Tag: nclb

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.  

 

Demonization vs. the Constitution

Yesterday, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the first new legislation aimed at breaking down the prescriptiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a small step in the right direction, but there are two serious problems with it:

  1. It doesn’t come nearly close enough to the reform we need.
  2. Democratic reaction to it illustrates why it is so hard for politicians to obey the Constitution.

First the insufficiency of the bill. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would, essentially, allow states and districts to take federal funding that comes through numerous streams and apply it to different streams. For instance, if a state wanted to take dollars slated for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and apply them to Teacher Quality Grants, it could do so without seeking Washington’s permission.

That’s good as far as it goes; it makes sense, at least in theory, to let state and local authorities manage money according to their superior understanding of the needs of their communities.  But that’s in theory.

The first serious problem is that, ultimately, Washington would still be dictating outcomes to states and districts. As the summary for Kline’s bill states:

The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will maintain monitoring, reporting, and accountability requirements for states and school districts under existing ESEA programs.

That suggests, at least as far as this bill goes (Kline has promised more legislation to come), that states will still have to meet all of NCLB’s rigid standards, testing, and “adequate yearly progress” requirements.   

The next big failure of the bill is that it trusts state and local bureaucrats to do what’s best for kids and handle taxpayer funds efficiently. As many people have pointed out, that’s about as likely to happen as your winning the Powerball.  

Finally, the bill fails because it keeps the same basic, unconstitutional model we’ve had for decades: federal funding of education — and associated rules — despite Washington having no constitutional authority to do so. That’s why the LEARN Act, sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), is superior to both what Kline has proposed and the A-PLUS Act that continues to make the rounds. LEARN would simply allow states to declare that they will not be dictated to by Washington, and let their taxpaying citizens, not education bureaucrats, reap the rewards by getting back the “education” dollars Washington took from them.

Unfortunately, a revolting tactic commonly employed by Democrats — but little different in odor quotient from, say, GOP attacks on war critics as unpatriotic — threatens to chill any effort to impose rationality on education policy. It’s the all-too-standard implication that if you’re for cutting federal education spending or even just making it more efficient, you’re at best indifferent to civil rights and, at worst perhaps, secretly a pre-Brown v. Board segregationist. As Education Week reports:

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the measure is “an offensive, direct attack on civil rights” that is sure to weaken efforts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority kids get access to educational opportunities.

“This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students,” Miller said.

This sort of rhetoric is designed to do but one thing: defeat reform efforts by all-but-directly accusing supporters of racism, or at least inhuman callousness. But notice what gets no mention: the Constitution, the thing that gives the federal government its only powers and includes no authority over education. Well, almost no authority: under the 14th Amendment Washington does have a responsibility to ensure that states and local districts do not discriminate in their provision of education, but the amendment in no way authorizes federal spending on education.  

And let’s not pretend that current federal intervention is doing any good. National Assessment of Educational progress math scores for African-American 17-year-olds — the schools’ “final products” — did rise markedly from 1973 to 1990, which could very well be at least partially a product of proper federal intervention: ending de jure segregation. But from 1990 to 2008, which includes the age of federal “accountability,” we’ve seen at-best stagnation, with the 1990 average score at 289 (out of 500) and the 2008 score at 287. Reading is the same story: healthy increases until 1988 (but fastest in Reagan’s anti-fed-ed 1980s) and stagnation after that. Indeed, the average score for African-American 17-year-olds dropped from 274 to 266 between 1988 and 2008. Meanwhile, real federal K-12 spending more than doubled, rising from $32.6 billion in 1988 to $73.2 billion in 2008.

There is, frankly, no good argument for keeping the federal government in education. But we can’t even have a reasoned debate about that as long as thinly veiled assertions of racism and callousness are the the standard response to any downsizing proposal.

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.

NCLB Is a Failure. It’s Nothing Personal.

Education writer RiShawn Biddle has offered a spirited response to my blog post yesterday about the failure of the No Child Left Behind act. In it, he asserts that NCLB has advanced school choice, and links to an earlier essay that ostensibly presented his case. Summarizing it, Biddle writes that:

The impact of No Child on advancing choice… starts with the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Thanks to the data culled, the low quality of education in traditional district schools was exposed for all to see, providing parents and school choice activists with the information they needed  to push for the advancement of choice.

No thanks. The poor performance of U.S. schooling has been evident to a great many people for a very long time. The bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read was first published in 1955. Over the past 40 years, the NAEP’s Long Term Trends (LTT) tests have revealed stagnation in math and reading and decline in science toward the end of high school. In contrast to the consistent and nationally representative results of the NAEP LTTs, the NCLB is tied to state-administered tests that are so often corrupted by tinkering with their content and cut scores that they are largely worthless for measuring achievement at a single point in time let alone for measuring trends.

Biddle also claims that NCLB

exposed the long-running gamesmanship by states looking to define proficiency downward (a fact that Cato has used to its own advantage in arguing against expanding federal education policy); this, in turn, has rallied more reformers to move toward advancing school choice.

In reality, NCLB exacerbated the gamesmanship of state-level tests by giving state officials incentives to show the appearance of progress rather than actual progress. Moreover, it was not NCLB that exposed this fraud that was partially of its own making. For that we can thank… the NAEP. It was by comparing unreliable state test scores to far more reliable NAEP scores that it was discovered just how badly public schools in many states have been lying to families about their children’s performance. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted this fact, saying in 2009 that:

When states lower [their own academic] standards, they are lying to children and they are lying to parents. Those standards don’t prepare our students for the world of college or the world of work. When we match NAEP scores and state tests, we see the difference. Some states, like Massachusetts compare very well. Unfortunately, the disparities between most state tests and NAEP results are staggeringly large.

[Ironically, Duncan seems to have benefited from the absence of such a comparison while he was head of Chicago Public Schools, riding into his current position on the wings of a supposed “Chicago Miracle” that appears, based on NAEP scores, to have been a mirage induced by fanciful state tests.]

Biddle then goes on to praise NCLB’s “focus on graduation rates,” which he claims “forced states to present realistic numbers.” While it is true that many states had been reporting meaningless graduation statistics prior to NCLB, it is not at all clear that the law has improved matters. On the contrary, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman concluded from his exhaustive statistical study of the subject that NCLB appears to have fostered further cheating with graduation rates—what he calls “strategic behavior” by states and districts to present inflated graduation rate figures in order to avoid NCLB penalties. So, once again, it appears that NCLB is obfuscating rather than illuminating educational performance in America.

Finally, a note about Biddle’s characterization of my and my colleagues’ work at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom. Apparently discomfited by my criticism of NCLB, Biddle dubs us dogmatic ideological purists, unthinking and blindered, and claims that we praise or attack policies based on our “worldview,” etc. etc. While I can understand becoming exercised as a result of a policy debate, I cannot understand why someone who wants to be taken seriously would stoop to such obviously fatuous ad hominem attacks. My last paper was a regression study of the link between the performance of charter school networks and the grant funding they receive. It has multiple technical appendices, several of them added in response to peer reviews. Anyone who doubts its findings is welcome to repeat it and see if they obtain different results. The paper I wrote before that was a regression study of the regulatory burdens imposed by voucher and tax credit programs. It, too, can be repeated by other researchers if they wish to verify its findings. The term for this kind of testable, repeatable work is science, not “dogma” or “ideology” or “world view.” My colleagues are likewise engaged in empirical research and we derive our policy recommendations from that research. So our conclusions are indeed very narrowly constrained, but not by ideology. They are constrained by what works, and what does not work, in the real world.

NCLB a Barrier, Not an Aid

Sandy Kress, former Bush administration official and architect of NCLB, took issue last Friday with my post criticizing the law. Today, education writer Rishawn Biddle publishes and expands on Kress’ critique. Sandy’s objection was that Idaho, one of the states planning to start ignoring the law, isn’t performing well academically and so “is hardly a poster child for arguing against a federal role.”

As it happens, I wasn’t using Idaho—or any “poster child”—to make the case against against NCLB. I was using the experiences of real children. More specifically, I was using the performance of nationally representative samples of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long Term Trends tests. The LTTs for students near the end of high school are the best gauge we have of the performance of the nation’s public schools over time. The stagnation and decline in those results across subjects are not the only evidence or argument against NCLB, but they are compelling.

Rishawn offers little in the way of argument or evidence to support his own comments, but one of them is nevertheless worth responding to because it represents a common view that is not only wrong but exactly backwards: the notion that NCLB helps to advance the kind of market reforms that actually work. Au contraire.

The state tests NCLB focuses on are all but worthless for comparing states to one another or for determining trends over time, so the law tells us considerably less than we could already discover from the NAEP.  NCLB has, however, been an epic, expensive distraction, pulling the efforts of countless activists, policymakers and educators away from the market reforms that work and consuming their time arguing about the details of a policy that never had a sound research base to support it and still does not. Adding insult to injury, NCLB exacerbated the unconstitutional overreach of its earlier form, the ESEA. If NCLB worked better and more efficiently than alternative policies, and had no deleterious side effects, I would be all for amending the Constitution to allow it. It doesn’t.

So no, NCLB is not an aid to meaningful reform. It is a barrier. The sooner we get over it, the better.

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.

All You Have to Do Is Let Go of the Monopoly

I don’t have to prove my bona fides when it comes to opposing top-down, standards-based education reforms. I’ve been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act; very aggressive in attacking the reckless drive for national curriculum standards; and have repeatedly noted the importance of educator autonomy. So when you read the following, keep in mind that it is definitely not coming from a command-and-control aficionado: The weakest position in today’s big education war is the one opposed to both standards-based reforms and school choice. It’s the one enunciated yesterday by the Washington Post’ s Valerie Strauss, but which is most firmly staked out by historian Diane Ravitch.  It’s the position that essentially boils down to “don’t touch my local, teacher-dominated monopoly!”

Why is this so weak? Because it gives parents and taxpayers – the people who pay for public education and whom the system is supposed to serve – the fewest avenues to get what they want out of the schools.

Outraged over your neighborhood school because it is dangerous, the staff apathetic, and the building crumbling? Too bad – you get what you’re given and can’t even appeal to a higher level of government. And as we’ve seen in far too many places where the residents aren’t rich enough to exercise choice by buying expensive homes in better districts – the District of Columbia, Compton, Detroit, etc. – Ravitch’s utopian vision of school districts as places where “people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors” is just so much gauzy rhapsodizing. Reality is much harsher.

Of course, there are gigantic, fatal flaws with the standards-and-accountability movement, and people like Ravitch and Strauss have very compelling reasons for concern.

The standards movement, for one thing, is completely reliant on standardized testing. Indeed, it is heading for a single, national test, despite well-established evidence that tests are highly constrained in what they can tell us about learning.

In addition, as Ravitch and others regularly lament, the standards movement seems to be dominated by present and former business leaders who have tended to treat education as just another uniform-widget production problem. But children are not uniform; they are individual human beings with widely varied interests, rates of maturity, educational starting points, and life goals. But that never seems to enter into the standards equation, rendering it wrong from the start. Add to this that standards-based reformers tend to treat the education system as a single entity to be engineered, rather than an industry in which schools are the firms and competition is essential for sustained innovation and improvement, and standards-based reforms are as hopeless as teacher-dominated mini monopolies.

Unfortunately, top-down standardizers seem unlikely to join the fold of the one reform that includes both necessary educator autonomy and powerful accountability to parents: educational freedom. Yes, they often like school choice as long as government dictates what chosen schools teach, but they don’t embrace real freedom. Perhaps, though, the Ravitches and Strausses of the world can be brought on board. They won’t be able to keep the local monopolies they cherish, but they’ll be able to get most of what they want: much less stultifying uniformity; considerably more freedom for teachers; and the flourishing of communities, though communities based on shared norms and values, not mere physical proximity.

The flimsiest position in our great education debate is the one held by opponents of both top-down accountability and educational freedom. But if they’ll  remove the rose-tinted glasses through which they see local public schooling, there is an option that should appeal to them, one that injects essential parent power and competition into education while giving educators the professional autonomy they crave. It is school choice – educational freedom – and it is the reform that wins the great education debate.