Tag: race to the top

NCLB Is ‘Voluntary,’ Too

Why the big concern about the Common Core? For many it’s about the quality of the standards, which is a topic well worth delving into. But the real problem is that – continued protestations of supporters notwithstanding – adopting the standards has been anything but truly voluntary, and they are very likely to lead to complete federal control of education.

First, the sham voluntarism of today. Did your state want federal Race to the Top money? It had to adopt the Common Core to be fully competitive. Did it want out of the irrational, failed, No Child Left Behind Act? It had to have signed on to the Common Core to have a decent chance. Oh, and the tests that will go with the Common Core? The consortia creating them were selected by the federal government, which is also paying the bills.

And here’s something interesting: States didn’t technically have to sign on to NCLB, either. They “volunteered” to take federal dough and got NCLB with it. So why don’t you hear many people crowing that adopting NCLB was voluntary?

Because they know that it’s almost impossible for state policymakers to turn down hundreds-of-millions of federal dollars. It looks like a whole lot of money to state citizens, and those citizens had no choice about paying the federal taxes from which the money came. So neither signing on to NCLB nor the Common Core were truly voluntary, and the only reason the nation has fallen slightly short of Common Core unanimity is that, unlike NCLB, neither Race to the Top money nor NCLB waivers were guaranteed for every state. Nonetheless, most found it impossible not to take a gamble.

That said, the biggest threat is down the line. With almost all states having adopted the Core, there’s a huge chance that when Congress reauthorizes NCLB the Common Core – and the federal tests to go with it – will become the backbone of federal accountability, with schools rewarded or punished based on how they score on the tests. The rationale many policymakers will offer is easy to anticipate: “States have already signed on to shared standards, so it makes little sense not to base accountability on them.” Classic slippery slope.

From the vantage point of Common Core supporters, that is actually the only outcome that makes sense. As Fordham Institute folks have complained on numerous occasions, the vast majority of states will not on their own raise standards and maintain strict accountability. But if states won’t do it, the federal government – their boss – must.

But even if Common Core supporters achieve that which is the logical end of national standards and testing – federal control – it almost certainly won’t give them the educational outcomes they want.

Ultimately, the groups that have the most influence over any government policy are those most directly affected by it – they are the most motivated to be politically involved – and in education that’s the teachers and administrators whose very livelihoods come from the system. And because they are normal human brings – no better nor worse than the rest of us – what they ideally want, and fight for, is as little accountability to others as possible. That’s why so few states have ever had much success with standards and testing, and why it’s irrational to think that Washington will do any better. Indeed, at least to a limited extent states compete with each other for residents and businesses – Washington doesn’t face even that minimal upward pressure.

So what will the Common Core most likely get us? Red-tape driven federal control without rigorous standards and testing. It will also move us farther from the reform that actually makes sense: School choice for all, which would overcome disproportionate political power by forcing educators to respond to parents. And that’s not all it would do. It would also give educators new freedom to employ different pedagogies and curricula; enable children with diverse interests and needs to link up with teachers specializing in them; and unleash crucial competition and innovation. It would, basically, stop ignoring the fundamental realities that all children are different, and no one actually knows what are the ultimate, “best” curricula.

Unfortunately, not only are we moving away from what we need, we’re stuck fighting over what really isn’t even a question: Adopting the Common Core hasn’t been truly voluntary at all.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

Bush or Obama: Can We Tell Who Shuffles the Edu-Chairs Better?

I’m a Paul Peterson fan, and I sure don’t think President Obama’s education grade should be very high, but I’m afraid Peterson is offering some pretty weak stuff in this op-ed hoisting President George W. Bush above the current POTUS in education policy.

The main problem is that Peterson is using broad National Assessment of Educational Progress data as his main evidence of Bush’s success and Obama’s failure. But not only are these data far too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies—myriad forces are at work in education beyond federal rules and regulations—it’s a serious stretch to suggest that we should expect to see big testing gains from any policy within a year or two of its enactment. Peterson even hints as much late in his treatment of Obama, noting that “NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, [but] the early returns are not pretty.”

“Early returns” is right, considering that President Obama only took office in 2009, the first winners of Race to the Top—Obama’s main “reform” driver—weren’t declared until late August 2010, and the NAEP exams were administered between January and March of 2011.

More troubling, though, is the praise Peterson heaps on President Bush and No Child Left Behind. I’ve broken down NAEP scores six ways from Sunday and won’t rehash it all again, but based on improvement rates the NCLB era hasn’t been all that special. More important for this discussion, again considering policy implementation lags, it is a big leap to look at NAEP scores and crown Bush the edu-winner.

Let’s break down Peterson’s biggest advantage-Bush claim: “Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s.” (Actually, his biggest claim is that Bush’s fourth-grade reading performance is “infinitely” better than Obama’s, but that’s because there’s been no gain under Obama, not because under Bush scores were numerically much better.)

By far the biggest increase in 4th grade math scores that included Bush presidency years occurred between 2000 and 2003, when the average score rose three points per year. Pretty impressive, but Bush didn’t become President until 2001, and NCLB wasn’t enacted until January 2002. With NAEP administered between January and March 2003, NCLB was only law for about a year in that time span, and it took much of that year for people just to figure out what NCLB was all about. In other words, it is unlikely—though, granted, not impossible—that the improvement in that period was due primarily to NCLB.  Pull that span out of the Bush years, though, and growth was just 0.83 points (out of 500) per year. Years 2009 to 2011 saw a 0.50 point uptick—so neither president saw growth that was too impressive.

For eighth grade math, again excluding 2000-2003, the Bush years registered another 0.83 point growth rate, and 2009-2011 was again at 0.50.

The Bush years are a bit better than Obama’s just looking at NAEP—which alone tells us little—but neither president’s tenure is all that great, especially considering, as noted, several pre-NCLB periods saw faster growth. And then there’s the big picture: When you get to 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—NAEP scores have been utterly stagnant for decades despite per-pupil expenditures roughly tripling and Washington getting ever-more involved.

Even if you could tell who nudged an Adirondack chair a millimeter farther from the abyss, arguing about which president is the better chair-shuffler is really missing the sinking ship.

‘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.

Promises Unfulfilled? What Next, Federal Education Failure?

On Sunday we marked the tenth birthday of the No Child Left Behind Act by reviewing its decade of futility and explaining why federal education adventuring is basically doomed to failure. (Enjoy some of our extensive coverage here, here, and here.)  This week we got yet more evidence that federal policy is always big on promises, itty-bitty on results. According to the latest reports, most of the winners of President Obama’s $4.35-billion “Race to the Top” competition are well off pace to fulfill the promises they made to get the dough. Well off schedule, that is, except for adopting the laughably dubbed “state-led and voluntary” national curriculum standards that the federal Race to the Top essentially demanded they use.

It’s just as I warned back in 2009, when Race to the Top was all the transformative rage in both left and right edu-policy circles:

Have plans for reform? Sure. Break down a few barriers that could stand in the way of decent changes? That’s in there, too. But that’s about it. And the money is supposed to be a one-shot deal – once paper promises are accepted and the dough delivered, the race is supposed to be over.

In light of those things, how is this more appropriately labeled the Over the Top Fund than the Race to the Top Fund? Because while not requiring anything, it tries to push unprecedented centralization of education power. It calls for state data systems to track students from preschool to college graduation. It calls for states to sign onto “common” – meaning, ultimately, federal – standards. It tries to influence state budgeting.

To be fair, the feds could still hold states accountable and keep the RTTT dough if and when the states break their promises. But that would still be another failure, and all the money states and Washington will have spent on RTTT will have gone for naught. But, then, spending for naught is something we should be very much used to by now.

Four More Things Washington Shouldn’t Do

Today AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond—two folks who don’t always see eye to eye—have a New York Times op-ed that decries federal micromanagement in education, then lays out four things they think Washington should do.

If only they’d stopped at lamenting micromanagement.

Let’s take their four should-do’s in order:

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually….To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending…

This sounds great, but the key is in the doing, and there is precious little evidence Washington can force real transparency. NCLB is exhibit A: Yes, the law required states to break out data for all students and numerous subgroups, but the underlying information was essentially a lie, with states setting very low performance thresholds and calling it “proficiency.” And despite what many NCLB supporters will tell you, when you break down NAEP data—as I have done—there is little support for the notion that traditionally underperforming groups, or anyone else, have done better with NCLB than without it.

How about requiring common standards, both for academics and spending?

Even if you started with excellent, challenging academic standards, they would quickly be gutted at the behest of teacher unions, administrator associations, and probably even parents if many kids and schools didn’t meet them and were punished as a result. We’ve seen it many times, and there’s nothing about being federal that inoculates government against concentrated benefits and diffuse costs; the people most directly effected by a policy having the greatest political power over it. And financial data? As Adam Schaeffer has found, there are countless ways to hide the truth about district finances, and there’s little reason to believe that Washington will be either willing or able to sustainably force clarity.

One last thing: Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to demand “transparency”? Nowhere.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.  No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations…were doing.  Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979.

Here there’s a slight connection to the Constitution: under the Fourteenth Amendment Washington has the duty to ensure that states and districts do not discriminate. But the presumption underlying what Darling-Hammond and Hess argue—that test data can reveal discrimination—is dubious. Can and should disparities in group scores really be laid exclusively at the feet of schools, districts, and states? Aren’t myriad factors involved in academic outcomes, many of which are outside the control of government?

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

We hear this one a lot, and in theory it makes some sense: people won’t risk their money on research that has no discernable payoff. The problem is few people ever contemplate the full cost of government funding “basic” research, or the unintended consequences.

The main concern is that putting money into things with no discernable payoff might yield just that—no payoff. So we hear about successes—government got us to the moon!—but rarely about how much has been lost in failed efforts. People don’t shy away from funding basic research just because they’re shortsighted. It’s also because they factor in risk.

Then there’s this: while we would like to think that all scientists are superhumanly selfless, they are not. They are as self-interested as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why Austan Goolsbee—yes, Obama administration Austan Goolsbee—found in 1998 that much government R&D funding translated not into more breakthroughs, but higher wages for researchers.

What about the presumption that private markets wouldn’t put money into “brain science” or new tutoring techniques? Highly dubious. Education companies would have strong incentives to invest in research that could make them more efficient and effective because that would increase their profit margins.  The problem is, it is almost impossible to run for-profit schools in the United States, which can’t meaningfully compete against “free” government schools. In Chile, however, we see burgeoning evidence that profit can lead to greater scale—which is crucial for research—and better outcomes.

Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing the feds to finance research.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.

Again, sounds good, but as Hess and Darling-Hammond themselves admit:

The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

It’s easy to say that Washington should enable district and union leaders to ignore political concerns, but federal policy is as much government policy as state and local, and government at all levels is a creature of politics. Government and politics cannot be separated, and to expect one governmental level to be above politics while the others are below it is, to say the least, extremely optimistic. And again, there’s no constitutional authority to issue education grants.

Darling-Hammond and Hess are right that Washington has meddled far too much in education. They are on thin ice in asserting that different meddling will work much better.

Little Evidence for Either

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Common Core? NCLB and Common Core? If you look at the evidence, the answer to both questions is “no.” There’s precious little evidence that NCLB has worked, and just as little that national standards will do any better.

Despite all the fine sounding talk about the federal government demanding “accountability” and forcing states to improve, NAEP data for long-struggling groups reveals many periods before NCLB with equal or faster score gains than under No Child. In other words, the federal government’s own measure of academic achievement provides no support for the idea that accountability – or anything else under No Child – has translated into better performance.

But hasn’t the problem been the lack of a common measure of “proficiency,” which has allowed states to dodge the hard work of getting all kids up to speed? And isn’t that precisely what the Common Core will fix?

No again. What we’ve learned from not just NCLB, but decades of failed federal education intervention, is that politicians and administrators at all levels will find ways to take federal money while avoiding meaningful consequences for poor performance. And there’s little reason to believe that the Common Core will change that.

For one thing, if the Common Core truly is controlled by states – which, given the Race to the Top, waivers, and federal funding of national tests it clearly isn’t – then states will ignore the standards whenever they’re inconvenient. And if the federal government tries to put the screws to states that underperform? All the teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and other groups representing those who would be held accountable will mobilize and have the system gutted. It’s the clear lesson of history.

But isn’t the Common Core so good, and having national standards so important, that we must adopt them?

Yet again, no.

There’s essentially no meaningful evidence that, other things being equal, countries with national standards perform better than those without.  And there is serious disagreement over the quality of the Common Core, including powerful critiques from well known English language arts expert Sandra Stotsky, and the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram.

Common Core, No Child Left Behind – both are cut from the same, moth-devoured cloth: top-down government control. In light of decades of costly failure, it is well past time we stop entertaining such fixes and move on to something different. It’s time to focus on fundamentally changing the system so that educators have the freedom to tailor teaching to the needs of unique children, while parents are empowered to hold educators truly accountable. It is time for school choice, which, unlike NCLB and national standards, the evidence very much supports.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.