Tag: pioneer institute

Expanding Educational Opportunity in the Bay State

One of the central promises of educational choice is expanding equality of opportunity.  When students are assigned to schools based on where they live, access to higher-performing schools depends on a family’s ability to afford a home in a more expensive community. This disparity between higher- and lower-income families persists even in academically high-performing states like Massachusetts.

Though the Bay State consistently ranks among the very top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and is internationally competitive in math and science, these aggregate scores obscure the reality that performance varies considerably across districts, particularly along socio-economic lines.

In wealthier towns and cities like Dover and Weston, where the median household income is $184,646 and $180,815 respectively, students perform well. On the 2013 state assessment (the MCAS), 99 percent of Dover-Sherborn Regional High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 100 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. Likewise, 97 percent of Weston High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 99 percent scored proficient or advanced in English. 

By contrast, students from lower-income communities like Chelsea and New Bedford, where the median household income is $43,155 and $37,493 respectively, often do not perform nearly as well. On the most recent MCAS, only 61 percent of Chelsea High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 77 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. So too, only 49 percent of New Bedford High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 76 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. 

This pattern is repeated across the commonwealth – in the 10 poorest cities and towns in Massachusetts, only 40.6 percent of students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on the MCAS score compared to a statewide average of 65.1 percent. In 2013 the percentage of low-income students who scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English or math in all grades was approximately 33 points below the percentage for higher-income students.

One might assume that the differences in performance across income groups reflect disparate funding levels, yet there is scant evidence that increased school resources lead to increased student performance. Indeed, after adjusting for inflation, K-12 spending in the United States has tripled since 1970, but NAEP scores have remained essentially flat.

The Other Federal Takeover

Right now the nation is fixated on the Supreme Court and health care, as well it should be. If the Court rules the wrong way and the individual mandate is upheld, seemingly the last limit to federal power—Washington can’t make you buy stuff—will be gone. So yes, please, let’s focus on ObamaCare.

When the arguments end and the health fight abates for a while, however, let’s pay some much needed attention to another federal takeover, one that is constantly being overshadowed by bigger things like wars, ObamaCare, and budget blowouts: looming federal domination of education.

There’s actually an immediate ObamaCare connection to education, though few will likely recall it. To make the CBO cost estimates come out right, Democrats attached the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) to the already immense legislation. SAFRA eliminated guaranteed college loans—loans originated through private lenders but completely backed by taxpayer money—and made almost all lending direct from the Treasury. It wasn’t a sudden takeover as many Republicans framed it—the guaranteed program already represented massive federal control—but it did push the private sector even farther to the student-lending fringes.

Much more insidious is what Washington has been doing in K-12 schooling.

The real sea change was No Child Left Behind, when the Feds went from primarily doling out money, to dictating that every state have standards and tests in math, reading, and science, and schools and districts make yearly “proficiency” progress. It was a huge ramping-up of already unconstitutional federal involvement.

At least NCLB, though, was enacted through the proper legislative process: Congress debated the law, voted on it, and the president signed it. These days, that’s just too much of a bother.

The Obama administration started unilaterally making education policy with the “Race to the Top,” a contest in which states competed for $4 billion in “stimulus” money. Among the administration-specified things states essentially had to adopt to win? National curriculum standards, better known as the “Common Core,” which we are told repeatedly are voluntary for states to adopt.

But wait. Didn’t I used to write that Race to the Top was $4.35 billion? What happened to the other $350 million?

It wasn’t part of the purse states competed for. Instead, the administration is using it to pay for the development of national (read: “federal”) tests to go with the Common Core.

In case all that weren’t enough, the Obama Administration has decided it’s tired of waiting for Congress to rework NCLB and is issuing waivers to states that promise to implement administration-approved reforms. Included in those is adopting “college- and career-ready” standards, a euphemism for the Common Core. In other words, the federal government is on the precipice of dictating the basic curriculum for every public school in America, and doing so without even the semblance of following the constitutional, legislative process. It’s not just a federal takeover, but an executive branch takeover.

Why hasn’t this gotten the sort of attention that’s been showered on health care?

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is that people are simply accustomed to a government education monopoly. Historically such a monopoly hasn’t been the norm, but in our lifetimes it has, and government schooling advocates would have us believe that it is the cornerstone of our society. Not so with health care: lots of people want others to pay for their care, but the default has never been government assigning you a doctor and hospital based exclusively on your home address.

The other part of the problem is people simply don’t know about the federal edu-coup. This is especially the case with national standards, which advocates have purposely soft pedaled to avoid the fate of open and honest—but disastrous—federal standards efforts in the 1990s. And when the topic has come up in public discussion, classic propaganda techniques have been employed: repeat enough that the effort is completely “state-led and voluntary,” and people will believe you.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse this. There’s no historic Supreme Court showdown on the horizon, but some states have started to resist federal control, and groups like the Pioneer Institute and Pacific Research Institute have undertaken concerted efforts to expose the Common Core. The biggest problem is that the public is largely oblivious to what’s going on. Which is why, after the ObamaCare Supreme Court arguments are over, we need to turn our attention to the other, almost complete, federal takeover: education.

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.

Uh-oh: Here Comes Edu-Goliath!

The hard-nosed, content-at-all-cost folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been warned, and warned, and warned some more: Get the national curriculum standards you think are so incredibly important, and they will almost certainly be captured by the pedagogical progressives who have dominated education for decades – and whose notions you disdain. Well, if what’s being reported by Common Core’s Lynne Munson – and reiterated in this lamentation for Massachusetts by the Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios – is accurate, that is already happening. (Actually, some prominent analysts have long said that the national standards – created by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association – are already nothing the Fordhamites should embrace.) Writes Munson:

This is strange. P21 is being subsumed into CCSSO. There’s nothing to be read about this on either CCSSO’s or P21′s websites. But according to Fritzwire the two organizations have formed a “strategic management relationship” that will commence December 1.

So what is P21 –  the group cozying up with the standards-writing CCSSO – you ask? Let the Fordham Institute tell you:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has some powerful supporters, including the NEA, Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. Fourteen states have also climbed aboard its effort to refocus American K-12 education on global awareness, media literacy and the like–and to defocus it on grammar, multiplication tables and the causes of the Civil War. Its swell-sounding yet damaging notions have been plenty influential–but the unmasking and truth-telling have begun, thanks in large part to a valiant little organization named Common Core. And new research validates this and other skeptics’ criticisms. Today the contest resembles David vs. Goliath–but remember who ultimately prevailed in that one.

Uh-oh. It might be time to end the biblical references – it looks more and more like Goliath is going to win.

Who Said That about National Standards and Tests!?

There are lots of reasons to be very concerned about the national standards and tests barreling in silence toward education domination. Below, I offer several of those reasons – and one possible standards alternative – along with links to material expanding on the big concerns. Give ‘em a read, and as you do play a little game: See if you can guess who is quoted in each point:

  • “[T]he Department of Education – without explicit congressional authority – would use discretionary dollars to launch the test-development process….Congress should have something to say about the arrangements for so momentous a shift in American educational federalism.”
  • “The Education Department has been rushing to put the…plan into operation….Critics have been ignored.”
  • “The main contract so far is with the Council of Chief State School Officers….’The chiefs,’ as they are known in educator-land, are the Washington-based association of state superintendents, and they form one of the establishment’s most change averse crews.”
  • “It doesn’t judge certain information to be important and certain books to be best, but, rather, partakes of fashionable academic relativism.”
  • “[T]he whole idea might be privatized [see page 20], turned into a commercial (or philanthropic) testing program…with no government entanglement or federal funds.”

So who said these things? Me? Jay Greene? Jennifer Marshall and Lindsey Burke? The folks at the Pioneer Institute?

No, it wasn’t any of those national-standards opponents. It was, in fact, none other than Chester Finn: president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; leading standards-and-testing proponent; and diagnoser of paranoia among those who worry about the same sorts of things he complains about above!

So what’s going on here? Does Finn support national standards and testing rushed into place by the Department of Education, without Congressional approval, and driven largely by “The Chiefs,” or doesn’t he?  Should we, as Finn wrote in the same piece that produced the quotes above, “apply the brakes” to this “before a wreck occurs”? Are private standards and tests really a preferable option?

What I can say to help shed light on these questions is that the quotes above come not from something new, but a 1997 Weekly Standard article by Finn opposing Clinton administration efforts to get states to adopt national standards and tests.  (You can find the article here but have to subscribe to read it). These are not comments directed at the current national standards effort.

What I can’t say – and what is, of course, most important – is what has caused Finn’s tune on national standards and tests to change. Why such concern in 1997 about so many things that seem to bother him little today? Why, for instance, was it a terrible idea in 1997 to rush implementation of national standards and tests, but it’s not a deal-breaker today? Why was it troubling that CCSSO had a central role in 1997, but it’s apparently hunky-dory in 2010? Why was it a bad thing to blow off critics in 1997, but alright today?

No doubt Finn can offer many decent reasons why numerous things that troubled him in 1997 don’t do so today, but I for one can’t think of any. And before we go any further along the perilous road to nationalization, I’d sure like to know what those reasons are.

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.