Tag: race to the top

It’s a Little Late to Be Discussing National Standards Governance

What do you do when you’re asked your opinion about how to implement something you don’t like? Do you use the opportunity to say why you think implementation will fail, and how to minimize the damage, even if doing so might make you look like a collaborator? Or do you say nothing and just let bad stuff happen?

A couple of months ago, I was presented with that dilemma by the people at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – you might have seen me discuss them once or twice – who were putting together a report on how to govern national standards and tests. They asked me, along with several other people who’d thought long and hard about national standards, to send them answers to several questions to help inform their thinking. Today, Fordham is releasing that report, and I have just a few notes about it.

First, you will see me quoted twice in the paper, and from those quotes you could get the impression that I’ve gone all Vichy on national standards. I don’t think Fordham authors Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli intended to do that, nor do the context of the quotes necessarily support that conclusion, but one could get that impression nonetheless. Fortunately, Fordham kindly posted my entire questionnaire – as well as those of several other respondents – on the report’s Web page, and you can go there for my complete thoughts. If you don’t want to do that, though, I’ll summarize (stop me if you’ve heard this before): As long as government runs and funds schools rather than giving parents control of education money and educators full freedom, standards-and-accountability regimes, no matter how strong they start off, will ultimately be rendered meaningless by politics.

My second note is that the overall report is aggravating because it is impossible to concretely discuss the governance of standards that almost no one knows about, and accountability systems that don’t exist. The Fordham authors acknowledge this problem, but acknowledging it doesn’t make it any less enervating. It also highlights that we’ve skipped a critical, much more fundamental debate: Even if you think centralized standards are a good idea – and almost everything we know about markets, competition, and innovation says they aren’t – how do you, really,  keep politics from gutting standards and accountability? It’s a debate we needed to have long before states started to adopt national standards, largely in the pursuit of federal dough.

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

While You Were Watching the Race to the Top…

…President Obama and Congress were doling out tens-of-billions of dollars to the education status quo while doing little of meaningful, reform-y substance. Now we see the payoff: President Obama has gotten bipartisan accolades for supposedly being a different kind of Democrat on education – one willing to take on teacher unions – while he’s fully kept union allegiances.

Reports the Washington Post about National Education Association plans to spend $15 million on largely Dem-friendly, midterm-election advertisements:

Karen M. White, the NEA’s political director, said the 3.2 million-member union is in sync with Obama more often than not. As an example, she pointed to his support for a $10 billion education funding bill that the Democratic-led Congress passed in August over Republican opposition.

“That education jobs bill got so many of our members engaged,” White said. “It was a turning point for us.”

She played down controversy over Obama’s school reform agenda as “bumps in the road,” adding, “we share the same goals as this administration.”

It really wasn’t hard to see the politics at play here: Talk a lot about reform, expend riches to protect the status quo, win good will from all sides. And heck, who gets hurt? Only taxpayers and students, that’s all.

Race to the Top ‘Winners’ Declared

So the much ballyhooed Race to the Top program – $4.35 billion out of nearly $110 billion in federal education stimulus and bailouts – is over, with today’s announcement of ten round-two winners. Who knows for sure how the winners were ultimately determined – point allocation was highly subjective – but it’s hard to be impressed by the list: the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

New York? Recent revelations about dumbed-down Regents exams hardly make it seem like a paragon of honest reform. Hawaii? How did last years’ school-free Fridays help them stack up so high? Maryland? Fostering charter schools was supposed to be important, but it has one of the most constricting charter laws in the nation. And Massachusetts? Well, it’s easy to see how it won – it just dropped its own, often-considered nation-leading curriculum standards to adopt national standards demanded by Race to the Top.

In the end, though, how states were chosen really doesn’t matter that much. Why? Because the race was based mainly on who could make the biggest, fastest promises of reform, not who was actually, meaningfully reforming things. So, at the very least, we should all hold our applause for both the winners and the race for several years, because promises are easy – real change is tough.

Education Standards at Work —- the NY Debacle

President Obama today touted his Race to the Top program, which pressures states to, among other things, adopt national education standards. Also today, the New York Board of Regents revealed that it had been misleading its citizens for years, giving them an inflated notion of how well their children were performing academically. Last year 77 percent of students were ”proficient” in English according to NY state standards. This year it’s 53 percent.

So what’s to stop this from happening at a national level? In fact, what’s to stop an endless cycle of setting high standards that produce low scores, gradually dumbing the standards down to give the illusion of progress, and then resetting them to a high level again when the deceit is discovered?

At any stage of this cycle, officials can claim that students are showing improvement or that steps are being taken to raise standards — without any need to, you know, improve the schools.

Instead, we could just adopt in education the same system of freedom and incentives  that’s been responsible for actual progress in every other area of human activity for the past two centuries. Or is that just too obvious?

Unfortunately, One Man’s “Paranoia” Is Everyone Else’s “Reality”

Finished with my woman
‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane
Because I am frowning all the time

- Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

According to the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, I and others like me are “paranoid.” So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I “frowning all the time?” Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that “common” curriculum standards won’t become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.

Finn’s rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he’s used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is “voluntary;” and note that we’ve got to do something to improve the schools.

Let’s go one by one:

First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn’s glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them – once the “accountability” part of “standards and accountability” is activated – they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system. 

This kind of objection, by the way, is called “thinking a few steps ahead,” not “paranoia.”

It’s also called “learning from history.” By Fordham’s own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers’ unions – the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members’ livelihoods come from the public schools – get them neutered. 

But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.

Next, let’s hit the the “voluntary” adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don’t have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is “voluntarily” give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not! 

So right now, if states don’t want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they’ll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.

Some voluntarism….

Finally, there’s the “we’ve got to do something to fix the schools” argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don’t work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.

The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work. 

Oh, right.  All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.

 

Fed Ed on the Move

There’s a lot to learn about what’s going on in federal education policy today, and none of it is good.

First, Steven Brill offers a revealing look at the Race to the Top evaluation process in a piece that can be added to the ever-growing pile of evidence that Race to the Top isn’t even close to the objective – or, I’d add, powerful – catalyst for meaningful reform that the Obama administration insists it is.

Second, it appears that congressional Democrats are preparing to pass a Harkin-proposed, Obama-endorsed, $23 billion bailout for teachers by attaching it to an “emergency” appropriation for the war in Afghanistan. (Passing major – and highly suspect – education legislation by attaching it to something totally unrelated? Sound familiar?) And what’s the nice thing about “emergency” legislation? No need to worry that the outlay would add to our already insane federal deficit; that can’t be allowed to interfere with saving the world (or public schooling lard).

Finally, looming on the horizon is the release of final standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Obama administration is trying to coerce all states to adopt the standards by linking adoption to Race-to-the-Top competitiveness and, potentially, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding.

The good news is that on June 2 – potentially the very day the standards will be released – you can catch what has sadly been a rarity so far in the push for national standards: a real debate about whether national standards will actually improve educational outcomes.  My answer is that there is no meaningful evidence that national standards drive superior results, but joining me to debate that right here at Cato will be the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, Sandra Boyd of Achieve, Inc., and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli. It will be a debate that must be replicated across the country before we make any further move to adopt one standard for every public school in America. You can register here to see our debate live, or catch it online at Cato.org.

The feds are on the move in education, and the more we learn about their plans, the more obvious it is that they must be stopped.

Obama Administration Doesn’t Walk the Ed Reform Walk

Oh, they’ll chew your ears off about how boldly they support and are catalyzing  real education reform, and how they won’t accept the failed status quo. Yes sir, they’ll boast nonstop about what a gigantic success their  Race to the Top initiative has been, despite having no real evidence to back that up. Without question, the Obama administration will talk the talk about transformative education reform. But walk the walk? That’s another story.

Let’s put this in perspective. Almost the entire basis for the Obama administration’s claim to school reform supremacy is Race to the Top. And what does RTTT do? It furnishes $4.35 billion to entice states into submitting sort of bold-sounding plans for education reform while requiring them to do very little when it comes to implementing those plans. At the very least, we have little reason to believe the administration can or will hold states to their promised reforms. And by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s own admission, the only winners to date won by getting lots of union and school district buy-in for their proposed reforms. So, as far as we can tell, Race to the Top itself is way more hot air than fiery reform.

But that isn’t even close to the clearest evidence that the Obama administration does little more than flap its gums about real reform while substantively supporting something very different. The clearest sign is that the so-called “stimulus” from which RTTT funding came furnished about $100 billion for education, and the vast majority of that was intended to keep as many people employed in our incredibly inefficient, labor-dominated public schooling monopoly as possible. In other words, the “stimulus” provided a gargantuan payoff for the very people who are supposed to be the subjects of tough reforms, while furnishing a relatively tiny sum for the program supposedly intended to inspire such reforms. (Of course, the Obama administration also helped kill the proven-effective D.C. school choice program, but we’ll save that for another time.) 

And the hits just keep on coming. With school districts nearing the end of their stimulus windfall, they once again face having to cut some of their copious fat. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has put forth the $23 billion, “Keep Our Educators Working Act” to keep that from happening, and yesterday the administration — suprise, surprise — threw its support behind the bill.  

Even the Washington Post has come out against the legislation, which if nothing else would add another $23 billion to our absolutely collosal federal deficit. Moreover, to borrow a favorite phrase of the President’s, let me be clear:  an honest accounting of even the biggest potential staffing cuts shows that those losses would constitute a relatively small cut from a system that has for decades added staff at a furious pace without producing any better outcomes.

Unfortunately, neither the shamefully irresponsible mortgaging of our future, nor the clear need to eliminate costly public-schooling jobs, seems to matter to this administration. As long as people keep letting them get away with nothing but reform-y talk, it appears they’ll willingly bankrupt the country to keep the status quo fat and happy.