Tag: national curriculum standards

Is Common Core about to Melt Down?

Is the national curriculum standards debate about to go nuclear?

Proponents of national standards, as I’ve pointed out many times, have made a concerted effort to avoid attention as they’ve insidiously—and successfully—pushed the so-called Common Core on states. They’ve insisted the effort is “state led,” even though states didn’t create the standards and Washington coerced adoption through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers. They’ve called adoption “voluntary,” even with the heavy hand of the Feds behind them. And they’ve assiduously avoided what blew up past efforts to impose national standards: concrete content such as required readings or history lessons that were guaranteed to make people angry.

Well, with a recent unveiling of sample items for federally funded tests that go with the standards, all that might be about to change, and the whole thing could become radioactive to the public.

A couple of days ago the HechingerEd blog—from the education-centric Hechinger Report—published a post looking at preliminary testing items from the two consortia hand-picked by the Obama administration to create the national tests. Included in the post were links to sample items. I didn’t hit every one, but those I did check out contained, among other things,  confusing readings, poor questions, and lame functionality (in some cases the reading material on which questions were based didn’t even show up). And here’s one for the grammarians: A video-based item about the effect of weightlessness on astronauts’ bodies asked how weightlessness is like “lying” on a bed. The astronaut being interviewed, however, said it’s like “laying on a bed.” A small matter, perhaps, but one among many matters both small and big.

And here’s a really big one:

Smarter Balanced officials gave an example of a multi-part question in which high school students are asked to imagine they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman. Before they start working on the test, their teacher is supposed to lead a classroom activity about nuclear power. The students are then asked to come up with a list of pros and cons about nuclear power. Finally, they must write up a presentation for the congresswoman to give at a press conference later that day…. Questions like the one about nuclear power are more expensive, because they will likely require a trained evaluator to score them.

So much for avoiding controversy! Not only do we discover that the tests will have students take on hot-button topics like nuclear power, but scores will be meted out by human evaluators.

The fears and problems are clear: What should students be told about nuclear power—or any other contentious issue—that the tests address? Who decides? Will evaluators really just grade students on the structure of their presentations, or whether students write things with which the evaluators agree?  How will scoring be consistent among evaluators? Even if consistent, how will students and parents be assured of that?

This day had to arrive sooner or later. Eventually, something substantive had to come from the Common Core crowd. The question now is whether it will cause the whole, dubious undertaking to suddenly melt down.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

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.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.

At Least 82 Percent of Education Is Politics

The big schooling story is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s assertion that this year 82 percent of public schools could be identified as failing under No Child Left Behind. That’s a huge percentage, and also hugely disputed. But the real story here, as always, is that government control of schooling is all about politics, not education.

Start with the 82 percent figure. It’s a consequence of NCLB’s demand that all students be “proficient” in mathematics and reading by 2014. That’s a severely reality-challenged goal, especially if proficient is supposed to mean having mastered fairly tough material. But the law largely wasn’t driven by reality – it was driven by politicians wanting voters to see them as uncompromising on bad schools.

Now the controversy. People who track NCLB results – including many Democrats – say the 82 percent figure is ridiculously inflated. Reports the Washington Post:

“I find it hard to believe,” said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent think tank that tracks the law. “I think they really stretched it for dramatic effect.”

And why the possible prioritization of “dramatic effect” over “reality”? Because the Obama administration is pushing to get the law rewritten along lines it likes, and might very well feel the need to scare the bejeepers out of the public to get momentum behind it:

Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan’s projection “fiction.” Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama’s policies on education changes.

“He’s creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist,” Barone said of Duncan. “Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a ‘Chicken Little’ statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility.”

But hold on! With only about 37 percent of schools identified as failing last year, the leap to 82 percent certainly does seem improbable. But quietly evading the spirit of NCLB – actually improving educational outcomes – some states backloaded their improvement goals to very late in the full-proficiency game, betting NCLB would be gutted by 2014 and they’d never be held accountable. So some states really might be on the verge of having to pay the piper big time, and the failure rate perhaps could be set to rise dramatically. But you’d have to know a lot about the political machincations in every state to figure that out. 

Indeed, that’s been the biggest problem with NCLB all along. It talks tough about proficiency, but leaves it to states to write their own standards, tests, and proficiency definitions. Again, it makes perfect political – but not educational – sense. Many of the federal politicians who voted for NCLB also know Americans cherish “local control” of education, so they wanted to appear to be both zealous protectors of local control and no-excuses enforcers of excellence. The result has been an endless stream of conflicting, confusing information – like the 82 percent figure – that few parents could ever hope to have the time or ability to sort through. And yet, as reported by the Post:

many educators agree that the law’s focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.

A “critical spotlight”? NCLB is more like a deranged disco ball, randomly shooting out bits of light that make it impossible to ever know what’s really going on.

And the befuddling hits just keep on coming. At the same time the Obama administration is pushing national curricular standards that have little concrete content, as well as tests to accompany those standards that won’t be available until 2014, Duncan is decrying the “one-size-fits-all” nature of NCLB. Reports CNN:

“By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students,” Duncan said calling the concept “fundamentally flawed.”

So at the same time he’s championing the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution – national curriculum standards – he is attacking NCLB for eroding local and state control. Of course, if you want to get political credit for fixing American education you first have to demonize what’s there, even if your solution comes out of basically the same mold. Don’t, though, think national standards coupled with as-yet-unseen national tests will solve our problems by ending state obfuscation. If the administration gets its way, the games will all just be played in Washington.

Trying to understand what’s really going on in education is enough to make you pull your hair out. But that’s what you get when you put government – meaning self-interested politicians – in charge.

Science: ‘All Kids Different’

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in last week’s State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that’s been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn’t actually call them “national standards” because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.

Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes.  Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It’s an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.

Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics – something that exists before standards and schooling – has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:

The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.

They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.

The report said: “The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child’s general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors.”

In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn’t it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn’t it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?

Of course it does, but that would require “experts” of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what’s best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.  

Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical – but power relinquishing – solution.

Educational Freedom for Me but Not Thee, Says Obama on Today

To help kick off “Education Nation” – what NBC is calling an education-intensive week of news programming – Matt Lauer sat down with President Obama on this morning’s Today show. As expected, it was all talk, no real reform.

The interview started with a discussion of “Race to the Top,” the President’s $4.35 billion mechanical rabbit designed to make states run to implement ”reforms” the President likes. Lift caps on charter schools. Adopt national curriculum standards. Things like that. As his administration has done for months, the President spared no superlative prasing the thing, saying it is “the most powerful tool for reform that we’ve seen in decades.”

Uggh. RTTT did very little of substance, and even if the reforms seemed promising in theory we have absolutely no evidence of actual, positive effects on learning.

But the reforms don’t seem promising. Sure, RTTT got some states to lift caps on charter schools and eliminate some barriers to evaluating teachers using student test scores. For the most part, though, RTTT just prodded states to promise to plan to make reforms, and even things like lifting charter caps do little good when the problems go much deeper. Indeed, the only thing of real substance RTTT has done is coerce states into adopting national curriculum standards, pushing us a big step closer to complete federal domination of our schools. That’s especially problematic because special interests like teacher unions love nothing more than one-stop shopping.

But isn’t the President taking on the unions?

Hardly. While he has lightly scolded unions for protecting bad teachers, he has given them huge money-hugs to sooth their hurt feelings. Moreover, perhaps to further heal their emotional ouchies, on Today he offered union-hack rhetoric about teachers, going on about how they should be “honored” above almost all other professions, and how selfless and hard working they are.

Now, lots of teachers work hard and care very much about kids, but shouldn’t individual Americans get to decide how much they want to honor a profession, and how much they are willing to pay for the services of a given professional? Of course they should – who’s to say definitively whether a good teacher is more valuable than, say, a good architect?  – but when government controls education, it decides what teachers “should” get paid.

Unfortunately, the President chose to seriously inflate how long and intensively teachers work, saying they work so hard they are downright “heroic.” No doubt many do work very long hours, but research shows that the average teacher does not. A recent “time diary” study found that during the school year teachers work only only about 7.3 hours on weekdays– including work on and off campus – and 2 hours on weekends. That’s 18 fewer minutes per day than the average person in a less “heroic” professional job. Oh, and on an hourly basis teachers get paid more than accountants, nurses, and insurance unerwriters.

Most troubling in the Today interview, though, was the President’s failure to even mention school choice – giving parents, not politicians, control of education money – as even a potential means for reforming education.  He did, though, fully embrace his own educational freedom: When asked whether the DC public schools were good enough for his kids, he said no. That’s why they go to private school.

Here’s where we see the injustice of Obama’s  and other like-minded people’s “reform” offerings. Rather than giving real power to the parents and kids public education is supposed to serve, they insist on keeping them subject to the authority of politicians and politically potent special interests. They refuse to let all parents make the same choice the President has made, and they continue to force all Americans to hand huge sums of money over to government schools. Indeed, at the same time the President’s kids were heading off to private school, he was letting die an effective, popular, school-choice program in DC, a program that enabled poor families to make the same kinds of choices the President did.

But educational freedom isn’t just – or even mainly – about equality. It is the key to unleashing systemic accountability and innovation, two essential things the President at least says he likes. Unfortunately, he has embraced at best a third-measure for getting these critical things, throwing his support behind charter schools.

The root problems with charter schools are that they are still public schools, and they are largely under the control of the districts with which they want to compete. So if they ever start taking big chunks of kids from the traditional public schools – if they ever impose real accountability by providing real competition – they’ll just be crippled or crushed.

The President suggested, though, that the main value of charters is not accountability, but that they can test new things. But letting a few government schools be a little different from the others won’t produce meaningful, constant, powerful innovation, especially if charters are kept from truly competing for students.  Let parents take their education dollars to any school they wish, with no government thumbs on the scale, in contrast, and soon all schools will either have to get better, or go out of business. 

Unfortunately, it seems that freeing all parents to pursue the education that’s best for their kids is a reform much too far for this President. Nothing, it appears, can be allowed to truly challenge the government schools.

Sell Your Soul for What’s Behind Curtain #1?

Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards – to control their own educational souls – in those key subjects.

Alright, maybe they haven’t completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it’s not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.  So Maryland isn’t about to give up control of it’s educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million – a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.

Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington – with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it – is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.

With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.

PS: I Also Want to Take over Education

Andrew already blogged about it a bit, but overshadowed by the release of President Obama’s price-controlling health-insurance proposal was his speech to the National Governors Association promoting the federal takeover of elementary and secondary school curricula. True, the White House would only require states to adopt some sort of “common” – not national and certainly not federal – standards to get federal funds, but don’t accept the semantic dodge: If the feds are paying, the standards will not only be national, but federal.

Implicit in the President’s proposal, as well as the rhetoric of many national-standards supporters, is that national standards will necessarily be high standards that push improved academic achievement. Unfortunately, these people have chosen to ignore actual tests of that proposition.

They can no longer: My latest Policy Analysis – Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards – reviews the theoretical and empirical literature and shows that there is simply no convincing evidence that national standards drive higher academic achievement. Couple that with federal meddling in education being clearly unconstitutional, and the next critical battle in the war against Leviathan seems to be shaping up. And this time, we could very well be fighting for our children’s minds.