Topic: Education and Child Policy

In Education, the Goal Posts Move

Other than in Shaquille O’Neal’s stunning vision of the future of basketball, the goals in sports don’t move. If they did, it would make the games a whole lot more random, and the outcomes unreliable indicators of who is really the better team. But in education—as we’re seeing with the hue and cry over new test results in New York—the goals do move. A lot. That’s pretty ironic considering that the top-down measures are specifically intended to establish set standards.

Earlier this week, New York released the results of its first statewide tests to gauge student mastery of the Common Core national curriculum standards. Not surprisingly, “proficiency” rates crashed, plummeting between 24 and 34 percentage points depending on the subject. But as Core supporters rightly warned, plummeting scores don’t necessarily indicate plummeting performance; they indicate that the goal posts have moved. Of course, supporters say the posts have moved higher—like basketball hoops in Shaq’s 2044—and that may be the case. But what’s more important is just that the goals are in different places—maybe they moved to the side, not up—and students haven’t been shooting in that direction.

This is far from the first time the goals have jumped, ducked, or shifted in the “standards” era. Throughout the No Child Left Behind years we saw states changing tests, standards, etc., so results often weren’t comparable from one year to the next. And New York itself revealed a few years ago that its tests had gotten easier over the years, rather than its education system getting much better.

Making a Market in Education

AEI’s Michael McShane writes that America’s “school choice” policies have thus far failed to live up to their hype and have not created real, vigorous education markets. That’s hard to argue with. As McShane rightly points out, existing programs are still very small, mostly filling empty places in non-profit private schools that predate the programs’ creation. The creative destruction of real market innovation has yet to make its presence felt, and the few new entrants to the marketplace usually look much like the old ones.

It’s not entirely clear what McShane is proposing as a solution, but he offers a few hints:

New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.

This seems to suggest the need for some sort of new school development organization, the picking of “high quality” schools by philanthropists for scale-up funding, and revisions to teacher certification rules. The first two would likely do more harm than good and the third can be improved upon by simply getting rid of government certification rules for private school teachers altogether.

Pre-K Poll Vaulting

Just as President Obama has vowed to regain the initiative and push forward with his economic and education policy agenda, an organization called The First Five Years Fund has released a new poll asking the public about Pre-K policy. According to the poll, Americans know what they want (More federally funded Pre-K!), and know when they want it (NOW!).

Encouraging as this must be for supporters of a larger federal role in early education, opinion polling is not a good way to design policy—any more than it is a good way to design bridges. There is an aspect of bridge construction in which public opinion does properly figure: assessing demand. But when it comes to actually designing the structure that will carry living, breathing people across a gorge, public opinion plays little role. The reason is obvious: most people lack the time, skills, and knowledge to design bridges. They know what they ultimately want out of civil engineering projects, but they don’t know how best to achieve their goals.

It’s the same with education policy, and indeed with policy generally. Contrary to the apparent assumption of these early education advocates, it is not inherently obvious that increased federal Pre-K spending will ensure that children get a strong start in life. As it happens, there is a great deal of evidence that past and current federal Pre-K programs have proven expensive failures and have even, in some cases, done harm. Nor is the advocates’ currently favored policy–federally subsidized state Pre-K programs–an obviously good idea. Some states with universal Pre-K programs have actually seen their 4th grade test scores decline relative to the national average. There is no clear pattern of success.

Because of that fact, this is precisely not the sort of policy that should be expensively promoted at the federal level. If states wish to gamble that they can succeed where others have failed, then their residents should be the ones who put their money on the line. That approach has the merit that state politicians can be more easily held accountable than federal ones—voters have fewer issues on which to decide whom to support or oppose at the state level.

Well-meaning as the First Five Years Fund and its philanthropic backers no doubt are, their effort to design policy based on public opinion polling is badly misguided. It is little better than a schoolyard taunt that “everyone else wants to do it.” Serious people, people who actually want to achieve their stated goals and not simply win a political contest, can do better.

Common Core Will Hurt School Choice

Earlier this week, school choice champion Doug Tuthill argued at RedefinED.org that Common Core can help school choice. In Tuthill’s view, common standards merely “serve the same function as the operating systems in computers or smart phones” in that they provide a common platform that’s open to an “endless supply” of different applications (curricula, lesson plans, activities, etc.) that can be customized by users.

Responding at the blog, I argue that Common Core it not just an open-platform operating system. The Common Core-aligned tests (particularly college entrance exams) will essentially dictate content: what concepts are taught when and perhaps even how. It’s as though Apple told app-designers they could make any kind of app they want so long as all the apps perform the same basic function, operate at the same speed, and cost the same amount. Of course, they’re welcome to vary the color scheme.

In short, rather than complement school choice, Common Core undermines it.

You can read the entire argument at the RedefinED.org post.

Is Education Nationalization Falling Apart?

While the fight against nationalizing education has focused primarily on the Common Core, the nationalization offensive seems to be falling apart on the testing front; a classic, it’s-the-one-you-don’t-see-that-gets-you situation. Yes, several states have seen recent, serious resistance to the Core–I just testified about this in Arkansas–but no state that officially adopted the Core has unadopted it.

Then there’s the testing.

Two days ago, Georgia declared that it would be leaving the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers–one of the two testing consortia chosen by the U.S. Secretary of Education to receive big federal grants–and would pursue its own tests. Georgia joins Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma and Utah heading out the exits, with strong rumblings that Indiana and Florida will be joining them. (I wrote about Florida “padding” school assessments yesterday.) Why is this important? Because as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has written, for standards-based reform to work, there must be a “tripod of standards, testing, and accountability.” And for national standards to work, there must be a national tripod: all schools must use the same standards and tests to compare how all kids are doing, and there must be uniform punishments for schools that do not do well. As Finn is quoted in the Washington Post as saying, if states use their own tests, “We won’t be able to compare their test scores—it’s almost as simple as that.”

This raises the crucial question: who must be in charge of constructing and maintaining the tripod to get everyone uniformly on board? It’s a question nationalizers have been loath to tackle because the answer is obvious (at least if you ignore that no level of centralized government is likely to maintain high standards and accountability): Washington. Only the federal government has the ability, by taking taxpayers’ money then offering it back with rules attached, to coerce all states into doing the same things. See, for instance, drinking ages. Or adopting the Common Core, which Washington got almost all states to do very quickly through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program.

Ironically, it is perhaps because Common Core supporters have devoted huge amounts of their time and resources to denying that Washington had a major role in advancing the Core–a role they quietly called for–that may have caused them to miss the cracking in the tripod’s testing leg. Or perhaps they knew, because most states wouldn’t do so on their own, that they would need Washington to force states to adopt uniform tests, while understanding that openly stating that necessity would prove toxic to their cause. They knew that Americans, largely, do not want overt federal control over what their schools teach and how their kids are tested. So they continued to downplay the need to establish any sort of governing structure to keep their tripod together, lest simple logic make clear to the public that only Washington could accomplish what the standardizers need.

In other words, the need to stay hush-hush about the federal role–in order to protect national standardization–ultimately may be what kills it.

Reality Hits Sunshine State “Accountability”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is arguably the leading supporter of both the Common Core national curriculum standards and top-down, standards-and-accountability-based reforms generally. And there is broad evidence that he had success with his overall education program as governor, though that included a sizable—and likely influential—amount of school choice. Given that success, why does the “accountability” piece of his overall program seem to be eroding, with the state school board voting last week to “pad” school grades, for the second year in a row, greatly reducing how many schools are deemed failures? Answering this is crucial to understanding why top-down reforms like Common Core—even if initially offering high standards and strict accountability—almost certainly won’t maintain them.

Once again, we have to visit our ol’ buddies, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Put simply, the people with the most at stake in a policy area will have the greatest motivation to be involved in the politics of that area, and in education those are the schooling employees whose very livelihoods come from the system. And being normal people like you or me, what they tend to ideally want is to get compensated as richly as possible while not being held accountable for their performance.

The natural counters to this should be the parents the employees are supposed to serve and the taxpayers footing the bills. But taxpayers have to worry about every part of the state spending pie, and can’t sustain their focus—or motivation—for long on any particular pie slice. Meanwhile, parents are much harder to organize than, say, teachers and administrators, and are only parents of school-aged children for so long. Political advantage: those whom government is supposed to hold accountable.

That said, in Florida it sounds like many parents and taxpayers may be getting fatigued by test-driven school grades, adding onto the power of employee groups. Like we’ve seen in Texas, Florida’s politics may be reflecting a general exhaustion with standards and testing that fails to treat either students, or schools and districts, as unique. In other words, the likely benefits to breaking down such systems are being felt by more parents and “regular” voters, which doesn’t bode well for standards-and-accountability in Florida.

Which brings us to the crucial point about the Common Core. Supporters have a tendency to promise the world with the Core (often neglecting to mention that it provides no accountability itself) largely because they think the standards are very high. But even if they are lofty, and even if they are initially coupled with common tests with high “proficiency” bars—an increasingly big “if”—because of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs the odds of them staying that way are poor. It is a huge problem that Core supporters need to address, even for people who like the idea of “tough” government standards for schools. But sadly, many supporters seem to ignore the problem, choosing instead to tout how supposedly excellent the standards are, and attack as loony opponents who dare to oppose the Core for numerous, very rational reasons.

Unfortunately, it seems a major reason for adopting that tactic is to shield from honest debate a policy that will, by its very nature, impose itself on the entire country. That’s something no one in the country should be happy about.

Teachers Union Poll Is Not Credible

Yesterday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released the results of a poll conducted by a Democratic polling firm supposedly showing that American parents don’t support a plethora of education reforms, including school choice, and would rather increase funding for public schools. A closer examination reveals that the some of the AFT’s poll questions were designed to push respondents into giving the answers that the AFT wanted, which is why their results are so different from previous polls from more credible organizations.  

Here’s an example of how the AFT phrased their questions:

With which approach for improving education do you agree more?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. We need to make the investments needed to ensure all schools provide safe conditions, an enriching curriculum, support for students’ social and emotional development, and effective teachers.

APPROACH B) We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Children will receive the best education if we give families the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.

It’s no surprise that 77 percent agreed with the first approach and only 20 percent agreed with the second. Either “invest” in “good” public schools in your “community” and receive all sort of wonderful goodies (“enriching curriculum!” “effective teachers!”) or forgo all that so that some parents can send their kids to private school “at public expense.” Aside from the fact that this is a false choice (competition can actually improve public school performance and school choice programs can save money), the wording is blatantly designed to push respondants toward Approach A.

But what if we rewrote those options?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in better public school safety, curriculum, support services, and teachers.

APPROACH B) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to good public charter schools and private schools in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in giving families the financial freedom to choose the schools that meet their needs.

This question is clearly more fair than the AFT poll’s since it employs similar wording in each answer. If we wanted to push respondents toward Approach B, we could replace “invests” with “at the public expense” and employ additional shenanigans like the AFT poll did (e.g. - “choose the schools with the most enriching curriculum and most effective teachers”).

Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine how the public would respond to fairly-worded questions. Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance conducts an annual survey of the public’s views on education policy that meets the highest standards for fairness and rigor. The survey eschews language designed to push respondents in a certain direction and often asks the same question with multiple wordings. According to the 2012 Harvard poll:

  • 54% of parents favor giving all families a “wider choice” to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • 46% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 50% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 50% opposed.
  • When the question omits the words “a wider choice” and only asks about using “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools,” 44% of parents are in favor with 32% opposed.

Note that while support fluctuates depending on the wording, no matter how Harvard asked the question there was still more support among parents for school choice than opposition.

Moreover, when asking about scholarship tax credits instead of vouchers, the support was even higher:

  • 57% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 16% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 73% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 27% opposed.

The AFT’s poll results only look so different from Harvard’s because their poll was designed to reflect what the AFT wanted to hear rather than what the public really believes.