Schools and the conventional wisdoms

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Facts are, as John Adams famously noted, “stubborn things.” But facts are also what makes politicians of good will less stubborn; that is, it is empirical evidence that allows both major parties to to coalesce around reforms that will work. Compromise for compromise’s sake, or hewing to conventional wisdom, is most often pandering with an eye toward one’s own ambitions. But, armed with facts, people of even the most strongly held principles can come to very surprising positions.

We’ve been hearing a lot about how education may be the area for compromise between the two major parties. What’s driving this coalescence? Hard choices by the Obama administration? Empirical evidence? Or it is conventional wisdom?

With Labor Day now behind us and the Democratic National Convention beginning, we are in for two months of debate on issues that will necessarily go well beyond the “fairness” narrative of the left and the “job creator” narrative of the right. It’s a useful moment to take stock of how the past four years have changed education reform debates.

On the substance, Rock the Schoolhouse readers will know that I give the legacy of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan a mixed review, with early positives and later negatives. The shortest hand way to put is this: The first year used the bully pulpit well to expand charter schools and, importantly, in a way that upheld appropriate state legislative prerogatives (in all but four states, such expansions went through state legislative processes). The debate over charters is forever changed, though one hopes that states will not just expand charters but learn some lessons from Massachusetts, which has made no bones in closing underperforming charter schools.

The last three years have, unfortunately, been less successful, turning into an increasingly disappointing exercise in hubris, with numerous federal and state administrative moves that centralize in Washington DC decision-making on academic standards and tests, teacher evaluations, student data (a story to be told), curricular content and instructional practice. The fight against expanding school choice options right in the president’s backyard is wrong-headed. And the continued emphasis on using stimulus money to boost teacher employment levels is not nearly as important as getting great teachers into the classroom.

We’ll see how the Democrats talk about education at their convention, which reportedly will be more lightly attended by union officials than in the past, but without a doubt they will spend more time discussing education than the Republic conventioneers did.

If the Republican convention showed us anything about Republicans’ views about education, it demonstrated just how successful the Obama administration has been in politically scrambling the decks. No longer is it clear which party is for standards, testing and charter schools (used to be Republicans), and which is for centralized policymaking in DC (used to be Democrats).

Republicans have always had within their midst a cadre of policymakers who believed that they could counter union power from the center—from DC—with prescriptive standards and testing as their core tools. The Fordham Institute and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander fall within that camp, comfortable with a level of control in DC that even the architect of the Great Society programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson, did not countenance. The justification for this convergence is “international competitiveness,” the driving force for DC-based policymakers since A Nation at Risk, if not 50 years before.

At the Republican national convention, Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice made focused on this line of argument, with Bush noting:

Of 34 advanced nations in the world, American students ranked 17th in science, 25th in math. Only one-quarter of high-school graduates are ready for their next steps.

Since the time when he was governor of Florida, Bush has been a passionate advocate of a nearly comprehensive set of education reforms. He and Rice showed passion in their descriptions of how high a priority education reform should be in a possible Republican or Democratic administration:

Bush: “The first step is a simple one. We must stop prejudging children based on their race, ethnicity, or household income.”

Rice: “We have been successful because Americans have known that one’s status of birth is not a permanent condition. Americans have believed that you might not be able to control your circumstances but you can control your response to your circumstances.”

Bush went on to tout his reforms in Florida, such as school accountability via an A to F grading system, the establishment of tough 3rd grade reading accountability, a top-notch virtual school program, expansion of parental choice, and charter schools. These reforms were important and have had sizable effects on the state’s performance relative to other states on national assessments.

Here in Florida, in 1999, we were at the bottom of the nation in education. For the last decade, this state has been on a path of reform… Today, more students are reading on grade level, passing rigorous college prep courses, and graduating from high school, and perhaps most exciting, those traditionally left behind are showing the greatest gains.

Among African-American students, Florida is ranked fourth in the nation are academic improvement. Among low- income students, we are ranked third for gains. Among students with disabilities, we are ranked first. Among Latino students, the gains were so big, they require a new metric. Right now, Florida’s fourth grade Hispanic students read as well or better than the average of all students in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

His is a strong record on many fronts, but also one with chinks in the armor, and overstatements of accomplishment. This summer, the Florida school grading system has run into a buzz saw this year, with sometimes wildly changing school grades and a loss of confidence in the accountability system’s objectivity and reliability.

The progress of Florida’s Hispanic students on the NAEP is impressive but in reality only slightly better than in Massachusetts (which would not think of heralding itself a miracle state as regards Hispanic achievement and, whose Hispanic students, like those in other states, scored below Florida’s when NAEP began providing more consistent student performance data in 1993).

Most importantly, there are distinct limitations to Florida’s reforms. The Sunshine State as a whole rose to join the top 10 states on the national assessments and then more recently fell out of the top 10, suggesting that the changes sufficed to rise in the rankings, but not to sustained performance at the top level. As they say, the higher the altitude, the tougher the climb.

What has always been missing from Florida’s reform efforts is a strong focus on academic standards. That same lack of focus on academic content can be seen in the work of other education reformers, such as former NYC School Superintendent Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who made frequent changes in direction on standards without a coherent liberal arts vision for their schools.

That’s why when Governor Bush began speaking of academic standards at the convention, one is not sure what he is suggesting. He recognized that a number of states have made real progress in improving the quality of public education:

We must have high academic standards that are benchmarked to the best in the world. You see, all kids can learn. Governor Romney believes it, and the data proves it. While he was governor, Massachusetts raised standards, and today their students lead the nation in academic performance.

Even during Governor Bush’s two terms, Florida did not show particular passion for academic standards; and recently his energetic boosterism for a key initiative of the Obama administration—to create nationalized standards and tests—seems out of place when he speaks of “high academic standards that are benchmarked to the best in the world.”

Why? As Sandra Stotsky, a national expert on academic standards who has worked with states across the country and is the individual most responsible for Massachusetts’ now-defunct state standards which were internationally benchmarked, noted in testimony to the Utah Education Interim Committee in August:

Common Core’s standards for English language arts are neither research-based nor internationally benchmarked… To judge from my own research on the language and literature requirements for a high school diploma…, Common Core’s ELA standards fall far below what other English-speaking nations or regions require of college-intending high school graduates.” In fact, that is the main reason that [Stotsky] and four other members of the [Common Core] Validation Committee declined to sign off on Common Core’s standards.

Governor Bush’s embrace of national standards and tests has cost him support from key education policymakers in the Republican Party. One noted to me by phone while she was at the convention that “Jeb’s advocacy for Race to the Top smacks of too much comfort with big government bureaucracy and the usual ‘Let’s make the states comply with federal dictates.’” Those are tough words—and in some sense merited if you are a Republican surprised by Bush’s embrace of having the federal government fund and in part direct the development of national standards, tests and curricula. After all, even LBJ’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act expressly prohibited such a thing.

I know, like, and respect, and have publicly debated Governor Bush on this point. He is serious about K-12 education—but he has too great a faith in big centralized solutions (a cynic might say that’s a long-standing trait of the Bush family’s governing philosophy).
The Common Core he is supporting around the country has never been tested and there is no evidence to suggest it will accomplish anything. That’s a remarkable background for a policy pushed onto 50 million schoolkids. Even more remarkable is that it breaks the very provisions of the education law LBJ signed to put limits on the expansion of the size and scope of the federal role in education.

A focus on the law and empiricism would follow Bush’s admonition that “We must stop excusing failure in our schools.” That is true of not putting up with failure in specific school systems—and especially urban school districts. But it equally applies to the failure of the federal government during the 33 years of the USDOE’s existence to improve the quality of education in the country. Failure to move the needle is not the only vestige of federal education policy, but so is the lack of continuity and settlement in policy (the latest example of which is the whiplash-inducing support for and then retreat from the DC Scholarship program within the one jurisdiction the constitutionally delegated to the feds.).

If Governor Romney stakes out a clear position on academic standards during the final 60-plus days of the campaign, he should follow the Massachusetts example, not the, let’s admit it for what it is, a somewhat politically self-serving celebration of Florida’s progress—and an inaccurate representation of Florida’s good reforms at that.

After all, Florida made faster progress on the NAEP before it got itself bogged down in its current embrace of federally imposed and highly bureaucratic teacher evaluation processes, curricular standards, curricular materials and instructional practices.
Instead, Governor Romney would do well to embrace Bush’s admonition to “start rewarding improvement and success.”

Rather than impose all kinds of new explicit or de facto federal mandates, a Republican administration would do well to create a real Race to the Top, which simply rewards states for results—not compliance with federal rules. If we are so taken with the narrative of falling behind other countries and losing our competitive edge as a result, a trope that is present since the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and continued in both Governor Bush and Secretary Rice’s remarks at the RNC, then a focus on results rather than what bureaucrats in DC think will work is the way to go.

My own view is that in domestic matters the feds are not good at all the details needed to be effective in delivering public services of most any kind. That’s especially so with education (and I would argue health care), where big bureaucratic structures are anathema to the kind of creativity and relationships that make for good teaching and great learning. The feds are, however, good at spending.

So why not have the federal government provide base funding for those states that want to measure themselves on multiple assessments (SAT, ACT, the international Trends in Math and Science Study and PISA tests). And the feds could provide a financial reward to those states that improve the most on these tests outside the government’s control.
That would encourage governors, state legislators, and state education officials to experiment and innovate. It would allow us to reward only that stuff that works—not the stuff we’ve been hoping might work for 35 years. And it would allow states real flexibility as to whether they want to be part of the effort.

Pay for results, not compliance with the federal government’s growing pile of rules and regs. What an idea.

It sure beats the conventional wisdom in both parties right now.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.