Tag: race to the top

He Should Have Stuck with the Birth Certificate

I couldn’t help but notice that in his remarks to the press about releasing his birth ceritifcate, President Obama reiterated his conviction that Washington needs to ”invest in education.”

He should have stuck with the birth certificate issue. Unlike his belief in the power of dumping dollars on “education,” he actually has some decent evidence of his natural born U.S. citizenship.

Standards Overreach, or According to Plan?

Over on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess senses that the “broad but shallow coalition” of national curriculum standards true-believers and folks who just like the idea of a common academic metric might be fracturing.  The cause: The Albert Shanker Institute’s national curriculum manifesto released last month, as well as lingering concern about impending national tests. Suddenly – and seemingly against the wishes of Common Core leaders – the national standards push is starting to appear much less ”voluntary” and much more micromanaging than advertised. 

I hope that Hess is right that alarm is spreading over the oozingly expanding national-standards blob, but I disagree with how he seems to characterize what’s happening. Hess appears to see these developments, especially the Shanker manifesto, as overreaching by just some of the more zealous nationalizers, much to the consternation of the main Common Core architects and advocates.  But as I have pointed out before, if you reach into the bowels of what would-be nationalizers have written, as well as the logic behind national standards, it is hard to see this as anything but planned.

At the very least, the main advocates haven’t wanted standards adoption to be truly voluntary, by which I mean states are neither rewarded nor punished for adopting or bypassing the standards. The Obama administration intentionally and openly coerced adoption with Race to the Top, for one thing, without eliciting any loud opposition from  Common Core creators. But the administration was really just doing what the Common Core-leading National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., called for back in 2008. As stated on page 7 of their publication Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education:

The federal government can play an enabling role as states engage in the critical but challenging work of international benchmarking. First, federal policymakers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above [including ”adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”] At the same time, policymakers should boost federal research and development (R&D) investments to provide state leaders with more and better information about international best practices, and should help states develop streamlined assessment strategies that facilitate cost-effective international comparisons of student performance.

As states reach important milestones on the way toward building internationally competitive education systems, the federal government should offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements and providing more resources to implement world-class educational best practices.

If you have federal “enabling” and ”incentives” you cease to have truly voluntary state adoption – or movement to the “next stage” – of curriculum standards. And that is exactly what the core supporters of Common Core have wanted. 

But aren’t standards just, well, standards, not curricula?

This is largely semantics. True, you can pinpoint what you want children to learn and when they should learn it without identifying how that goal should be reached. But just by defining the goal you are driving curricula, stating what must be taught.  Indeed, there would be no point to the standards if the intention weren’t in some way to affect curricula – what is actually taught in the schools.

Of course, there is another part to this: the two federally funded national tests currently under development, which Hess is hearing some in Washington would like to see become just one test. But whether we have a federally backed testing monopoly or duopoly ultimately won’t matter: For the tests to have meaning they will have to include concrete content, and assuming performance on those tests will impact how much federal money states and districts get – which appears to be what the Obama administration wants, and is the only thing that makes sense for people who back federal “accountability” – you now have a de facto required, federal curriculum.

I hope Hess is correct and the Common Core coalition is fracturing. I am dubious, though, that any major fissures are being riven by a faction of zealots that has just gone too far. Based on both the evidence and logic, going too far has been the widely held goal for several years.

High Schools to the President: What Thrill?

A couple of years ago, I was highly critical of President Obama’s first, it turns out annual, televised school-year kickoff address to America’s students. At the time I got a lot of emails telling me how outrageous my stance was, and how anyone, of any political persuasion, should be thrilled to have the President of the United States talk to their kids.

Apparently, the thrill is gone when you actually have to do a little work to get the President. According to internal White House memos, the President’s “Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge” – in which schools compete for a chance to get the Prez as their graduation speaker – had generated only 68 applications as of February 28, which was after the original application deadline of Feburary 25. (The White House has extended the deadline to March 11.) To put that in perspective, the nation had over 24,000 public secondary schools as of the 2007-08 school year, meaning only about 0.3 percent of public high schools have expressed any serious desire to have the President send their charges off to adulthood. (Well, or college.)

So have our high schools suddenly discovered the Constitution, which gives the President no authority to meddle in education? Probably not, but it certainly does undermine the argument that it is a super-terrific thing anytime the Commander in Chief can take to the podium to tell kids to work hard and stay in school. Apparently, it’s only super-terrific if you don’t have to lift a finger – well, other than to work your TV remote – to get the President to talk to your kids.

Science: ‘All Kids Different’

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in last week’s State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that’s been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn’t actually call them “national standards” because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.

Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes.  Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It’s an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.

Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics – something that exists before standards and schooling – has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:

The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.

They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.

The report said: “The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child’s general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors.”

In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn’t it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn’t it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?

Of course it does, but that would require “experts” of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what’s best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.  

Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical – but power relinquishing – solution.

The RTTT Made Me Do It!

Adopting national curriculum standards – the so-called “Common Core” – is voluntary for states. That is what we’ve long been told, and that is what the text of a new report looking at implementation of the standards repeats. But within that report is powerful evidence of how involuntary and federally led Common Core adoption has truly been.

According to the report, which furnishes results of a November 2010 survey of state education officials, the vast majority of states that had adopted the Common Core as of November had done so at least in part because of “the possible effect” of doing so “on success of our Race to the Top application.” Race to the Top, you might recall, was a $4.35 billion federal contest for education funding, and to maximize their chances of winning states had to adopt national standards.

The report tries to downplay this revelatory finding by emphasizing that a slightly larger number of states – 36 versus 30 – cited “the rigor” of the Common Core in their adoption decisions. But what state education official is going to say that adoption was only about money and not also at least some educational considerations? On the flip side, that officials in any, much less thirty, states were willing to concede the importance of ugly federal-dollar chasing says a ton. In particular, it says what reasonable observers have been stating all along: National standards have largely been bought by Washington, not “voluntarily” adopted by states.

Bad Advice from Gov. Polar Star

In 2006, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm told citizens, “In five years, you’re going to be blown away by the strength and diversity of Michigan’s transformed economy.” When those words were uttered, Michigan’s unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. It’s now almost 13 percent.

Although Michigan’s economic doldrums can’t entirely be pinned on Granholm, her fiscal policies have not helped, such as her higher taxes on businesses.

The Mackinac Center’s Michael LaFaive explains why Granholm’s grandiose proclamation in 2006 hasn’t panned out:

In this case, Gov. Granholm was promoting her administration and the Legislature’s massive expansion of discriminatory tax breaks and subsidies for a handful of corporations. The purpose and main effect of this policy is to provide “cover” for the refusal of the political class to adopt genuine tax, labor and regulatory reforms, which they shy away from because it would anger and diminish the privileges and rewards of unions and other powerful special interests.

LaFaive’s colleague James Hohman recently pointed out that “Michigan’s economy produced 8 percent less in 2009 than it did in 2000 when adjusted for inflation. The nation rose 15 percent during this period.”

Granholm has written an op-ed in Politico on how federal policymakers can “win the race for jobs.” This would be like Karl Rove penning an op-ed complaining about Obama spending too much. Oh wait, bad example.

Granholm advises federal policymakers to create a “Jobs Race to the Top” modeled after the president’s education Race to the Top, which as Neal McCluskey explains, has not worked as she claims. Granholm’s plan boils down to more federal subsidies to state and local governments and privileged businesses to develop “clean energy” industries.

Typical of the dreamers who believe that the government can effectively direct economic activity, Granholm never considers the costs of government handouts and central planning. A Cato essay on federal energy interventions explains:

The problem is that nobody knows which particular energy sources will make the most sense years and decades down the road. But this level of uncertainty is not unique to the energy industry—every industry faces similar issues of innovation in a rapidly changing world. In most industries, the policy solution is to allow the decentralized market efforts of entrepreneurs and early adopting consumers figure out the best route to the future. Government efforts to push markets in certain directions often end up wasting money, but they can also delay the development of superior alternatives that don’t receive subsidies.

Granholm recently received “Sweden’s Insignia of First Commander, Order of the Polar Star for her work in fostering relations between Michigan and Sweden to promote a clean energy economy” from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf. Unfortunately, her prescription for economic growth would be a royal mistake.

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.