Tag: standards

Education, Standards, and Private Certification

Can there be standards in education without the government imposing them?

Too many education policy wonks, including some with a pro-market bent, take it for granted that standards emanate solely from the government. But that does not have to be the case. Indeed, the lack of a government-imposed standard leaves space for competing standards. As a result of market incentives, these standards are likely to be higher, more diverse, more comprehensive, and more responsive to change than the top-down, one-size-fits-all standards that governments tend to impose. I explain why this is so at Education Next today in What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification.” 

Paranoia Roundup

Last week, national standards super-advocate Chester Finn called me “paranoid” for arguing that “common” curriculum standards states adopt in pursuit of federal money will somehow end up being federal and, as a result, bad. Well it seems that Jay Greene and I – the two paranoiacs Finn identified by name – are not alone. Here’s a roundup of some recent rantings from other realists Finn would no doubt accuse of wearing tinfoil helmets:

  • The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall, cutting through the joke of “voluntary” national-standards adoption and dispelling several of the shallow arguments trotted out by national-standards supporters.
  • The Home School Legal Defense Association, warning that “as homeschoolers know, if the federal government funds something, the federal government is going to control it.”
  • The Pacific Reasearch Institute’s Lance Izumi nailing the voluntarism deception; noting that national standards will have to be paired with national tests (indeed, they’re already in the works); and pointing out that the proposed national standards are likely worse than some state standards.
  • Ben Boychuk of the Heartland Institute going after the big voluntarism lie and explaining how much worse a process national-standards setting is than was even the Texas Social Studies Standoff of 2010.
  • The Pioneer Institutes Jim Stergios exposing the State of Massachusetts’ national-standards trickeration.

It looks like national-standards paranoia is starting to run kinda deep.

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.

 

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.

Sell Your Soul for What’s Behind Curtain #1?

Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards – to control their own educational souls – in those key subjects.

Alright, maybe they haven’t completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it’s not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.  So Maryland isn’t about to give up control of it’s educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million – a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.

Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington – with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it – is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.

With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.

Did Kagan Have a “Disparate Impact” on Military Recruiters?

Perhaps you remember the case of Ricci v. DiStefano, so much discussed during Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation process?   To recap briefly: The city of New Haven had used a written test to determine which of its local firefighters would be considered for promotions. When the tests came back, it turned out that the high scorers were overwhelmingly Caucasian, and so the city—fearing a lawsuit from black and Latino firefighters who hadn’t made the cut—scrapped the results. Not, mind you, because the test was in any way discriminatory on its face, but because federal law frowns on any test that has a “disparate impact” on minority groups unless it can be shown to be both closely related to the requirements of the job and less uneven in its effects than comparable alternatives. A number of the white firefighters then sued, claiming that it was discriminatory to discard the test after the fact just because the high scorers were too pale.  Bracket the question of how Sotomayor, as a circuit court judge, should have ruled.  Clearly as a policy question, most conservatives seemed disposed to side with the firefighters, and in general conservatives have been highly skeptical of “disparate impact” standards.  If the standards are facially neutral, and were not chosen with any pernicious intent (the argument runs), we should let the chips fall where they may. Sounds fairly compelling to me.

So it’s a little odd to see folks like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol casually talk about Elena Kagan’s “discrimination against the military” during her tenure as dean of Harvard Law School. All Kagan did, after all, was enforce Harvard’s preexisting rule requiring firms wishing to recruit through the school’s Office of Career Services to certify that they did not discriminate by sexual orientation. (This is not the same, incidentally, as “banning recruiters from campus”—the military did continue to recruit on campus via a student group.) It was a neutral rule that applied to any company that wished to avail itself of the Office of Career Service’s assistance, from which the military would have required a special exemption.  Kristol clearly didn’t think much of the logic of “disparate impact” in the Ricci case, so why is he so quick to adopt it here? There are many good reasons to be worried about Kagan, not least her apparent fondness for an expansive conception of executive power, but a commitment to even-handed application of the rules is not among them.

Obama’s Education Proposal Still a Bottomless Bag

This morning the Obama Administration officially released its proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). The proposal is a mixed bag, and still one with a gaping hole in the bottom.

Among some generally positive things, the proposal would eliminate NCLB’s ridiculous annual-yearly-progress and “proficiency” requirements, which have driven states to constantly change standards and tests to avoid having to help students achieve real proficiency.  It would also end many of the myriad, wasteful categorical programs that infest the ESEA, though it’s a pipedream to think members of Congress will actually give up all of their pet, vote-buying programs.

On the negative side of the register, the proposed reauthorization would force all states to either sign onto national mathematics and language-arts standards, or get a state college to certify their standards as “college and career ready.”  It would also set a goal of all students being college and career ready by 2020. But setting a single, national standard makes no logical sense because all kids have different needs and abilities; no one curriculum will ever optimally serve but a tiny minority of students.

Also, on the (VERY) negative side of the register, Obama’s budget proposal would increase ESEA spending by $3 billion from last year – for a total of $28.1 billion – to pay for all of the ESEA reauthorization’s promises of incentives and rewards. That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes.

Even if this proposal were loaded with nothing but smart, tough ideas, it would ultimately fail for the same reason that top-down control of government schools has failed for decades. Teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats make their livelihoods from public schooling, and hence spend more time and money on education lobbying and politicking than anyone else. That makes them by far the most powerful forces in public schooling, and what they want for themselves is what we’d all want in their place if we could get it: lots of money and no accountability to anyone.

As long as such asymmetrical power distribution is the case – and it’s inherent to “democratic” control of education – no proposal, no matter how initially tough, is likely to make any long-term improvements. As the matrix below lays out, no matter what combination of standards and accountability you have, politics will eventually lead to poor outcomes. It’s a major reason that the history of government schooling is strewn with “get-tough” laws that ultimately spend lots of money but produce no meaningful improvements, and it’s a powerful argument for the feds complying with the Constitution and getting out of education.

When all is said and done, you can throw all the great things you want into the federal education bag, but as long as politicians are making the decisions you’ll always come up empty.

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