Ed Glaeser slips on a banana peel

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Ed Glaeser is a brilliant economist and someone who cares deeply about local, state and federal policies that impact housing, segregation, crime, the growth of cities and the role of innovation in reviving urban landscapes. He has done a ton of work with us, spoken at Pioneer events, and we look to him as a leading intellectual — as does just about everybody.

All that throat-clearing is necessary because in today’s Globe, Ed slipped on a banana peel. Looking to weigh in with a timely piece on what is becoming a key issue in the gubernatorial debate — the standards and MCAS debate — Ed makes four assertions that are questionable at best and wrong at worst.

Here’s wrong assertion number 1:

But for real educational reform, both Baker and independent candidate Tim Cahill must move beyond the MCAS issue and produce a serious plan that will benefit all children in the Commonwealth.

What Cahill and Baker have noted is that Massachusetts has a “well-worked-out” plan–and a proven plan. It is the plan that has made the state into the nation’s leader in all subjects for all grades tested on the NAEP. It has also made Massachusetts into one of the top 6 countries in math and science according to the TIMSS test (the most rigorous international tests). That plan has included: non-politicized charters, an Ofsted-style accountability/audit unit for schools and districts, high academic standards and both teacher and student tests that are content-focused. More can be done, certainly, but they have a good case on education (leave aside all the other issues) where the Patrick administration has weakened key elements of Massachusetts’ proven playbook.

Here’s wrong assertion number 2:

But the decision to accept $250 million in federal “race to the top’’ funds in exchange for embracing a more national test was not obviously wrong, and a robust defense of MCAS is no substitute for a well-worked-out education reform plan. MCAS has been effective, and Baker is right that whatever comes out of the federal process may not be as good.

As noted above, Massachusetts, since 1993, had a well-worked-out plan. Only Florida has shown the kind of improvement we have, because they, too, have a multi-pronged plan. The fact is we were not “racing to the top”, we had been there since 2005 — and we have continued to show improvement. We were now in a race with the top performing countries.

Not obviously wrong? The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for carving out some students from having to take the new tests, for “whole child” learning, and 21st century skills. That’s very different from Massachusetts’ proven, multi-pronged approach. The feds are pushing stuff that is at best untested and in many cases has been proven to be wrong-headed and harmful to improvements in student achievement as measured by the NAEP tests. Ed should get that because he lives with empirical data.

Here’s wrong assertion number 3:

But future US secretaries of education are unlikely to oppose Massachusetts requiring more than the national standards. Lower levels of educational management often do whatever they want regardless of the requirements imposed on them from above. Usually national objectives are subverted by dumbing down or teacher cheating, but they can also be pushed upwards by local leaders, and Massachusetts can surely do that and still get the $250 million.

What evidence does Ed have of that leeway to improve the standards as we in Massachusetts might wish? The feds are requiring 85% consistency with the national standards. I’d like to see the evidence for Ed’s belief, for it is devoutly to be wished for.

Here’s wrong assertion number 4:

Meanwhile, Patrick is now a genuine education reformer. The education bill he signed last January increased the number of charter schools, made it easier to fire inadequate teachers and tied future funding to better school management. If Baker and Cahill want to distinguish themselves from the incumbent, they must offer much bolder visions for education.

The Governor may have done other things well and not gotten credit for them, but education is not the area for kudos. Look at what has happened to the major components of Massachusetts’ multi-pronged 1993 reform:

(a) his administration killed the accountability/audit system and then created a shell of the former system. No more checking on the alignment of local curricula with the state standards. No more financial audits. You get the picture.
(b) The administration has pushed from day one to include the 21st century skills in the state’s standards. These are things like teaching creativity, cultural competency, global awareness, etc. The data on the impact of such a skills approach on student achievement is not good. The administration let out a contract to incorporate these items in the MCAS without a board vote. So on the substance and from a process perspective, not good.
(c) As I am sure many have read in the papers, the charter school process has become highly politicized. That was not the case before. We now have a court ruling that the Commissioner of Education lied on the Gloucester charter. The Inspector General has stated the same. The criteria-based selection process was a good regulatory process put into place in the 90s to ensure that public dollars went to creating good public (charter) schools.
(d) And now we are slated to replace the MCAS (as stated explicitly in the Governor’s own Race to the Top application, pages 44-49). The new tests may be high-stakes. They may not be. They may apply to all students, but they might not. They will almost certainly, given the initial conceptual documents, stray from Massachusetts’ focus on content. Which might work, but might not — so we are moving on testing from a proven product to who-knows-what.

The fact is the Governor has severely weakened pillars of the only education reform in the US to have answered President Reagan’s call in “A Nation at Risk” — to make our schools on a par with those in the high-performing countries. As the Governor seeks re-election, he should underscore his other accomplishments, for education is not his calling card. Rather it is a very weak hand for him to play.