to adoption of Common Core standards and tests.

Frankly, there’s probably no one who knows about these proposals who doesn’t think that the options exist exclusively to let national-standards proponents say the Feds wouldn’t technically “require” adoption of the Common Core. But even if the options were meaningful alternatives, does anyone think they wouldn’t be eliminated in subsequent legislation?

Of course, the problem is that most people don’t know what has actually been proposed — who outside of education-wonk circles has time to follow all of this? — which is what national-standards advocates are almost certainly counting on.

But suppose Fordham and company really don’t want federal compulsion? They could put concerns to rest by doing just one thing: loudly and publicly condemning all federal funding, incentivizing, or any other federal involvement whatsoever in national standards. Indeed, I proposed this a few months ago. And just a couple of weeks ago, Petrilli and Fordham President Chester Finn rejected that call, saying that they ”have no particular concern with the federal government … helping to pay” for the creation of curricular guides and other material and activities to go with national standards.

So, Fordham, you are proposing that federal funding be linked to adoption of common standards and tests, and denying it is becoming almost comical. At least, comical to people who are familiar with all of this. But as long as the public doesn’t know, the deception ends up being anything but funny.

Maybe, though, Fordham is getting nervous, at least over the possibility that engaged conservatives are on to them. Why do I think that? Because in addition to belching out the standard rhetorical smoke screen, Petrilli is now employing the’ “look over there — that guy’s really bad” gambit to get the heat off. Indeed, after ticking off some odious NCLB reauthorization proposals from other groups, Petrilli concludes his piece with the following appeal to lay off Fordham and go after people all conservatives can dislike:

We might never see eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our energy working together on that?

Nice try, but sorry. While I can’t speak for conservatives, those of us at Cato who handle education have certainly addressed all sorts of problems with federal intervention in our schools. But right now in education there is no greater threat to the Constitution, nor our children’s learning, than the unprecedented, deception-drenched drive to empower the federal government to dictate curricular terms to every public school — and every public-school child — in America. And the harder you try to hide the truth, the more clear that becomes.

CEOs to Governors: Raise Production Goals and Quality Standards

A group of CEOs called on the nation’s governors this week to raise U.S. business standards. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the CEOs declared that state governments have been misleading consumers about the quality of the goods they’re buying. One retired Fortune-500 CEO declared that:

America’s standing as the most innovative and prosperous nation on earth depends on our ability to boost business’ productivity. As business leaders, we are pledging to stand with governors who commit to high production and product quality standards in scientific and technological fields.

Even today, most readers probably recognize the preceding paragraphs as satirical (I hope!). The idea that it would be helpful to have bureaucrats set production volume and quality standards for high-tech industries is ludicrous on its face. How tragic it is, then, that this event actually took place… with one small twist: the CEOs were calling for more central planning in science and technology education.

Having spent nearly 20 years studying the relative productivity of different types of school systems, it is hard for me to understand how such brilliant business leaders could have arrived at such a profoundly mistaken conclusion. If they care at all about the goals they have set out to achieve, they would be well advised to stop listening to those who are currently advising them, and to look at the evidence on what actually does raise educational productivity. I’ve summarized that evidence in a short piece for the Washington Post, in a journal paper reviewing the past 25 years of worldwide research, and in a book surveying 20 centuries of school systems.

Distilling the findings of that work into a single sentence: it is the freest and most market-like education systems that, throughout history, have done the best and most efficient job of serving both our individual needs and our shared ideals.

Teachers, it turns out, are people. And like other people, they respond to the freedoms and incentives of their workplaces. As a result, the same structures and conditions that optimize the operation of other industries also optimize the operation of school systems. Xerox makes good copiers and Intel makes good chips because they have competitors who will eat their lunch if they don’t; because they have the freedom to explore new and better ways of serving their customers; and because they are rewarded very handsomely for innovations that successfully serve those customers.

Want education standards to rise? Give educators those same freedoms and incentives — and stand back.

Standards Overreach, or According to Plan?

Over on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess senses that the “broad but shallow coalition” of national curriculum standards true-believers and folks who just like the idea of a common academic metric might be fracturing.  The cause: The Albert Shanker Institute’s national curriculum manifesto released last month, as well as lingering concern about impending national tests. Suddenly – and seemingly against the wishes of Common Core leaders – the national standards push is starting to appear much less ”voluntary” and much more micromanaging than advertised. 

I hope that Hess is right that alarm is spreading over the oozingly expanding national-standards blob, but I disagree with how he seems to characterize what’s happening. Hess appears to see these developments, especially the Shanker manifesto, as overreaching by just some of the more zealous nationalizers, much to the consternation of the main Common Core architects and advocates.  But as I have pointed out before, if you reach into the bowels of what would-be nationalizers have written, as well as the logic behind national standards, it is hard to see this as anything but planned.

At the very least, the main advocates haven’t wanted standards adoption to be truly voluntary, by which I mean states are neither rewarded nor punished for adopting or bypassing the standards. The Obama administration intentionally and openly coerced adoption with Race to the Top, for one thing, without eliciting any loud opposition from  Common Core creators. But the administration was really just doing what the Common Core-leading National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., called for back in 2008. As stated on page 7 of their publication Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education:

The federal government can play an enabling role as states engage in the critical but challenging work of international benchmarking. First, federal policymakers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above [including ”adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”] At the same time, policymakers should boost federal research and development (R&D) investments to provide state leaders with more and better information about international best practices, and should help states develop streamlined assessment strategies that facilitate cost-effective international comparisons of student performance.

As states reach important milestones on the way toward building internationally competitive education systems, the federal government should offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements and providing more resources to implement world-class educational best practices.

If you have federal “enabling” and ”incentives” you cease to have truly voluntary state adoption – or movement to the “next stage” – of curriculum standards. And that is exactly what the core supporters of Common Core have wanted. 

But aren’t standards just, well, standards, not curricula?

This is largely semantics. True, you can pinpoint what you want children to learn and when they should learn it without identifying how that goal should be reached. But just by defining the goal you are driving curricula, stating what must be taught.  Indeed, there would be no point to the standards if the intention weren’t in some way to affect curricula – what is actually taught in the schools.

Of course, there is another part to this: the two federally funded national tests currently under development, which Hess is hearing some in Washington would like to see become just one test. But whether we have a federally backed testing monopoly or duopoly ultimately won’t matter: For the tests to have meaning they will have to include concrete content, and assuming performance on those tests will impact how much federal money states and districts get – which appears to be what the Obama administration wants, and is the only thing that makes sense for people who back federal “accountability” – you now have a de facto required, federal curriculum.

I hope Hess is correct and the Common Core coalition is fracturing. I am dubious, though, that any major fissures are being riven by a faction of zealots that has just gone too far. Based on both the evidence and logic, going too far has been the widely held goal for several years.

Help Break My Common Curriculum Fever

Over at Flypaper, Chester Finn suggests that people like me are either crazy or on the verge of it for fearing that the Shanker Institute’s “common content” manifesto might very well be another step toward federal control of American education.  

“Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales,” he writes, ”the Shanker Institute’s call for ‘common content’ curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack.”

Now, I wouldn’t say “panic attack.” To panic is to “be overcome by a sudden fear,” but I’ve been watching the move toward federal curriculum control for some time. Back in 2008 many of the groups behind the Common Core called for Washington to “incentivize” adoption of national standards. In 2009, the Obama administration made adopting common standards critical to compete in the so-called Race to the Top. In 2010, the administration put common standards front-and-center in the accountability piece of its No Child Left Behind reauthorization blueprint. Finally, that same year the U.S. Department of Education chose two consortia to develop national assessments to go with national standards. So when I read the Shanker Institute’s proposal, with its recommendation that the federal government spend taxpayer money to help implement ”purely voluntary” curriculum ”guidelines,” I didn’t panic. I saw the same obvious movement toward federal curriculum control I’d been observing for years.

But maybe I am a bit “feverish.” Maybe I do need to chillax a bit. Thankfully, I know just the thing to help me do that:  National-standards fans should pronounce publicly and unequivocally – perhaps issue another manifesto! – that they do not want federal money in any way connected to common standards, and state that they will oppose any effort to “incentivize,” “support,” “cajole,” “threaten,” or do anything else to states or districts to push them to adopt common curricula. Were national-standards champions to do that – you know, just demand that all this be as purely voluntary as they say it is – and I and others like me would no doubt be well on the road to recovery.

Somehow, I don’t expect my forehead to cool off anytime soon.

Hey, National Curriculum Standardizers: Stop Lying to Us!

Today, a group of seventy-five national-standards crusaders released a manifesto calling for “shared curriculum guidelines” to accompany the Common Core State Standards. But don’t worry, the petitioners assure us, “use of the kinds of curriculum guidelines that we advocate in the core academic subjects would be purely voluntary.”

Oh please, please – stop lying to us!

Here’s the only absolutely clear thing that we’ve learned so far from the national standards push: Leading national standardizers do not want adoption of their plans to be truly voluntary.

Sure, they talk about creating mere “guidelines,” and states being free to choose what they’ll use, but they know reality full well: Whatever Washington connects to federal money becomes de facto mandatory, and they most certainly want their guidelines riveted to federal bucks.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the federal Race to the Top program, which required that states adopt what for much of the time were unpublished national standards in order to meaningfully compete for part of $4.35 billion in federal dough.

“But wait”, standards mavens assert. “We didn’t ask for that and we really regret that the administration federalized our warm-and-fuzzy voluntary effort.”

Sorry, no dice.  Many of these same people had been calling for federal funds to push national standards before there ever was a Race to the Top, or even an official Obama administration. In December 2008, national standards advocates put out Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, which among other things called for Washington to “offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey [toward national standards] easier.”

In this latest assault on honesty, the national standards crowd has done it again. You have to read their entire statement, but at the bottom you’ll find words that make it clear that “the undersigned” have no intention of having adoption of their guidelines be truly voluntary. They want Washington forcing states to eat the new curricula if states want back some of the money that came involuntarily from their citizens. The last of their ”recommendations” calls for:

7. Increasing federal investments in implementation support, in comparative international studies related to curriculum and instruction, and in evaluations aimed at finding the most effective curriculum sequences, curriculum materials, curricular designs, and instructional strategies.

You want this to be truly voluntary? Then you’d better keep federal money, especially for such things as “implementation support,” out of it. But by all indications national standardizers don’t want this to be truly voluntary. They just want us thinking they do.