Tag: no child left behind

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.

Monday Links

A Message From The Ivory Tower’s Friendly Neighborhood ‘Reactionary’

There is a reason “ivory tower” has a negative connotation, evoking images of effete snobs walled away in ivory opulence as they look down on the commoners and demand outsized respect. The image, unfortunately, is occasionally accurate for individual academics, and almost always so for the whole of academia, which is funded by massive subsidies taken from taxpayers, but walled off by claims that no price can or should ever be affixed to the “public good” it produces. Add to this its professorial residents often demanding limitless freedom – and job security – to say whatever they want about such evil pursuits as “big business” that generate the tax dollars that keep the tower cushy and its jobs secure, and disdain for the tower is well deserved.

The distasteful side of academia is on display in an article by journalism professor Robert Jensen, in which he responds to a recent Texas Public Policy Foundation conference that he attended, and in which I participated. And by “I,” I mean Neal McCluskey, a “reactionary” ideologue suffering from “libertarian fantasies,” to use the good professor’s insightful and even-handed characterization of me and my positions.  He also throws in a guaranteed lefty applause line about the free market causing the recent economic downturn – who the heck are Fannie and Freddie? –  and in so doing displays why many people see academia not as a haven for objective truth-seekers, but a castle for axe-grinders who want to place themselves high above the people and institutions they just don’t like.

This would perhaps be palatable if our betters sought to fund their lofty positions through the voluntary contributions of others. But many don’t. No, they insist that they should be able to do and say whatever they want using money extracted from taxpayers – including taxpayers they plan to rhetorically assault – whether those taxpayers like it or not. In an equal society – which so many of them, including Prof. Jensen, say they’re defending – they insist that they should be most equal of all.

Perhaps the most ironic part of Prof. Jensen’s commentary is that in his apparent haste to ignore my message and demean the messenger, he missed that he and I are likely in agreement about whether No Child Left Behind-esque rules and regulations should be applied to colleges and universities. It seems he just infers that my arguing that ending subsidies is the key to meaningful accountability means that I support such efforts as those being pitched by TPPF to impose transparency and accountability on public Texas colleges. I offered no such support, and though I would like to see TPPFs proposals tried in some schools, I would never demand that they be imposed by government. Unfortunately, it appears Prof. Jensen just didn’t do due journalistic diligence by researching what I’ve written on these topics before branding me a bad guy, including taking in my opposition to standardized testing proposals that emanated from the Spellings Commission, or, for that matter, reading my writings on NCLB.

In the end, all I want is for professors to be on the same starting level as the average person: having to get the voluntary support of others to do their vaunted work. But too many academics, like Prof. Jensen, don’t seem to care for that deal. They want to take your money whether you like it or not, lest they lose the ability to tell you how terrible you are.

Tight on Standards, Loose Grip on Reality

As promised (actually, a week later than promised) I have read the Fordham Institute “Briefing Book” for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, it’s big on trumpeting national standards, and squishy on almost everything else. Perhaps most aggravating, though, is how loose it is in characterizing the views of those of us at the Cato Institute, who apparently are part of the big group of education analysts who love the idea of Washington lavishing money on education but are, presumably, too blinkered to want to get results for it:

 

The local controllers. These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

Where, exactly, has someone from Cato written that Uncle Sam should keep dropping ducats on education? Certainly not here, where I call for complete elimination of federal involvement in education save civil rights enforcement, and a return of all federal education funds to taxpayers. You won’t find it here, where Chris Edwards calls for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and zeroing out all its spending. And you won’t discover it here, where Andrew Coulson and I propose that “NCLB not be reauthorized and that the federal government return to its constitutional bounds by ending its involvement in elementary and secondary education.”

Sadly, reporting the truth doesn’t appear to be as important to Fordham as producing a strawman — some group that’s portrayed as totally irrational, allowing Fordham to show how ”realistic” they are by coming up with relatively reasonable sounding policy proposals. It’s a grating, superficial tactic employed by Fordham that Jay Greene and his gang have long harped on.

The funny thing is, in the end there isn’t anything particularly realistic about Fordham’s proposal. Basically, Fordham would have the federal government force all states to adopt the Common Core standards — while adding science and history standards — to get back money that came from their citizens to begin with, or adopt standards that some state-federal hybrid panel of “experts” deemed “just as rigorous as the Common Core.” This would somehow prevent “an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government in state matters.” Because, of course, it is much less intrusive to have an option of having some federally mandated Frankenstein’s panel tell you if the standards you came up with are as good as the federal standards, or just having the feds set one standard.

Then there’s Fordham’s accountability — er, “transparency” — proposal, which would force states to annually spit out “reams” of data on outcomes “sliced and diced in every way imaginable.” Once the tons of data confetti are dumped, Fordham would rely on public pressure from seeing the mess to force reform. And how would the public force said reform? Don’t worry about it — “realism” dictates that all we need are national curriculum standards, testing, and data, data, data!

So, sadly, Fordham’s “realism” fails where it always seems to fail: In ignoring actual reality. Thanks to the phenomenon of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs that is a basic part of representative government, the people who benefit most directly from specific government policies will be most heavily involved in the politics behind those policies, and will bend them to serve themselves, not the “public good.” In the case of education, the people employed by the schools — the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc. — have the most power, and will gut anything used to hold them accountable, just as they have for decades. And there is nothing — nothing — in the Fordham proposal that will keep this from happening again, no matter how centralized the standards or humongous the data dumps. Indeed, centralized standards provide one-stop shopping for special interests!

Only one thing breaks the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs conundrum, and it is taking government out of the equation and forcing educators to earn the money of customers. But for Fordham and others who, ultimately, seem to want to dictate what every child must learn, that is a bit of realism much too far.

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.

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?

New NAEP Scores Confirm ‘F’ in Feds

The recent elections made one thing very clear: Americans want a cheaper, smaller, more effective federal government. Today we have powerful evidence that a terrific place to start giving them that is education. New National Assessment of Educational Progress – so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – scores are out, and despite years of massive increases in federal education spending, as well as nearly a decade of No Child Left Behind “accountability,” stagnation is what we’ve gotten. Reading scores for 12th graders – our schools’ final products – are lower than they were in 1998 and 1992. In math all we have is a slight bump between 2005 and 2009, and no data before that because NAEP changed its math framework, making today’s results essentially meaningless. Looking at other NAEP tests – notably the long-term trends exam that tracks from the early 1970s – overall math achievement is almost certainly as lifeless as reading.

The Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or fund American education, which is reason enough to get the feds out of our schools. If that doesn’t do it for you, however, that federal meddling has produced nothing but expensive failure should clinch it: It’s time to listen to voters and get Washington out of education.