Handwaving away opposition to the national standards

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Periodically, over at the Fordham blog, Checker Finn does his best imitation of the cop waving traffic through at the scene of the car crash we like to call Common Core. In a post last week (“The war against the Common Core”), he morphs into good ol’ Sergeant Finn, crabbing at any observers, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, move along.” The mishaps around Common Core national standards are simple driver misjudgment, he explains. Steering mistakes. Nobody’s breaking the law. And don’t worry, because even though there have been lots of accidents, the road ahead is not dangerous.

This is classic Checker handwaving, passing off politics as policy. Let’s look at the four arguments he makes.

1. Don’t worry about the quality of the standards, amending them, etc. Checker starts in his usual way by calling people who disagree “zealous assailants” (we were kvetchers a few handwaves back) who have mounted “ceaseless attacks” creating a “tempest in a highly visible teapot.” I suppose he is referring to Pioneer’s four studies (1, 2, 3, 4) on the quality (or lack thereof) of the national standards. Checker argues that

[O]ther states could simply copy the best of those that already exist. But that’s more or less what the Common Core is: an amalgam of good standards put together by people who know a lot—and care a lot—about both content and skills.

No matter how many times Checker and Fordham say this does not matter. It is factually untrue. The experts who conducted our four comparisons of the national standards to specific state standards were the best in the business, far more qualified to make judgments than the ones employed by Fordham. And they found not only that there are a few flaws related to algebra, but that the math standards are a significant step down on algebra; that they have numerous problems with basic arithmetic; they impose an experimental (and not likely to succeed) pedagogical method for teaching geometry; and they aim at community college level math. On the English language arts side of the ledger, they found that the national standards markedly de-emphasize literature, which will slow the acquisition of a rich vocabulary; they put English teachers in the position of teaching technical readings (good luck with that); and they, again, aim far too low.

Checker’s handwaving on the significance of these flaws is a sign of an impractical, overly theoretical approach to education policy, and nothing short of irresponsible:

Insofar as such criticisms are warranted, the Common Core can be revised, states can add standards of their own, and jurisdictions that find the common version truly unsatisfactory can change their minds about using it at all.

The two assertions made here are just wrong. Yes, states can add standards of their own (up to 15% of content), which for places like Massachusetts does little to get us to the same level of expectations we had set before. In addition, content added by specific states will not be included in the national tests, so few schools will teach the add-ons. Finally, the idea that it is oh-so-easy to change the national standards is overindulgent daydreaming. Any state desiring to change a strand of the standards will have to negotiate with 40+ jurisdictions, the non-profits involved in this effort, and of course the federal government. To date, there has been no process established for amending the standards. Just think about that for a second.

On whether states can pull out, well, more below.

2. We the DC People working on the national standards are all of good will and working hard to implement these things. Yup, OK. I do have reservations about the intentions of some, but let’s not go there. What is worth stating clearly though is that Checker and the folks in DC pushing this aren’t serious about upholding the public trust and in devising policy in a responsible and publicly accountable way. Big words, I know. Here are the facts to back my view up.

• We know very well that there is a lack of settlement around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and that is due in part to the way it was forced through Congress and the perceived costs of implementing it. (Clearly control of your own health care matters to a large portion of the US population as well.) Including the adoption of national standards in grant program requirements and then having the federal government fund the development of curricular materials and instructional practice guides directly, well, these actions were never even approved by Congress. The reason there has never been a Congressional Budget Office scoring of the cost to states is because, again, it was never approved by Congress. So the lack of settlement around Common Core is even more to be expected than what we’ve seen to date regarding the PPACA.

• Checker holds himself up as working to “cost it all out.” Shouldn’t that have been done before moving ahead? Have we grown so irresponsible as to adopt blank check policy making? That’s ridiculous, and that’s why Pioneer Institute is the only research outfit in the U.S. to have performed an actual cost accounting of the implementation of national standards and tests. Ted Rebarber of AccountabilityWorks conducted a fair and empirical analysis of the cost of implementation, and found that it will cost $16 billion.

That’s almost assuredly going to be an unfunded mandate. Fordham’s working on it? The fact is that when our report came out, they assigned someone with no ability to review the study. Kathleen Porter-Magee’s criticisms of the report for Fordham are flimsy in the extreme. For example, KP-M wants the study’s author Ted Rebarber to build into his cost estimates something outside of empirical data—an assumption that as yet unheard of reforms by the feds will lead to big cost reductions. It is worth nothing that this is just more evidence that the quality of Fordham’s work has fallen quickly these past years as the good Sergeant and his troops have taken up handwaving and pom-poms for the national standards. We’re supposed to skip empirical evidence and assume reforms in order to make the numbers work?

We saw the same thing with the Fordham Institute’s review of the Massachusetts state standards prior to our state board’s vote to adopt Common Core. Then, Fordham’s researcher(s) did not include key aspects of the Bay State’s revisions to its English standards.

Sloppy stuff. Reason #4212 why DC players, who don’t know what they’re talking about, should stay out of state education policy.

• While the Fordham Institute and its friends who are supporting the Common Core might find it a pesky reality, the advancement of standards, tests, curricular materials and instructional practice guides is illegal. Go back and read that sentence. Perhaps the view of two former counsels general doesn’t matter to Checker and his fellow travelers, but you are breaking three federal laws—the General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The three laws prohibit the direction, supervision or control in any way of standards, curricula and curricular materials and instructional practice. For example, the GEPA clearly states:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.

If I were Checker, I would think hard on this one, especially with attorneys general not shy in taking on expansions of federal power (at the end of March the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing oral arguments on the PPACA presented by state AGs).

3. States can pull out of the Common Core and go it alone any time they want. For rhetorical reasons, Checker has separated his argument on this issue into two points (#4 and #6) but they all are closely related. Yes, Texas and Virginia and a handful of states have not adopted the Common Core. Checker admits that the likelihood (not fear) that

Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive … is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core.

I say this is is likely because this has been the march of the Department since 1979. It is the reason why the Department (and supporters like Checker) thinks that breaking three federal laws is the acceptable price of progress. They know their intentions are good, so breaking the law is in the interests of the country, and therefore the right thing to do. That mindset makes what Checker calls fears and suspicions a likely outcome. But it’s not fear telling us that but rather judgment based on past experience. It’s an incontrovertible fact that Democrats and Republicans have grown the Department’s reach and budget enormously in the past three decades.

In Checker’s telling, all opposition is related to “suspicion” and “lingering fears” about past attempts. Conveniently, he then pivots to his political exercise of pointing fingers at an “over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.” You know, it’s a simple steering error.

The problem is that Checker has no more standing on this issue. He didn’t fight back when remarks by the Secretary and President made their intentions clear. He did not fight back when the administration created a “fiscal ‘incentive’ in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core.” Calling the department out now for that is just political posturing on Checker’s part.

Then, of course, there’s the “incentive” built into the NCLB waiver process for states to adopt the Common Core. When Arne Duncan announced his decision to move ahead with waivers that posed conditions on the states that had never been approved by Congress (and which violated the aforementioned three federal laws), Fordham’s Mike Petrilli was reduced in his blog to begging Sec. Duncan not to overreach:

Walk away from this one, Mr. Secretary. Please, those of us who support the Common Core are begging you.

That’s a rather unbecoming act for a citizen in a free republic: Americans don’t generally like begging our federal officials. Yet that is what we all will be doing forward. And that was made clear to South Carolina, which recently debated leaving the Common Core. That earned a press release directly from Secretary Duncan’s mouth, “lambasting” lawmakers and the governor for even considering such a thing.

Checker downplays the feds’ funding of national assessments, admitting that it is a “third federal entanglement.” Conveniently, while he notes some requirements that come with the national tests, he skips over the fact that these assessments come with curricular materials and instructional practice guides—which are again illegal.

4. “National” is the right way to go. Let me be as kind as I can (at east to start).

  • It’s illegal. We are a nation of laws, not megalomaniacs.
  • Just as many nations with national standards score below as above the United States on international tests.
  • Most of the nations with national standards are much smaller and often more homogeneous than the United States.
  • Did I mention that it’s illegal? (I’d love to see your argument on that one, Checker.)
  • The U.S. Department of Education has no track record of improving schools.

I would also note that I bristle at the thought that Massachusetts or other states should follow the advice of the Fordham Institute, which has a limited record of improving schools. I would invite readers to take a look at Ohio’s NAEP scores, as well as the performance of Ohio’s charter schools, an issue on which Fordham has been very active.

Once again, Checker gives us so many good reasons and so many good opportunities to demonstrate that he is wrong, and it’s largely because he is playing politics not policy. Obviously, he is a smart man and someone, to be honest, that has done important work in the past. But right now everything he is writing ostensibly on standards policy smacks of political positioning. He’s always looking to angle for what he thinks observers will read as the mid-range, reasonable position. Checker’s latest schtick of being for national standards but harboring thoughtful concerns about the people in power just doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Sarge, I have a couple of constructive suggestions to help you deal with that incessant handwaving tick you have.

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The above Providence, RI, traffic cop has taken to dancing in the middle of the street to entertain rush hour. Such a set of moves would allow you to take people’s minds off of the Common Core crash-up and do it redirecting your handwaving to productive ends.

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Or perhaps we could celebrate good ol’ Sergeant Finn’s retirement in style, as was done for this fine officer on his last day of service, marked by a box of donuts.

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