Tag: education

Reality, Reality, Reality…

This weekend I furnished an anti-national standards piece in a point-counterpoint of sorts in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. You can check out what the paper published here, but for my complete argument you’ll have to go here. Unfortunately, the Herald-Journal ‘s  editors  removed a few crucial paragraphs on the powerful evidence that school choice works better than any top-down government standards. This was done largely, I was told, because the paper had had a very energizing exchange on choice just a month or so ago.  C’est la vie…

My reason for writing today is not to complain about the excision of my choice paragraphs, but to take issue with a few things that South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex – my op-ed “opponent” – wrote in his defense of national standards.

The first bit I have to quibble with could certainly just be the result of imprecise writing, not an intentional effort to deceive readers or anything like that, but it bears a quick clarification:

In addition to setting “proficiency standards” on their tests, individual states also are empowered under the U.S. Constitution to define “curriculum standards,” the skills and knowledge that students should learn at each grade level.

Let’s just be clear: The Constitution does not give states any power over education. It gives the federal government limited, enumerated powers and leaves all others to the states or people with whom they resided to begin with. And contrary to possible appearances, the term “curriculum standards” does not appear in the Constitution.

OK, next:

Already we’re hearing concerns from some that this project will lead to a conspiratorial “power grab” by the federal government and that it will open the door to national standards and national tests. But South Carolina’s previous experience with similar state-led efforts suggests otherwise.

The obscure examples of previous efforts Rex identifies after this quote notwithstanding, there are very good reasons to be afraid that national standards – even initially agreed to by a consortium of states – will lead to federal control. Here’s just one: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just announced that Washington will furnish up to $350 million to create national tests connected to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the exact national-standards effort Rex and I were debating.

Finally, this can’t go without comment:

A few alarmists have even suggested that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative will ultimately produce “dumbed down” standards just to make schools “look good.” But that ludicrous idea ignores the stark reality of our world.

The U.S. economy has changed dramatically. American companies compete today not only with businesses on the other side of town but also with businesses on the other side of the globe. American schools compete with schools in Taipei, Bangalore and Beijing, and they must prepare students to meet challenges that can’t even be imagined today.

Have I been missing something, or isn’t one of the major drivers of the national standards push precisely that states, both before and under No Child Left Behind, have produced, well, ” ’dumbed down’ standards just to make schools ‘look good’?” And haven’t they been doing this despite drastic changes in the U.S. economy? And if so, what exactly is so “ludicrous” about thinking that state or federal politicians will keep on doing the same politically expedient things they’ve been doing for decades?

Nothing, of course. What’s ludicrous is thinking that political reality will change just because different levels of politicians are in charge.

The Quiet War against School Choice

First, the Democrats in Washington for all intents and purposes killed the District of Columbia’s proven voucher program, but did it with Ninja-like stealth. The weapons: Nearly impossible reauthorization requirements, late Friday announcements, and politically expedient promises to keep kids currently attending good schools from being very publicly booted.

Now it’s Milwaukee’s turn. The new Democratic majority in Madison is on its way to cutting the value of individual vouchers while raising public school per-pupil expenditures, and even worse, is larding new regulations on private schools participating in the choice program. Perhaps the most ridiculous proposed reg: Requiring all participating private schools with student bodies that are more than 10 percent limited English proficient to provide  a “bilingual-bicultural education program.” As if one of the major benefits of choice isn’t that parents can choose such programs if they think they are best for their kids, and can select something else if they don’t! But, of course, political decisions aren’t primarily about what parents want and kids need.

Thankfully, there is a resistance forming to the assault in Milwaukee, with choice advocates now refusing to remain quiet after naively doing so when they were told that fighting back would only make things worse. The choice-supporting national media is also speaking up. But one can’t help but fear that it may be too little, too late.

A Lesson about Power

High school seniors pull a prank by pitching tents in the school courtyard and sleeping there overnight.  Does the school need to discipline them?  Perhaps.  Maybe have them stay after school and pick up litter or something.

But school officials want the police to arrest the students.  And when a student who had no involvement in the prank speaks out against the school authorities’ response by sending out an email, he too must be punished!  The lesson here is do not question authority.

Either praise your school principal or be very quiet and obedient.

MD Taxpayers Should Still Fear the Turtle

testudoI dread my morning commute, largely because of awful D.C. traffic, but also because I never know when I’m going to hear something on the radio that’s (1) going to anger me, and (2) force me to alter my day’s plans so I can lay the smack down on some education report that begs for clarification.

Today, (2) happened, with a reporter from the Washington Business Journal touting a new study on the University of Maryland, College Park – Maryland’s flagship public university – as cause for Marylanders to be ecstatic about the taxes they pay to support the school. According to the WBJ’s online article about the report, the Free State gets $8 back for every $1 taxpayers “invest” in UMCP – a clear winner!

Um, not so fast, WBJ! These kinds of too-good-to-be-true impact studies are usually just that – too good to be true. There are often many problems with them, but most important is that unless the analysts looked at opportunity costs – what would have been produced by the tax dollars had they been left with taxpayers – there is no way to say that Marylanders should be eternally grateful for having to fear the turtle. It is entirely possible, as economist Richard Vedder has demonstrated, that taxpayers would have gotten a better return had they kept their money rather than having to hand it over to  students and profs.

Of course, before I posted this objection, I had to check out the report to see if it is forthcoming about opportunity costs. Unfortunately, despite the university touting the findings yesterday and the WBJ reporting on them this morning, all I could find was the 2008 impact report, both looking on the site of the group that commissioned the study – the University of Maryland College Park Foundation – and the outfit that conducted the research. As a result, I can’t say with absolute certainty that the 2009 study doesn’t consider opportunity costs. If the 2009 report is like 2008’s, however, Marylanders have no cause for rejoicing. There’s zero reason to believe that they wouldn’t have been better off if they had just been able to keep their hard-earned ducats.

No Longer among the “Usual Left-Right Battles”

Christopher J. Christie just decisively won New Jersey’s Republican gubernatorial primary, but had to veer away from his middle-of-the-road plan and venture into some traditionally conservative territory to do it, according to news accounts. Will that be a problem for him in the general election? Not necessarily. As NorthJersey.com’s Charles Stile observes, Christie’s ardent support for private school choice is not the polarizing stance it once was: these programs “once championed by conservative ideologues, are being embraced by urban Democrats.”

As we’ve been saying at the Center for Educational Freedom for some time now, the post-partisan age of school choice is well within sight, and draws closer every day. The last politicos to see that will find themselves on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of voters in both parties.

Get Back to Me When They’ve Got Something to Launch

Over the past few days, it seems like every major state newspaper ran a story on the state’s governor signing onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to establish national standards in mathematics and reading curricula. The only holdouts are Alaska, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina.

I should probably be more worried, because national standards are a terrible idea.

First, there is nothing inherently better about having a single standard agreed to by numerous states than having individual states set standards for themselves. Either way, politicians – people inherently most responsive to mobilized, highly motivated public school employees who want as little meaningful accountability as possible – will be setting the standards, and the standards will therefore either start low or end up there pretty fast.

Second, the notion that national standards adopted by even just a few states will remain both voluntary for all states and non-federal is pure fantasy, like unicorns, or selfless bureaucrats. Once some version of national standards exist, Washington will tie money to adopting them, which is how the feds force states to “volunteer” for all kinds of odious stuff.

“Oh, sure, feel free to turn down the money, Mr. Arizona” Uncle Sam says. “But your citizens? Well, I don’t think we’ll be taking any volunteers on paying federal taxes…”

The Obama Administration has already got this in the works, suggesting that adopting some sort of national standard could make a state eligible for a piece of the Secretary of Education’s so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a $5 billion “stimulus” pot of gold controlled by the secretary.

Of course, the ultimate threat is that once standards go federal they never go back, and we’ll be stuck with one-size-fits-all standards for every state, district, and child in America, standards controlled by the National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and every other card-carrying member of the self-serving education establishment. And even though we’ll finally live in a utopia in which “the child in Mississippi is held to the same standards as the child in New York,” we won’t suddenly see test scores skyrocket or heretofore untapped genius spring forth across the land. We’ll just see an even worse version of the hopelessly moribund, socialist education system we have today.

So why, in light of all these dreadful threats, am I not too worried? Because what governors have agreed to so far is just to draft national standards, not to adopt them, and as I wrote last month, while the national standards crowd seems unanimously exuberant about having a single set of standards for every kid in America, they can’t even come close to agreeing on what those standards should be. And if they can’t agree on what the national standards should be, what are the odds that millions of other people will simply assent to having someone else’s standards foisted upon them?

Not very high. Indeed, when establishing national standards was attempted in the 1990s the real fireworks didn’t begin until proposed standards were published. Then, it seemed that everyone had a different reason they were outraged – outraged! – by the standards.  At best, there was only one point of broad consensus: that the wannabe national standards simply had to go.

So are national standards a serious threat? They sure are: Were they to be enacted, the educationally deadly government-schooling monopoly would be complete, with even the ability to escape to better districts or states cut off. But the news of states agreeing to develop shared standards doesn’t raise the threat level to DEFCON 1. It’s only if they complete the task – if they can somehow agree on how many fins to put on their missile, what range to shoot for, what color to paint it, where to target it, whose names to put on it, what fuel to use, and so on – that we should really become concerned. And making those decisions is, of course, the really tough part.

Parents Fact Check Ed. Secretary. MSM AWOL

Caroline Grannan, erstwhile editor at the San Jose Mercury News, just posted a fact check of a recent speech by Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan. The fact checking was actually done by Chicago watchdog group Parents United for Responsible Education, and Grannan laments her former media colleagues’ “unwillingness to question claims like Duncan’s.” You and me both, Ms. Grannan.

According to PURE, Duncan claimed that a startling turnaround at one Chicago public school was achieved after its original students returned following a major restructuring. Citing Chicago Public Schools’ own data, PURE claims only 12 of the original students actually returned (more details in an earlier letter cited here).

That’s an interesting model for school improvement… ditch the low performing kids.

Not sure that could be brought to scale.