Tag: Neal McCluskey

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, “paranoid.” Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption “voluntary,” he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren’t really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it’s a lot harder to assume him delusional. It’s more accurate to call him “right.” And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

‘Say I Threatened You Again, And You’ll Really Be Sorry!’

Apparently, if you try to undo something the feds want you to do, they’ll slap you around until you confess they’ve never threatened you. At least, that’s how Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolls when it comes to national curriculum standards:

Following is a statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a legislative proposal in South Carolina to block implementation of the Common Core academic standards:

“The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support. GOP leaders like Jeb Bush and governors Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Bill Haslam have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“That’s not good for children, parents, or teachers. I hope South Carolina lawmakers will heed the voices of teachers who supported South Carolina’s decision to stop lowering academic standards and set a higher bar for success. And I hope lawmakers will continue to support the state’s decision to raise standards, with the goal of making every child college- and career-ready in today’s knowledge economy.”

I don’t really need to go any further than the statement itself to prove that, contrary to “Fat Tony” Duncan’s protestations, it is not a “conspiracy theory” to say that the Common Core is “nationally imposed.” But let’s rehearse the litany one more time:

  • In 2008 the National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc.—the main Common Core architects—called for federal “incentives” to get states to adopt “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”
  • President Obama’s $4.35-billion Race to the Top required that states, to be fully competitive for grants, adopt national standards.
  • Race to the Top contained $330 million that Washington is using to fund development of two national tests to go with the Common Core.
  • The President’s “blueprint” to reauthorize No Child Left Behind would make national standards the backbone of federal accountability.
  • To get waivers from No Child Left Behind’s most onerous provisions, a state has to either adopt the Common Core or have a state college system declare that the state’s standards are “college- and career-ready.” Of course, this came after almost every state had already adopted the Common Core.

Why is Duncan lashing out? Quite possibly, he’s reacting to a recent spate of research and commentary attacking the Common Core based on its highly dubious legality, quality, and odds of success. That South Carolina is considering backing out—though the Palmetto State effort fell short in a Senate subcommittee—might have pushed Duncan over the edge. I mean, how dare those people try to buck what Duncan and his boss were not in any way trying to get them to do!

Unfortunately, as failure in the South Carolina committee reinforces—and I warned last week—it is unlikely that many states will formally boot what they’ve already adopted. The time to fight to keep the Common Core out of states was before Race to the Top decisions were made, as we at the Center for Educational Freedom did. Of course, it was off most people’s radars during that crucial time because that was exactly what national-standards supporters wanted. And it’s what their ongoing dissembling about Washington’s heavy hand is intended to continue.

Thankfully, that strategy seems to not be working so well anymore.

War Against the Core

With the release of a new Brookings Institution report today, and one from a consortium of groups last week, resistance to the national-standards offensive seems to be mounting. And even though almost every state in the union has adopted the Common Core, and few are likely to formally undo that, the war against the Core can still be won.

Today’s new front comes in the form of the Brookings Institution’s 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, which includes three sections attacking rampant misuse of standards and tests. The first focuses on the Common Core, looking at the discernable impacts of state-level standards on achievement, and finding that (a) varying state standards have no meaningful correlation with achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and (b) there is much greater variation within states than between them, meaning national standards will do little to change big achievement gaps.

The report’s other two sections deal, first, with differences between the Main and Long-Term Trend NAEP – which brings up a central problem of using tests to judge quality without knowing what’s on them – and second, the misues of international exams to tout favorite policy prescriptions. Basically, pundits and analysts love to pick out countries in isolation and finger one or two characteristics of their education systems as key to their success. Some also love to invoke  this stinker that I and others have railed about for years:

In the U.S., advocates of a national curriculum have for years pointed to nations at the top of TIMSS and PISA rankings and argued that because those countries have national curriculums, a national curriculum must be good. The argument is without merit. What the advocates neglect to observe is that countries at the bottom of the international rankings also have a national curriculum.

The report is well worth checking out. The only quibble I have is that it fails to mention what I covered two years ago, when the national standards stealth attack was fully underway: reviewing the national standards research literature, there is no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to better outcomes. It’s great to have more support for this, but we’ve known for a while that the empirical foundation for national standards is balsa-wood strong.

The second report comes from a coalition of the Pioneer Institute, Pacific Research Institute, Federalist Society, and American Principles Project. The Road to a National Curriculum focuses on all the legal violations perpetrated by the federal government to “incentivize” state adoption of the Common Core and connected tests. Much is ground we at Cato have periodically covered, but this report goes into much greater depth on specific statutory violations. It also does nice work debunking standards supporters’ plea that they don’t want to touch curriculum, only standards, as if the whole point of setting standards weren’t to shape curricula. The report goes beyond pointing out just this logical silliness by identifying numerous instances of Education Department officials, or developers of federally funded tests, stating explicitly that their  goal is to shape curricula.

This report is another welcome counter-attack, though it, like the Brookings report, misses something important. In this case, that all federal education action – outside of governing District of Columbia schools, military schools, and enforcing civil rights – is unconstitutional. Stick to that, and none of these other threats materialize.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that many states that have adopted the Common Core – and all but four have – will officially back out. An effort was made in Alabama to do so, and one is underway in South Carolina, but Alabama’s failed and it’s not clear that there’s huge Palmetto State desire to withdraw.  Many state politicians don’t want to miss out on waivers from No Child Left Behind, which the Obama administration has essentially made contingent on adopting the Common Core, and others would rather not revisit the often contentious standards-adoption process.

That doesn’t mean that any state is truly locked into the Common Core. Formally they are, but like so much government does, states and districts could just ignore the Common Core, keeping it as the official standard but doing something else in practice. The only thing that could really stop them is if Washington were to rewrite federal law to make access to major, annual education funding – not Race to the Top or even waivers, but money from a reauthorized No Child Left Behind – contingent on adopting Common Core, and on performance on one of the two federally funded tests to go with the standards. Then the battle truly would be lost, but we are not there yet – indeed, reauthorization doesn’t seem likely until at least next year – so there is plenty of time for the national standards resistance to grow, and to dismantle the powerful, but ultimately hollow, national standards juggernaut.

Waiving Goodbye to the Constitution

Today the Obama administration will announce, according to early press reports, that ten states (of eleven that applied) will be receiving waivers from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s right, the 2002 education law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush that absurdly insisted that all children will be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014. Now President Obama, unilaterally, is telling states that they can forget all that as long as they adopt – or at least have “plans” to adopt – reforms to his liking, such as national curriculum standards and teacher evaluations based on student standardized testing progress.

At this point, it is almost impossible to keep track of the federal savaging of the Constitution in supposed service of education. First there was the federal expenditure of money, allowed by none of the enumerated powers, largely starting in the 1960s. Then there was the growing attachment of controls to that money – again, with no Constitutional authority – culminating in NCLB. Now there is the blatant disregard for the separation of  powers by a President who just decided he didn’t like waiting for Congress to reauthorize the law, and a Congress that exhibits no spine whatsoever when it comes to this power grab because, well, no one seems to like NCLB.

Within this fiasco is all the evidence anyone should need to see why the Feds must be extracted from education. While Washington can drop humongous sacks of taxpayer dough on states and districts, and impose lots of bureaucratic rules and regulations, it can’t actually make education much better. Indeed, the whole point of NCLB was to end decades of Washington spending billions for no return. And what happened? Exactly what state, district, and school-level bureaucrats and unions expected: “accountability” swerved off the road before the 2014 deadline. It took longer than expected – it was a slightly more nerve-wracking game of political chicken than usual – but in the end the entrenched interests won because they’re the most motivated to bring the political pain. After all, their very livelihoods are at stake.

Aside from desegregation – which it has Constitutional authority to compel – the federal government has done no meaningful good in education. Why? Because the special interest-driven reality of politics ensures it can’t do any good. Yet we not only let it continue to trample the Constitution by meddling in education, we are allowing it to shred the Constitution into ever-smaller bits in order to “fix” the destruction it has wrought. And for this, all who turn a blind eye to the Constitution in the name of “the children” are to blame.

Obama Is Avoiding the Tough College Course

College prices truly are ridiculous. But someone needs to tell President Obama that the root problem isn’t the colleges, which he is expected to announce today will be the targets of proposed sanctions should they raise prices too fast. No, the problem, Mr. President, is a federal government that wants to play Santa Claus by giving everybody, no matter how poorly qualified or unmotivated, money for college.

As I itemized in How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need? What We Spend on, and Get from, Higher Education, total aid in the form of federal grants and loans (I didn’t even get into tax credits and deductions) ballooned from inflation-adjusted $29.6 billion in 1985 to $139.7 billion in 2010. That is mammoth, and it probably helped not just colleges to enrich themselves, but enrollment to expand from 8.9 million full-time equivalent students in 1985 to 15.5 million in 2010.

But that latter part is good, right? Doesn’t that giant enrollment increase mean we’ve been “educating ourselves to a better economy,” to steal a favorite Obama administration catch phrase?

It might, if all those people were attaining important skills and graduating. But they haven’t been. You can get more details in my paper – and yes, some of the following stats are probably somewhat low because they’re for first-time, full-time students – but the higher ed outcomes appear dismal no matter what:

  • The most recent six-year graduation rate for students in four-year programs was 57.3 percent
  • The most recent three-year graduation rate for students in two-year programs was a minute 27.5 percent
  • Roughly a third of people who manage to get bachelor’s degrees are in jobs that don’t require them, up from about 11 percent in 1967
  • According to recent research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa,  45 percent of students learn nothing in their first two years of college, and 36 percent nothing in four years
  • Between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of bachelor’s holders proficient in prose literacy dropped from 40 to 31 percent, and in document literacy from 37 to 25 percent, on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy

What does all this – and more that’s in the paper – tell us? That millions of the people taxpayers are sending to college are getting little if anything out of it, while the colleges rake in heavy dough. But that means the root problem isn’t the colleges – they are just taking the people government sends them – it is the federally dominated funding system that insists on giving dollars to almost any warm body that declares it wants to experience ivy-covered walls and frat parties.

In light of this depressing reality, if the president really wants to rein in costs he will call for significanlty reducing student aid, both the amount available to individual students, and the numbers of students eligible.

That, though, will probably not happen. Not only did the president talk up keeping aid cheap and casting an even wider net in his State of the Union, but taking the right course – cutting aid – means taking the politically tough course. And neither this president, nor almost anyone else in Washington, has ever signalled real willingness to do that. It’s just much easier to keep giving money away.

No Common Schools, No Peace?

Today is the mid-point of National School Choice Week, and we’re once again rockin’ to the oldies of prognostication. This time we’re going all the way back to the Mann. That’s Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common School” himself.

It is Mann who, among many things, is probably most responsible for introducing one of the deepest underlying sentiments supporting government schooling: that public schools will unify us and give us peace. As he waxed eloquent in his first annual report as Secretary of the newly-constituted Massachusetts State Board of Education:

Amongst any people, sufficiently advanced in intelligence, to perceive, that hereditary opinions on religious subjects are not always coincident with truth, it cannot be overlooked, that the tendency of the private school system is to assimilate our modes of education to those of England, where churchmen and dissenters, —each sect according to its own creed,—maintain separate schools, in which children are taught, from their tenderest years to wield the sword of polemics with fatal dexterity; and where the gospel, instead of being a temple of peace, is converted into an armory of deadly weapons, for social, interminable warfare. Of such disastrous consequences, there is but one remedy and one preventive. It is the elevation of the common schools.

How wrong Mann was.

Keep in mind that as of 1837, the year Mann gave his first address, some pretty impressive unifying things had happened in America despite education being grounded in families, private schools, and yes, churches. We’d established unified colonies; penned and ratified a Declaration of Independence that enunciated foundational American values; fought and won a war against the greatest military power on Earth; established a new nation; and created a national government based on a Constitution that – though it’s legs are under constant assault – still stands.

But let’s get to Mann’s prediction: Did “elevation of the common schools” end “social, interminable warfare”?

Not on your life. Indeed, by attempting to force diverse people into a monolithic system of government schools, it most likely exacerbated social tensions and sparked otherwise avoidable wars. To name just a few school-stoked conflagrations (both real and rhetorical):

  • The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844, sparked by a dispute over whose version of the Bible – Roman Catholic, Protestant, or neither – would be allowed in the public schools. By the conclusion of the rioting hundreds of people had been killed or injured and millions of dollars of property damage inflicted. Similar conflict – though not as physically destructive – occurred in many other American towns, with social strife largely only lessened when Catholics established their own school system.
  • The Scopes “Monkey” Trial, a sensational case that grabbed the attention of the entire nation as a Tennessee court ruled whether or not it was acceptable to teach evolution in public schools. It is a topic that continues to rip communities apart today, and is so hot that, even where state standards mandate evolution be taught, most biology teachers avoid it. They simply don’t want to deal with the acrimony that would ensue.
  • In 1974, Kanawha County, West Virginia, was plunged into a state of near-civil war over books selected by the county school district that many residents perceived to be anti-Christian and anti-American. Before the strife subsided commerce had ground to a halt, at least one person had been shot, and schools had been dynamited.

These are just some of the most well known or violent of the battles in the “interminable warfare” sparked not by private schooling, but the public schools Mann promised would bring peace if they became ascendant. Indeed, as I itemized in an analysis of just the 2005-06 school year, values-based skirmishes are fought all around us, all the time, whether over prayer in the schools, reading assignments, bullying and student speech, ethnic studies, and on and on. But that is exactly what we should expect when people of widely diverse religions, ethnicity, and philosophies are all required to support a single system of government schools. They won’t just give up the things that are often at the very heart of their lives – they will fight to have them taught.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all this is that students who attend private schools, even after adjusting for important non-school factors, are actually more knowledgeable about civics, active in their communities, and tolerant of others than are public school students. As University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf discovered in reviewing the empirical literature:

The statistical record suggests that private schooling and school choice often enhance the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy. This seems to be the case particularly among ethnic minorities (such as Latinos) in places with great ethnic diversity (such as New York City and Texas), and when Catholic schools are the schools of choice. Choice programs targeted to such constituencies seem to hold the greatest promise of enhancing the civic values of the next generation of American citizens.

How could this be? Because, in contrast to the assumption of Mann and others, most people don’t have to be forced to embrace tolerance and responsible freedom, they choose them. Public schooling, conversely, sends the message that government, not individuals freely working together, is responsible for whatever problems communities face. Even more importantly, by forcing diverse people together, government schools drop them into a zero-sum arena and render conflict all but inevitable.

Common schools haven’t brought us peace in our day. Indeed, quite the opposite.

One out of Four Ain’t Bad?

Last week I was critical of a New York Times op-ed by AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda-Darling Hammond. Yesterday, Hess graciously replied to my critiques, basically saying that it would be good if we could get the feds out of education, but since that’s highly unlikely, lets see how Washington can help.

That’s a modest and sensible stance, and I don’t think Hess is “endorsing big government.” (At least relative to most edu-analysts—admittedly a lopsided scale.)  But even if you accept that few in Washington are willing to boot themselves out of schools—and few are—it’s still critical to explore whether or not the things you’d have them do would be of net benefit.

Like last time, we’ll take the four proposals in order, this time based on Hess’s rebuttal. But first, one pet peeve:

Hess writes that he’d be happy to end “two centuries” of federal education meddling, noting that it all started with “the Continental Congress’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787.” I don’t know if this was his intent, but that factoid is usually invoked to suggest that even the Founders believed the federal government should advance education. This is not an impression that should be given: the Constitution is very clear in ceding Washington no authority to govern education outside of federal lands and civil rights enforcement. That the states have jurisdiction over education was, in fact, explicitly acknowledged as recently as the 1940s by a commission overseen by none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, while there was some federal education activity largely during and after the Civil War, it was not until the 1960s that Washington got heavily involved.

On to the four points:

First, when it comes to transparency, states have a collective action problem. There is both the problem of providing parents, taxpayers, and voters with meaningful transparency and the fact that state officials in each state have an incentive to manipulate performance results to their own advantage. More standards accounting and linking results to NAEP is a case of the feds providing a public good that only Washington is equipped to provide.

It’s true that state officials have a big incentive to manipulate performance results so that they stay out of trouble with voters and, especially, the teachers, administrators, and others who would be held accountable. The problem is that once you connect real consequences to NAEP—currently there are none—it will become a target for manipulation just like state tests and standards. Don’t attach consequences, however—including having no consequences attached to the state tests you’d audit with NAEP—and there’s no real impetus for schools to change. At best, then, this is a very limp proposal, and that’s before you get into big questions about whether the public really knows what NAEP assesses, whether one set of tests is a useful measure of education, and others I’ll save for another day.

Second, when it comes to basic research, the market tends to underprovide. Basic research is a public good…and is tough to monetize. The result is that, while the private sector is terrific at funding applied research, it tends to invest little in basic research.

As I mentioned last time, I hear this a lot but rarely see meaningful evidence to support it. And by “meaningful” I mean research looking at both the successes of government-funded basic research and the costs. Is it a net gain? Does the private sector steer clear of much of it because it’s an unjustifiable risk? Does it steer clear because government enables end users to rent-seek? There might be such research, but I’ve not seen it cited by those who assert that government must fund basic research. And then there’s the research I have seen that shows much of the funding translates not into innovation, but higher researcher salaries.

Third, even hard-charging state officials get tangled in decades of entrenched rules, regulations, and practices. The feds can help untangle this status quo by supporting officials seeking to throw off anachronistic routines but who must find ways to persuade skeptical constituents or union leaders to go along.

This if great if the goal is to clear out federal regulations, but state and local? There’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing Washington to manipulate state and local education systems, and perhaps more importantly: Why should anyone think it will work? The overwhelming, long-term track record for Washington is to add efficiency killing rules and regulations, and do the bidding of teachers unions and other school employees. Plus, why should we assume that the feds are able to pick the right routines to throw off or add on?

Finally, the federal government is obliged to ensure that constitutional guarantees of equal protection are observed. That said, this will ideally be pursued far less prescriptively than is the case today.

Here we agree, if Hess means Washington must stop clear state discrimination. And I guess one out of four ain’t bad.