Tag: national education standards

No Foolin’: Tell the Feds to Butt Out

I probably shouldn’t do this on April Fool’s Day — it would be the one day they might go along with it, only to renounce it as a joke later — but Jay Greene’s recent exchange with the Fordham folks reminded me of my call a few weeks ago: Fordham and other national standards supporters should declare publicly and loudly that there should be no federal involvement in “common” standards or anything associated with them.  If they really mean what they say — that they want adoption of national standards and curricula to be ”purely” voluntary for states — they should not only stop asking for federal involvement, they should declare any federal meddling utterly unacceptable.  

Unfortunately, Jay had to repeat that call because, so far, Fordham hasn’t heeded it:

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.

Come to think of it, even if it were an April Fool’s stunt, having Fordham and other national-standards crusaders renounce federal arm-twisting to get their way would be a big step forward. Heck, at least then everyone would acknowledge that it was a joke.

Postscript: It would be a joke, by the way, sort of like this, which I saw Fordham put up right after I initially submitted this post. I mean, my vocab is always certified family-friendly!

Those Fordham folks — you just never know when they’re being serious…

New NAEP Scores Reveal Education Shell Game

Over the past two decades, the media and federal education officials have tended to focus on modestly improving test score trends of 4th and 8th graders. As my colleague Neal has mentioned, new 12th grade results were released today, and they once again call that practice into question.

Whether one looks at the fixed “Long Term Trends” series of national test results reaching back to the early 1970s, or at the ever-evolving “Nation’s Report Card” series, it seems as though student achievement has improved a little over time at the 4th and (to a lesser extent) 8th grade levels. By the same token, both of those data series show little or no improvement in achievement at the end of high-school over the past one, two, or four decades. Indeed the most recent 12th grade results show a small but statistically significant decline in reading scores since 1992.

High school graduates are no better prepared today than they were in previous generations, despite the fact that we’re spending 3 times as much on their K-12 educations. Some of what they’re learning they may be learning a bit earlier, but when applying to college it’s the K-12 academic destination that matters, not the journey.

And that destination suggests that the past four decades of so-called public “school reform” have done nothing to improve the academic preparation of high school seniors for college, life and work. Not ESEA. Not NCLB.

Perhaps government is not the best source of progress and innovation after all? Perhaps if we want to see progress and innovation in education we should allow it to participate in the free enterprise system that has been responsible for staggering productivity growth in every field not dominated by a government monopoly?

Fordham Feeds the Paranoia

You might recall several weeks back when Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called people like me “paranoid” for seeing federal money driving states to adopt national education standards as cause for serious concern that (a) the feds will take over schools’ curricula, and (b) the new federal curriculum will be taken over by potent special interests like teachers’ unions. (You know, the kinds of special interests that can get Democrats to give them $10 billion by cutting food stamps.) Well, in last week’s Education Gadfly, Fordham published a piece by Eugenia Kemble, president of the union-dedicated Albert Shanker Institute, saying that national standards demand a national curriculum.

This interesting little happening – Fordham publishing a piece by a union stalwart arguing that a national curriculum must go with national standards – didn’t go unnoticed by fellow paranoiac Greg Forster, who is now in a blog dispute with Kemble. It makes for telling reading, especially Kemble’s rejoinder. It features an all-too-casual use of the charged term “balkanization” to seemingly describe anything not centralized, and utterly fails to mention federal funding when implying that the common standards push is state led and voluntary.

Unfortunately, Kemble mainly just sidesteps Forster’s primary point: Fordham has provided yet more evidence that national standards funded by the feds will lead to  a national curriculum that could very well be controlled by special interests. Heck, Fordham is in league with at least one component of the teachers’ unions here, which is fine if they share the same goals. All Forster is trying to emphasize is that it is ridiculous to call people crazy when they simply point out what so much evidence seems to show.

Education Standards at Work —- the NY Debacle

President Obama today touted his Race to the Top program, which pressures states to, among other things, adopt national education standards. Also today, the New York Board of Regents revealed that it had been misleading its citizens for years, giving them an inflated notion of how well their children were performing academically. Last year 77 percent of students were ”proficient” in English according to NY state standards. This year it’s 53 percent.

So what’s to stop this from happening at a national level? In fact, what’s to stop an endless cycle of setting high standards that produce low scores, gradually dumbing the standards down to give the illusion of progress, and then resetting them to a high level again when the deceit is discovered?

At any stage of this cycle, officials can claim that students are showing improvement or that steps are being taken to raise standards — without any need to, you know, improve the schools.

Instead, we could just adopt in education the same system of freedom and incentives  that’s been responsible for actual progress in every other area of human activity for the past two centuries. Or is that just too obvious?

The National Standards Delusion

As Massachusetts nears decision time on adopting national education standards, the Boston Herald takes state leaders to task for their support of the Common Core standards, which some analysts say are inferior to current state standards. But fear not, says Education Secretary Paul Reville. If the national standards are inferior, the Bay State can change them. “We will continue to be in the driver’s seat.”

If only national standardizers – many of whom truly want high standards and tough accountability – would look a little further than the ends of their beaks.

Here’s the reality: Massachusetts will not be in the drivers seat in the future. Indeed, states aren’t in the driver’s seat right now, because it is federal money that is steering the car, and many more DC ducats will likely be connected to national standards when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is eventually reauthorized. And this is hardly new or novel – the feds have forced “voluntary” compliance with its education dictates for decades by holding taxpayer dollars hostage.

With that in mind, let’s stop focusing on whether the Common Core standards right now are good, bad, or indifferent, and talk about their future prospects, which is what really matters. Oh, wait: Most national standardizers avoid that discussion like the plague because they know that the overwhelming odds are the standards will end up either dismal, or at best just unenforced. Why? Because the same political forces that have smushed centralized standards and accountability in almost every state – the teacher unions, administrator associations, self-serving politicians, etc. – will just do their dirty work at the federal rather than state level. Indeed, those groups will still be the most motivated and effectively organized to control education politics, but they will have the added benefit of one-stop shopping!

The tragic flaw in the thinking of many national-standards supporters is not the desire to create high bars for students to clear, but the utter delusion, or maybe just myopia, that allows them to assume that they will control the standards in a monopoly over which, by its very nature, they almost never hold the reins. It’s fantastical thinking that would actually be pitiable were it not for the fact that, to realize their delusional dreams, they have take us all down with them.

Last Stand in Massachusetts?

As national education standards continue their hushed and rushed adoption process, there may be only one chance left to significantly slow them down: Massachusetts.

The Bay State is seen by national-standards supporters as having the toughest mathematics and language arts standards in the nation, and if Mass refuses to adopt the Common Core standards on the grounds that they’re not up to the state’s high snuff, then national standards will lose a very high profile state.  It certainly wouldn’t be the end of the line for national standards – lots of federal money coercing adoption will see to that – but it would be a relatively high-profile, and maybe even attention-grabbing, loss.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts is on the same eye-blink adoption schedule as every other state trying to get Race to the Top bucks, and its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will be voting on the standards Wednesday. That’s left almost no time for Bay Staters to imbibe the proposed standards, much less analyze them and absorb the analyses. The Pioneer Institute, though, is doing all it can to shed light on the Common Core standards despite the impossible timeline. Today, it published its analysis of the language arts standards, finding that the extant standards of Massachusetts and California are appreciably higher. Tomorrow, it will dissect mathematics.

The sad reality, though, is that Pioneer is likely fighting a stacked, losing battle. As Pioneer executive director Jim Stergios weaves together in a recent blog post, despite the appearance of objective deliberation, the powers-that-be in Massachusetts have been on the national standards bandwagon from the get-go, and they’ve got everything in line to adopt the Common Core. Real debate and deliberation, disappointingly, was probably never in the cards.

At least, though, Pioneer has been able to fire off some shots. With a little luck, maybe they’ll even get a hit on this hyper-sonic target.

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.