Tag: fordham institute

Core Misinformation: Bad News for the Blame Obama Crowd

A favorite refrain of Common Core advocates is that their opponents are peddling “misinformation.” Well Core fans are quite adept at doing the same thing, and as a new Washington Post article reinforces, no case of this is more egregious than pretending that Core adoption was supposed to be “state-led” and “voluntary,” and federal coercion was just unwanted Obama administration interference. That is simply not true: Core crusaders wanted federal involvement from before the Common Core was even given its name.

On numerous occasions I have cited the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success, from the Core-creating National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, as indisputable evidence that Core supporters wanted federal pressure to push state adoption of common, internationally benchmarked standards. That report – written before there was an Obama administration – says explicitly that Washington should “offer funds” and provide “tiered incentives” to push states onto common standards. It was a call reiterated on the website of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, though it was eventually removed.

Despite this crystal clear evidence, Core defenders have continued to imply that federal intervention has all been the unwanted, unappreciated pushiness of President Obama. Indeed, just last Friday, Michael Petrilli of the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Foundation said it again in a discussion with AEI’s Mike McShane. Go to the 28:50 mark to hear Petrilli say, “I think many of us could make the argument that this whole thing would have played out very differently if the Obama administration had just stayed out of it.” And Petrilli is not alone in suggesting that the Core initiative was always supposed to be fed-free. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R), signing a bill removing her state from the Core last week, implied the same thing, saying:

Unfortunately, federal overreach has tainted Common Core. President Obama and Washington bureaucrats have usurped Common Core in an attempt to influence state education standards. The results are predictable. What should have been a bipartisan policy is now widely regarded as the president’s plan to establish federal control of curricula, testing and teaching strategies.

Obviously, based on Benchmarking for Success alone, this is utterly misleading. But what the Washington Post has now reported, in a piece largely about the role of Bill Gates in pushing the Core, is that Core supporters not only suggested that there be federal incentives, they worked with the Obama administration to get them:

Duncan and his team leveraged stimulus money to reward states that adopted common standards.

They created Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion contest for education grants. Under the contest rules, states that adopted high standards stood the best chance of winning. It was a clever way around federal laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped states.

Heading the effort for Duncan was Joanne Weiss, previously the chief operating officer of the Gates-backed NewSchools Venture Fund.

As Race to the Top was being drafted, the administration and the Gates-led effort were in close coordination.

Note that the article goes on to say that an early draft of RTTT mentioned the Core by name, but supporters objected that that would be too much for some states to handle. Instead, in contrast to what the article suggests, to be fully competitive for grants the regulations required adoption of standards common to a “majority” of states – not just “high” standards – a parameter that only included Common Core.

Now, I don’t think this will happen, but at this point it would at least clear the air for Core supporters to openly admit that they always wanted to employ federal pressure, and gladly worked with President Obama to get it. At the very least, it would make their own accusations of “misinformation” a little more tolerable.

Stop Insulting Our Intelligence, and the Tea Party, Core Supporters

I really shouldn’t have to write this anymore, because the basic facts should keep anyone from saying that state adoption of the Common Core was “absolutely voluntary.” Yet Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has made just this proclamationagain. And this time, he has done so right after having written that “the feds blundered into the middle of [Common Core] with ‘incentives’ that turned it into a sort of national piñata.”

I’ll say, “incentives”! At the low point of the “Great Recession,” Washington told states that to fully compete for hundreds-of-millions of Race to the Top dollars – money that state citizens had no choice but to send to DC – states, among other things, had to adopt the Common Core. Later, the feds told states that if they wanted a waiver from the irrational, punishing, No Child Left Behind Act, they had but two standards choices: either adopt the Core, or have a state university system certify state standards “college- and career-ready.” And this came after most states had already promised to adopt the Core for RTTT.

There’s simply no way to call Core adoption “absolutely” voluntary, unless you think bribing someone with money you took from them, or giving them just two ways to stop your throttling them, is absolute voluntarism.

Making matters worse, after boldly denying reality about the Core, Finn continues the cheap-shot, debate-destroying tactic of demonizing Core opponents. He writes that those who oppose the Core are primarily:

interest groups that really don’t want to change how they’ve always done things, whether or not such change would be good for kids or the country. I have in mind textbook publishers, test-makers, teacher unions, and political opportunists of every sort, lately and most prominently of the “tea party” persuasion, who will do and say anything to take down Obama and everything he’s for.

No doubt people have numerous motives for supporting or opposing the Core, and I wouldn’t presume to say I know what they are. I will, though, say I have no reason to suspect Finn and Fordham have anything but the best interest of the nation at heart.

If only they would accord the same presumption to tea party types! Or, at the very least, provide some evidence that tea partiers only oppose the Core because they are obsessed with bringing down President Obama. But Finn offers not a speck of evidence, ironically at the same time the general impression is that tea party types are far too willing to sacrifice political success for principle. And what are tea party principles? Some are quite time-honored, among them that the federal government should not interfere in education, and that education should be controlled by parents.

And let’s be careful who we say is obsessed with taking Obama down over the Core. Fordham has quite prominently blamed the Obama administration (go to the 6:45 mark) for Washington’s “absolutely voluntary” coercion. This despite the fact that the creators of the Core called for federal coercion in 2008, before there was either an official Common Core or Obama Administration, then called for it again after officially launching the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Apparently, the sign that you want what’s “good for kids or the country” is you attack the President to advance the Core. Oppose the Core, in contrast, and it’s self-evident you actually just despise Mr. Obama.

At this point, Core supporters really need to stop insulting both the tea party and the public’s intelligence. Instead, maybe they should try engaging in factual, reasoned debate.

Common Core End Game

For far too long a big part of the Common Core debate has been about establishing simple fact: the federal government provided serious coercion to get states to adopt the Core, and the Core’s creators asked for such arm twisting. Indeed, just yesterday, Andy Smarick at the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Institute lamented that the write-up for President Obama’s education budget proposal gives the administration credit for widespread Core adoption. Wrote Smarick: “The anti-Common Core forces will likely use this language as evidence that Common Core was federally driven.” Of course it was federally driven, by Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers! But the budget proposal tells us far more than that.

The big story in the proposal is – or, at least, should be – that the president almost certainly wants to make the Core permanent by attaching annual federal funding to its use, and to performance on related tests. Just as the administration called for in its 2010 NCLB reauthorization proposal, POTUS wants to employ more than a one-time program, or temporary waivers, to impose “college and career-ready standards,” which–thanks to RTTT and waivers–is essentially synonymous with Common Core. In fact, President Obama proposes changing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – of which NCLB is just the most recent reauthorization – to a program called “College- and Career-Ready Students,” with an annual appropriation of over $14 billion. 

This was utterly predictable. Core opponents, who are so often smeared as conspiracy mongers, know full well both what the President has proposed in the past, and how government accumulates power over time. RTTT was the foot in the door, and once most states were using the same standards and tests, there was little question what Washington would eventually say: “Since everyone’s using the same tests and standards anyway, might as well make federal policy based on that.” Perhaps given the scorching heat the Common Core has been taking lately, most people didn’t expect the administration to make the move so soon, but rational people knew it would eventually come. Indeed, the “tripod” of standards, tests, and accountability that many Core-ites believe is needed to make “standards-based reform” function, logically demands federal control. After all, a major lesson of NCLB is that states will not hold themselves accountable for setting and clearing high academic bars.

While it’s a crucial fact, the full story on the Common Core isn’t that the feds coerced adoption. It is that the end game is almost certainly complete federal control by connecting national standards and tests to annual federal funding. And that, it is now quite clear, is no conspiracy theory.  

The Common Coring of Private Schools

Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.

Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools

First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.

During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:

As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:

A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.

In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.

Common Core: “If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum”

Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching. However, now that states have begun to implement Common Core, those same backers are singing a different tune. Professor Jay P. Greene highlighted the shift at the Education Next blog. For example, just six months ago, prominent Common Core supporters Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

However, now Porter-Magee and Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute argue that the standards must change “classroom practice”:

In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen.

What sort of changes will that entail? Well, for one, Common Core uses “lexiles,” which measure things like sentence length and vocabulary to rate the complexity of a text, to determine which books are suitable for each grade level. As Professor Blaine Greteman points out at The New Republic, the simplistic lexile scores absurdly conclude that “The Hunger Games” is more complex than “Grapes of Wrath” and that Sports Illustrated for Kids is more complex than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Greteman concludes, “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”

As Greene notes, the change in tune concerns not only the impact on curriculum, but also whether Common Core prescribes a given manner of teaching: 

The National Council on Teacher Quality, with support and praise from the Fordham Institute, are grading teacher training programs on whether “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”   Wait.  ”Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

It would be nice if Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign could keep their story straight.  The switch once the fight has shifted from adoption to implementation creates the impression that these folks make whatever argument they think will help them prevail in the current debate rather than relying on principle, evidence, and intellectually serious policy discussion.

[Hat tip to Greg Forster of the Jay P. Greene Blog for the title of this post.]

Pushed into Common Core? Thanks For Volunteering!

If someone pushed you into a wall, would you turn around – after you regained consciousness, of course – and say, “it’s fine. I totally smashed my face voluntarily”? No, you  wouldn’t, but it seems Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, would. After all, he just wrote the following about how state adoption of Common Core national curriculum standards has been “totally voluntary”:

This was—and remains—totally voluntary, but decisions grew more complicated when the Obama administration started pushing states toward such adoptions by jawboning, hectoring, and luring them with dollars and regulatory waivers.

Doesn’t sound truly voluntary at all, does it? And let’s not forget, taxpayers – who live in states – had no choice about sending their dollars to Washington in the first place.

Wait. I take that back. It was totally voluntary. They’d just go to jail if they refused to pay up.

Look at No Child Left Behind. See, No Federal Control. Wait…

In what is either a case of blinders-wearing or just poor timing, today the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee has an article on NRO, co-written with the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, in which she and Stern take to task national curriculum standards critics who assert, among other things, that the Common Core is being pushed by President Obama. Yes, that’s the same Kathleen Porter-Magee whom it was announced a couple of days ago would be on a federal “technical review” panel to evaluate federally funded tests that go with the Common Core.

The ironic timing of the article alone is probably sufficient to rebut arguments suggesting that the Common Core isn’t very much a federal child. Still, let’s take apart a few of the specifics Porter-Magee and Stern offer on the federal aspect. (Other Core critics, I believe, will be addressing contentions about Common Core content).

Some argue that states were coerced into adopting Common Core by the Obama administration as a requirement for applying for its Race to the Top grant competition (and No Child Left Behind waiver program). But the administration has stated that adoption of “college and career readiness standards” doesn’t necessarily mean adoption of Common Core. At least a handful of states had K–12 content standards that were equally good, and the administration would have been hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

Ah, the power of parsing. While it is technically correct that in the Race to the Top regulations the administration did not write that states must specifically adopt the Common Core, it required that states adopt a “common set of K-12 standards,” and defined that as “a set of content standards that define what students must know and be able to do and that are substantially identical across all States in a consortium.” How many consortia met that definition at the time of RTTT? Aside, perhaps, from the New England Common Assessment Program, only one: the Common Core.

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