We Want Better Answers

I want to thank Mike Petrilli for trying to answer the big national standards question: Why would national academic standards be any less vulnerable to political forces dumbing them down than currently rock-bottom state and local standards? Unfortunately, Mike’s answer is far from satisfying, but since he wrote it while playing Jim McKay, he can probably be excused…for the moment.

Mike kicks off his response by pointing out that Fordham actually addressed this question two years ago in To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools. He even takes a snarky dig at Eduwonk—who recently asked the big politics question—for acting like he didn’t know the answer even though he was an expert voice in Impossible Dream

Mike will be glad to know that I read the report when it came out (despite my outrage at its exploiting a favorite inspirational song). I did not, however, really get an answer to my question from it, either the first time I read it or in my dutiful re-reading. The report was more a heavily excerpted roundtable discussion on national standards and tests than a rigorous analysis of specific proposals, and it offered thin treatments of the special-interest-power problem.

While we’re on the report, by the way, I need to stand up for the currently vacationing Eduwonk (he’s had guest bloggers for the last couple of weeks) because it seems that not only he, but Mike himself, may not have read Impossible Dream.

In the report, the Fordham authors, including Mike, endorsed the second model discussed, dubbed “If You Build It, They Will Come.” (Sappy movies and musicals really take a beating in this thing.) That model would have the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—a quasi-independent entity that currently runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—create national standards, exams, and accountability metrics in reading, mathematics, and science, and would encourage state adoption either by offering states more money or regulatory relief.

Despite the endorsement of model #2 in the report, Mike points to the third proposal—“Let’s All Hold Hands”—in his blog post as the model to embrace. This Kumbaya little number would have Washington possibly provide financial or other incentives to get states to adopt common standards and tests, but the standards and tests would be created by consortia of states or other non-federal entities. This, Mike says, would evade teacher unions and other standards-sinking interests by furnishing “political cover for governors and state chiefs who want higher standards but can’t easily sell it to their local constituents.”

Since Mike seems to be presenting us with two favored national-standards scenarios, we’ll explore why neither offers anything akin to hope. Let’s start, though, with an assessment of the likely effects of all possible standards-and-adoption combos in a system in which those to be held accountable have outsized influence over the policies that would do the holding:

1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
2. Challenging standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
4. Challenging standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will face constant political pressure to make them easier. The outcomes will ultimately be poor.

The conclusion here is clear: When schools are controlled by government, the incentive structure always leads to poor outcomes because the people who would be held to the standards — and who have the greatest incentive and ability to affect policy — have every natural incentive to keep standards low while maximizing their freedom and income. So, make the standards tough and they’ll either be ignored or pushed down. Make ‘em easy, and they won’t matter. Roughly a century of public schooling has shown this, and Mike seems to agree that, at least so far, neither the states nor Washington have disproven it.

So would “If They Build It, They Will Come” curb the scenarios above? Nope. If the feds—which includes the NAGB—were to set truly demanding standards and strong incentives to adopt them, serious pressure would be put toward easing the standards.

What could counter it? Fordham rests its hopes on two things: NAGB’s independence, and voluntary participation.

The former, frankly, seems worthless, predicated largely on the fact that the NAGB is currently insulated from politics. But currently there isn’t a dime connected to how well states or schools do on NAEP — it carries no tangible consequences. Attach real regulatory relief or money to adopting the standards and doing well on them, however, and it’ll be sayonara to political insulation. Indeed, Fordham concedes in Impossible Dream that the NAGB “could be compromised by the changes and added burdens here.”

Voluntary adoption is an even flimsier defense. Make the standards too high relative to the rewards of volunteering and states won’t sign-on. In contrast, couple high standards with big rewards and, well, re-read what I just wrote about the NAGB. 

How about “Let’s All Hold Hands”? Mike asserts that this lateral, state-consortia approach is seeing the most traction, with groups like Achieve getting states to sign onto common standards and assessments. But experience with these consortia so far gives little indication that if the groups were to create challenging standards that students struggle to meet, the standards wouldn’t soon be hollowed out. Most states in Achieve’s American Diploma Project, for instance, have only just started aligning their standards and graduation requirements with common benchmarks, and there’s been no time to see what happens if lots of kids or schools can’t hit the standards and are punished as a result.

As for “political cover” for state policymakers who would impose tough but unpopular standards and accountability, I see no reason why a consortium couldn’t just as easily furnish cover to weaken standards or accountability as raise them.

I can just hear it now:

“Mom! Washington State and Maryland are making things easier on themselves! Why can’t we?”

“Be quiet and finish your homework! What? You don’t have any…”

Make no mistake: I’m grateful to Mike for trying to answer my burning national-standards question. Really, I am. But harsh reality just seems to eclipse impossible dreams.

Pre-K Pushers Don’t Know and Don’t Care About the Evidence

Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell have a great article in the Wall Street Journal that argues we should be very concerned about the current mania for preschool.

In response, USA Today editorial page editor and president of the Education Writers Association Richard Whitmire pens this gem on Eduwonk:

I don’t see the need to defend the research behind the benefits of preschool, but here’s the latest I wrote on this.

You’d think his link would take you to a definitive statement revealing the indisputable benefits of preschool. That is, something substantive containing actual analysis.

Unfortunately, his “analysis” consists of a breezy and factually incorrect USA Today editorial swooning over Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program:

Oklahoma educators credit their decade-old preschool program with pushing up reading and math scores in the lower grades, and with raising achievement by low-income children.

In reality, Oklahoma lost substantial ground compared to the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, AKA “the nation’s report card”) during the 1990’s at the very same time the state was aggressively expanding preschool access, increasing attendance, and building a system that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) rates 9 out of 10 on quality.

  • Oklahoma slipped from one point above the national average in 4th grade math in 1992 to two points behind in 2007.
  • Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores plummeted. In 1992, 4th grade reading scores were 5 points above the national average and in 2007 they were 3 points behind.

The one finding Witmire cites — from the High/Scope Perry Preschool project — included home visitations in addition to preschool and had serious methodological problems.

Our Convoluted, Less-than-open Immigration System

If you think the United States has an “open border” policy toward immigrants, check out this immigration flowchart put together by our friends over at the Reason Foundation.

In one graphic sweep, it explains better than mere words why we need comprehensive immigration reform.

Of course, if you are one of those people who like to read the articles and not just look at the pictures, you can check out Cato research on immigration at the Center for Trade Policy Studies web site.

Phi Delta Kappa Scared to Ask About Education Tax Credits

The new 2008 PDK/Gallup poll on education is anti-school-choice advocacy masquerading as responsible research.

In 1999, the last year PDK/Gallup asked about education tax credits, 57 percent of the public supported credits to cover the full cost of private school tuition and 65 percent of the public supported tax credits for part of the cost.

Instead of asking clear and informative questions about vouchers and education tax credits in 2008, however, the survey recycles a generic, biased, and discredited question they introduced after support for vouchers began to climb in their own surveys.

The PDK/Gallup poll now asks about a respondent’s support for “allowing students and parents to choose a private school at public expense.”

This loaded and abstract language is meant to lower what other more balanced polls have shown is deep and widespread support for school choice and for education tax credits in particular.

That’s one reason Georgia passed a new tax credit program this year and why Arizona, Rhode Island, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Florida all recently passed or expanded education tax credit programs with crucial bipartisan support from Democrats.

The Democrats and Free Trade

If and when trade and globalization come up at the Democratic National Convention next week, I can almost guarantee that the take will be negative. It has become part of the party’s core message these days that free trade favors the rich at home and our unfair trading partners abroad. Just yesterday, in a tour of southern Virginia, Democratic hope Barak Obama took an indirect swipe at trade when he told a crowd in Martinsville, “You’re worried about the future. Here people have gone through very tough times. When you’ve got entire industries that have shipped overseas, when you’ve got thousands of jobs being lost… . That’s tough.”

Not all Democrats share the pessimistic view of trade. In the latest edition of the Cato Journal, hot off the presses, I review a new book by pro-trade Democrat Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute. In my review of Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, I wrote:

Although it is easy to forget today as Democratic candidates rail against NAFTA and globalization, but for decades it was the Democratic Party that championed lower tariffs. Democrats opposed the high tariff wall maintained by Republicans from the Civil War to World War One, arguing that tariffs benefited big business at the expense of poor consumers. Under President Woodrow Wilson, Congress drastically lowered tariffs in 1913 and replaced the revenue with an income tax, only to see Republicans raise tariffs again in the 1920s, culminating in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 and the Great Depression that followed.

The Democrats should think long and hard before they give up that legacy altogether.

You can read the full review here.

The Role of NATO Expansion

My buddy Matt Yglesias takes up Thomas Friedman’s NYT column yesterday pointing out the role that NATO expansion played in creating the climate of tense relations between Washington and Moscow.  Matt concludes “you can’t draw a straight line from the initial NATO enlargement decision to war in the summer of 2008.”

Well, fine.  It’s true, you can’t draw a straight line.  But it certainly played a big role.  Moreover, Matt’s contention that the positive side of the NATO expansion ledger (“helping to consolidate democratic norms [especially in the field of civil-military relations] in a swathe of countries that’s now pretty big and prosperous and somewhat important”) balances out the negative (setting the stage for the situation in which we find ourselves today vis-a-vis Russia) just doesn’t hold up.

First, the perception that NATO is an engine of democratic enlargement has some fairly significant problems with it, as Dan Reiter pointed out in International Security in 2001 (.pdf).  (Follow up debate in IS here.)

Moreover, while the Clinton administration was making this quasi-Wilsonian argument about spreading democracy out of one side of their mouths, out of the other side they were blustering as Strobe Talbott did in 1997 that “there is no more solemn commitment the United States can make,” pointing out the implications of Article V–the part of the NATO charter that says an attack on one member shall be viewed as an attack on all.  Talbott conceded further that the American nuclear arsenal would be used to back up those obligations, and that such commitments were “serious stuff.”  In the New York Review of Books, Talbott had taken to making outright machtpolitik-y statements like his idea that the first argument that should be presented to Russia about NATO expansion was

Enlargement is going to happen; fighting it with threats will only intensify the darkest suspicions about Russia’s intentions and future.

So we’re going to do it anyway, we don’t care what you say, and you’re weak and can’t do anything about it, so you’d best shut up.  Clear enough.  Rest assured the Russians heard declarations like these in addition to the Wilsonian claptrap that the Clinton people rolled out to concerned domestic audiences.  That, in part, is why Putin today says things like he did to NATO in Bucharest, that

Russia viewed “the appearance of a powerful military bloc” on its borders “as a direct threat” to its security. “The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice,” Mr. Putin said. “National security is not based on promises.”

Either NATO is a binding military alliance against Russia, or it’s not.  It could be other things at the same time, but we shouldn’t be confused about what it was that made NATO membership so attractive to a country like, say, Poland.  It was Article V.

It ought to go without saying that Putin is far from blameless in all this, and the emerging narrative–that he laid a trap for Saakashvili–seems to me to be right.  But it ought not to be denied that the ill-advised bipartisan consensus on expanding NATO as much and as rapidly as possible helped set the backdrop for the ambiguous, fumbling, and dangerous American involvement in this conflict.

Also, even accepting the argument about promoting democratic norms as ironclad, is the status of civil-military relations in Hungary or Lithuania really worth this?  NATO expansion and the outside-the-Security Council recognition of Kosovo have been sacred cows for liberals for a long time, but it’s well past time for them to admit that they share some of the blame for the disastrous state of U.S.-Russia relations today.