National standards’ process and substance abuse

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For a while it looked like all of thinking Washington was gaga over US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s agenda. The only opposition that stirred was from the teachers unions which came out this summer with their shortlist of 13 things they hated about the US Education Secretary. While Secretary Duncan may have seen that as a badge of honor, but there were in fact several items the unions noted that were spot on criticisms—specifically related to intrusions into personnel decisions, forcing federal experiments on states, and the Secretary’s silver-bullet-osis.

Then came Secretary Duncan’s announcement that he would circumvent the legislative process needed to get the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorized and instead would dole out “waivers” to states that agreed to comply with things that he wanted them to do but that, importantly, he had no Congressional authority to advance in the states.

Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, tried to put the best spin she could on it:

We’ll encourage all states to apply and each one should have a chance to succeed. But those that don’t will have to comply with No Child Left Behind’s requirements, until Congress enacts a law that will deliver change to all 50 states.

Now the Washington DC think tank crowd, which has been either observing from the sidelines or in full-throated support, is stirring—or more like stirred up. Rick Hess, in his EdWeek blog Straight Up, has been straddling the fence on things like national standards and assessments, generally giving the US ED the benefit of the doubt on debates concerning whether the education department is overstepping its bounds, whether one-size-fits-all national education strategies actually work, whether the national standards were any good and whether the national assessments will be a qualitative step forward.

But this past week, in a post entitled The Duncan Precedent, Hess gave a biting take on what the use of federal education power might look like in the event of a Republican victory in the presidential elections. In the place of Secretary Duncan leveraging waivers to corral states like Texas and Virginia into compliance with his wishes on standards, assessments and other current priorities in Washington, DC, we have a future Michele Bachmann serving as U.S. Secretary of Education. In a fictitious conversation of FoxNews’ Chris Wallace would-be Secretary Bachmann notes:

Happily, the Obama administration provided a path for driving educational change even when you don’t have the votes. That’s why we’ve promised that, come inauguration day, we’ll be ditching the Obama administration’s requirements for waivers from No Child Left Behind and substituting our own.

… We’ll be employing the Obama administration’s notion that we can provide states waivers from federal law so long as they promise to do stuff that we like. We’ll impose a few conditions for states seeking to maintain their NCLB waivers or obtain new ones.

Her boss, a president-elect by the name of Rick Perry (in the real world, the sitting Governor of Texas), would have her implement the five elements in a fictitious “Freedom Blueprint”:

States will need to institute a moment of silence in all “turnaround” schools, adopt a statewide school voucher plan for low-income students and those in failing schools, require abstinence education, restrict collective bargaining to wages and prohibit bargaining over benefits or policy, and ask states to revise their charter laws to ensure that for-profit operators are no longer discriminated against on the basis of tax status.

Unlike Hess,the Fordham Institute has long been a prominent member of the squad cheerleading the federal advance in education. And even they are beyond themselves trying to come to terms with the new and improved “Arnius Duncanus.” In a post entitled If you support Common Core, oppose Arne Duncan, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli (if not Fordham’s cheerleader in chief for the Common Core national standards and assessments effort, at least its trusty lieutenant) literally begs Duncan not to take the “waiver + extra-legislative requirement” path for fear that the whole enterprise will blow up in Congress.

Unmoved by pleas that he “first do no harm” when it comes to promising reforms like the Common Core State Standards Initiative, [Arnius Duncanus] seems compelled to attach mandates to his forthcoming NCLB waivers that will require adoption of the Common Core standards.

No, his team won’t mention the Common Core, but everybody knows that’s what he’s talking about when he calls for “college and career-ready standards.”

Of course, he is referring to the “voluntary” and “state-led” standards everyone in DC talked about. Those voluntary standards that President Obama said he might try to force states to adopt via Race to the Top and withholding Title I (largely urban district) funding. Petrilli and the Fordham/Achieve/Gates crowd liked to call anyone suggesting that greater centralized authority would actually be used “paranoid.” But now he is reduced to lines like these:

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

Yeesh. DC groupies for national standards have to understand how desperate those lines seem. Begging is not what citizens in a democracy do—that’s stuff more familiar to subjects in a monarchy or courtiers residing under princely rule.

In all of this discussion of process, one very important consideration is being lost: the lack of academic quality of the national standards. If for no other reason, objective, independent educational analysts should have understood that the final Common Core product was in fact inferior to the best states, including Massachusetts, Texas, California, Indiana, and Minnesota. Well, Andrew Porter, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has just released research that should give well-intentioned supporters of the national standards project heartburn.

In 2010, my research outfit commissioned four studies during the development phase of the national standards in 2010, and we found that they were sorely lacking. But my institute went into the research as neither a supporter nor an opponent, so some supporters of the Common Core effort took that as a prejudicial starting point (!). Dr. Porter began a vocal and articulate supporter, but his just released research

shows that the common-core standards do not represent a meaningful improvement over existing state standards. To be sure, when we consider state standards in the aggregate, the common-core standards present a somewhat greater emphasis on higher-order thinking. But the keyword here is somewhat; the difference is small, and some state standards exceed the common core in this respect. And, in terms of mathematics and English language arts curricula focus, the results are just as disappointing: The common core has a greater focus than certain state standards, and a lesser focus than others….The common core is not a new gold standard—it’s firmly in the middle of the pack of current curricula.”

That serious academic researchers would come to this conclusion after a period of calm and reflection is no shock: There are clear academic weaknesses in the English/Reading and math Common Core frameworks, there are experimental and nproven approaches, and the CC end goals are college and career readiness in name only. Given that the standards were developed and self-evaluated through funding from the Gates Foundation, reassessments were bound to take time. (As an aside, it should be noted that Bill Gates has not been a big champion of high-quality academic content and the liberal arts in our schools, instead focusing the gates Foundation on “small school” governance changes and teacher incentives.)

Dr. Porter’s evaluation is based (correctly) on a current analysis—and therefore it doesn’t factor in the likely impact of the “soft-skills” crowd on the future implementation and refinement of these already mediocre standards. Readers interested in academic content should know that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is now housed within the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is, with Achieve, Inc., Fordham Institute and a few other organizations the drivers of the national standards and assessment effort. As the P21 crowd proudly announced in July, they are from within the CCSSO perch working to help states align their new national standards with 21st Century Skills.

In other P21 news, the organization will host a forum this Friday focused on sharing best practices, policies, and creative ideas for assessing 21st century teaching and learning. The forum will include representatives from the American Association of School Librarians, Council of Chief State School Officers, and various higher education institutions and state departments of education…

During the forum, P21 will also unveil its 21st Century Skills Common Core Toolkit, which the group said will be designed to support state education leaders in implementing CCSS within P21’s comprehensive 21st century skills framework.

There is a range of reasons why the Secretary’s use of waivers is seen as problematic. From DC, the perception of political blowback makes the process in rolling out the waivers alarming. Yup, process is important. But I would like to think that two things trump the process/political calculations. In particular, the use of the waivers is likely illegal, as noted in yesterday’s blog post.

And then there is the substance–the quality of the standards which define the parameters around what our kids will be taught. Not long ago, a number of proponents of national standards insisted that they supported high quality content and opposed the 21st Century Skills dilution of content. Well, now it is time to stand up and be counted.

The national standards project is looking less and less like a reform built on lessons learned from successful reforming states like Massachusetts, which took the content-focused route to leadership in the nation on academic achievement; rather, it is increasingly what you might call “substance abuse.”

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