October 11, 2012 12:52PM

Is Common Core about to Melt Down?

Is the national curriculum standards debate about to go nuclear?

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Proponents of national standards, as I've pointed out many times, have made a concerted effort to avoid attention as they've insidiously---and successfully---pushed the so-called Common Core on states. They've insisted the effort is "state led," even though states didn't create the standards and Washington coerced adoption through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers. They've called adoption "voluntary," even with the heavy hand of the Feds behind them. And they've assiduously avoided what blew up past efforts to impose national standards: concrete content such as required readings or history lessons that were guaranteed to make people angry.

Well, with a recent unveiling of sample items for federally funded tests that go with the standards, all that might be about to change, and the whole thing could become radioactive to the public.

A couple of days ago the HechingerEd blog---from the education-centric Hechinger Report---published a post looking at preliminary testing items from the two consortia hand-picked by the Obama administration to create the national tests. Included in the post were links to sample items. I didn't hit every one, but those I did check out contained, among other things,  confusing readings, poor questions, and lame functionality (in some cases the reading material on which questions were based didn't even show up). And here's one for the grammarians: A video-based item about the effect of weightlessness on astronauts' bodies asked how weightlessness is like "lying" on a bed. The astronaut being interviewed, however, said it's like "laying on a bed." A small matter, perhaps, but one among many matters both small and big.

And here's a really big one:

Smarter Balanced officials gave an example of a multi-part question in which high school students are asked to imagine they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman. Before they start working on the test, their teacher is supposed to lead a classroom activity about nuclear power. The students are then asked to come up with a list of pros and cons about nuclear power. Finally, they must write up a presentation for the congresswoman to give at a press conference later that day.... Questions like the one about nuclear power are more expensive, because they will likely require a trained evaluator to score them.

So much for avoiding controversy! Not only do we discover that the tests will have students take on hot-button topics like nuclear power, but scores will be meted out by human evaluators.

The fears and problems are clear: What should students be told about nuclear power---or any other contentious issue---that the tests address? Who decides? Will evaluators really just grade students on the structure of their presentations, or whether students write things with which the evaluators agree?  How will scoring be consistent among evaluators? Even if consistent, how will students and parents be assured of that?

This day had to arrive sooner or later. Eventually, something substantive had to come from the Common Core crowd. The question now is whether it will cause the whole, dubious undertaking to suddenly melt down.

October 3, 2012 4:57PM

Why Are Conservatives Incoherent on Federal Education?

For a nice overview of the counterproductive incoherence of Republican education efforts over the decades, check out this piece by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. And for a sense of how confused conservatives remain when they write pieces telling other conservatives how to have "good" federal education policy, read the same piece. Its history section gives you the first part, and, unfortunately, its other sections give you the rest.

Hess and Kelly -- who are generally pretty sharp -- furnish a terrific overview of what happens when you talk "local control" of government schools and decry federal micromanaging, but can't stop yourself from spending federal money and love "standards and accountability." Basically, you get a great big refuse heap of squandered money, red tape, educational stagnation, and political failure.

Having laid all that out pretty nicely, you'd think that Hess and Kelly would reach the logical conclusion: Conservatives should obey the Constitution and get Washington out of education. But they don't. Instead they give precious little thought to the Constitution, and make policy prescriptions that fundamentally ignore that government tends to work for the people we'd have it control. You know, concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; iron triangles -- basically, the big problems Hess and Kelly decry at state and local levels.

Start with their constitutional argument (such as it is):

Read the rest of this post »
September 25, 2012 1:16PM

Squandering Assessment Test

Yesterday the annual summary of SAT — formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test — scores came out, and the news was once again disheartening. Indeed, average reading scores hit a record low, and math remained stagnant. Writing scores also dipped, but that part of the test has only existed since 2006.


There are important provisos that go with drawing conclusions about the nation’s education system using the SAT. Most notably, who takes it is largely self‐​selected, and growing numbers of people sitting for it — some of whom might not have bothered in the past — could lower scores without indicating the system is getting worse. That said, as the chart below shows, no likely amount of self‐​selection or changing test‐​takers can account for the overwhelming lack of correlation between spending and scores. Per‐​pupil outlays have taken off like a moonshot while scores have either sat on the runway, or even burrowed down a bit.

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Sadly, this corresponds to the results from long‐​term National Assessment of Educational Progress exams — which are nationally representative — for 17‐​year‐​olds. Again, as the following chart reveals, spending has skyrocketed while scores have, um, decidedly not skyrocketed.

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There are factors that make comparing year‐​to‐​year SAT scores imprecise. But the trend clearly reinforces what we should already know: we get almost no return for our education “investment.”

September 20, 2012 10:45AM

Hooray for the Rankings!

divThe following is cross‐​posted from SeeThruE​du​.com, a new blog analyzing higher education:


Heaven knows there are oodles of problems with American higher education – and you’ll get them all thoroughly dissected, diagnosed, and wellness plans delivered at SeeThruEdu – but I want to start my blogging here on a positive note. At least, a relatively positive note: American higher education is way closer to a free market than our moribund elementary and secondary system, and there’s no better sign of that than the oft‐​maligned U.S. News and World Report college rankings released last week.


Just like higher education generally, the U.S. News rankings have huge problems. Heck, Emory University admitted to having sent inflated SAT and ACT scores, as well as class ranks, to the publication for years. As a result, in the latest rankings Emory moved…not one bit. The school stayed as number 20 among “national universities,” and U.S. News apparently just accepted the data Emory submitted this time based on the school having “confirmed” them. More broadly, the rankings are based far more on inputs such as endowment funds, and dubious academic reputation surveys, than measures of what students actually learn.


But the good news isn’t the perfection of the U.S. News rankings. It’s what their very existence signifies: Higher ed consumers have real power, and institutions are sufficiently independent that they can both compete with one another and specialize in the needs of different students. It’s why not only do the U.S. News rankings exist, they are essentially the magazine’s flagship publication.


And college rankings are hardly restricted to U.S. News. Countless rankings and reviews are out there, giving prospective students and their parents myriad ways to slice and dice their options. No doubt the best of these – because of who’s in charge of them – comes from fellow SeeThruEdu blogger, and higher ed gadfly extraordinaire, Richard Vedder, whose Forbes​.com rankings assess schools using alumni success and costs. The Princeton Review will tell you where students have their noses most to the grindstone, or most obscured by beer‐​filled Solo cups. And the Associated Press just profiled two new entrants, one which ranks schools based on “revealed preference” – which schools students choose when accepted to multiple institutions – and one based on alumni satisfaction. And there are many, many more!


Unfortunately, part of the reason rankings are in such incredible abundance is that there is way too much consumer power in higher ed, if by power we mean money. Basically, students can demand all sorts of extravagant things (I need my massages and water park!) because third‐​parties – most notably the federal government – give them wads of cash to do so. Indeed, higher education is massively inefficient as a result of humongous subsidies both directly to schools and to students. But that will be the subject of many, far less giddy posts from me in the future. For now, a bit of a happy note: Hooray for the college rankings! Things in higher education could actually be worse!

September 17, 2012 8:48AM

Don’t Rush Me, Kid, I’m Striking!

In case you weren’t sure whether the teachers union in Chicago — where the strike continues despite widespread agreement last week that kids would be in school today — is really fighting for “the children,” here’s all the quote you need:

“Our members are not happy,” CTU President Karen Lewis said, according to the Associated Press. “They want to know if there is anything more they can get. They feel rushed.”

I mean, what’s the hurry? It’s not the union’s education!

September 11, 2012 2:46PM

Marketplace Map Gives Half the Story

Last week, American Public Media’s Marketplace posted an interactive map—attached to a much‐​appreciated interview with me—enabling users to see how much states spent per public‐​college student in 2011, and how that had changed over the the last twenty‐​five years. It cites as its sources the State Higher Education Executive Officers and me. Unfortunately, it gives only half of the story I was trying to relate with my crunching of SHEEO’s data: per‐​pupil state and local spending has generally been on a downward trend, but that does not come close to fully explaining rising prices.


To get the full breakdown of the data you can access my calculations here. Note, though — as I wrote in the blog post to which my crunching was originally attached — I didn’t put the spreadsheet together for widespread dissemination, at least not to appear authoritative. I think it’s on target, but I didn’t triple‐​check it as I would have a more formal data analysis. More importantly, the key point is that while most states have seen decreasing per‐​pupil allocation trends — primarily because of very large enrollment spurts — they have much more than made up for those losses through tuition increases, bringing in roughly two dollars for every dollar lost. Taxpayers aren’t cheap— colleges are greedy.

September 4, 2012 1:08PM

Democrats’ Problem: Teachers and Their Unions Just Like the Rest of Us

Let’s face it: everyone is trying to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s normal, with people doing things because they feel they’ll make them better off. The problem starts when you insist that you’re a saint — that you’re somehow far more selfless than most other people — and you just can’t keep up the charade any longer. Welcome to the Democratic Party’s teacher union problem.


It seems that trying to keep the party’s union‐​heavy base happy while simultaneously appearing unbeholden to entrenched interests is going to be a tricky balancing act for the Democrats. But dealing with teachers unions — which adding the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers together have about 4.7 million members — is going to be particularly treacherous. Educators are by far the biggest unionized bloc, and almost certainly the most troublesome. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports today, Democrats are particularly rent asunder on education issues, and a new movie about a parent taking on the union to turn a bad public school into a charter school — the so‐​called parent trigger—is driving another wedge.


The movie, Won’t Back Down, has already been panned by AFT president Randi Weingarten. But at least her union — unlike the larger and more obstinate National Education Association — acknowledges that there are education problems, and maybe the unions’ time‐​honored demand of “more money and no accountability” has had something to do with them.


“We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten recently told the New York Times. “We were focused — as unions are — on fairness and not as much on quality.”


No doubt part of the reason that at least the AFT is accepting a little blame is that it sees that teachers unions are losing the sympathies of many members of the public. People are seemingly growing tired of seeing unionized educators enjoying good incomes and expensive perks while those paying the taxes struggle and test scores languish.


The problem with the union reinvention — at least as captured by the Weingarten quote — is that it probably strikes many people as hollow. Why? Because they know that unions are run by normal people and represent normal people, and what they want first and foremost is not what’s best for kids or “fairness,” but getting as good a deal for themselves as possible. In other words, they are starting to see through unions’ selfless‐​angels facade — the public relations sham of people just wanting a living wage while they give the mythical 110 percent “for the kids” —and are glimpsing normal, profit‐​seeking human beings who have had a fairly cushy deal over the decades.


Teachers unions, as those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have said, are not the root problem in education, nor are they or the people they represent any more evil or good than most other people. The root educational problem is that public schools are government schools, and politics — which cannot be detached from government—rewards concentrated special interests, of which unionized teachers are among the biggest.


For the Democratic Party, the big problem is that for decades the teachers unions have insisted that they and their members as far more noble than almost anyone else. At least, more noble than anyone openly seeking a profit, which is most people. But the public is catching on: teachers and their unions are just as self‐​interested as most other people, and government‐​run schooling has enabled them to get some awfully nice, taxpayer‐​funded deals. So what do you do? Acknowledge the paper‐​mache wings have fallen off and risk the wrath of the teacher unionists, or keep up the angelic charade and hope the public stops noticing reality? Neither is a happy prospect for the Democratic Party.