A response to Gary Rubinstein

The following is a response to Gary Rubinstein’s post, “Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Petrilli

Dear Gary,

I don’t mind you calling me a wonk you know if you don’t mind me calling you a teacher I know. For all of its bombast, social media has helped to put me in touch with real teachers like you in real classrooms in the real world. Becoming disconnected from the daily work of education is a significant risk for those of us who long ago crossed into policy analysis. We’re lucky at the Fordham Institute that our Ohio team gets down and dirty with real schools in Dayton and elsewhere, but I’m willing to say it: thank goodness for Twitter.

Now, what I’m not so happy about is your calling me a “B-list” reformer!

But I digress.

I appreciate your comments about my various blog posts. We take our role as “Education Gadfly” very seriously at Fordham. We are fortunate—thanks to our mission, our fantastic board, and our endowment, which gives us a measure of independence—that we can feel uninhibited to raise the red flag when we see reforms going awry. I would be bored to death if I had to stick to talking points.

Thankfully, we’re not the only ones willing to speak honestly about problems as they arise. I think a fair-minded observer would see that the vast majority of “reformers”—especially those of us in think-tank land—engage in regular, open debate about the right way forward. It’s hard for folks in elected or appointed positions to do so, but that’s true regardless of which side of the issue you’re on. Frankly, I see reformers conceding ground and acknowledging different viewpoints much more frequently than I do the reform critics. When was the last time Diane Ravitch or Karen Lewis said something like, “You know, the reformers have a point that it’s too hard to fire bad teachers.” Or, “Clearly they want to provide opportunity to low-income children; we just disagree about how to do that.” I don’t think they’ve ever said such things. Ever. Why don’t responsible people on “your side” give them grief about that?

Now, on to your reasonable questions about my advocacy for the Common Core. You ask,

Why do you seem to have such blind faith in the Common Core standards? You act like you can’t even understand, let alone dignify with a response, the main criticisms of them.

I’ve had friends ask me the same thing. Why does our normal skepticism seem to evaporate once the topic turns to Common Core?

First, I think that a comprehensive look at Fordham’s work on Common Core would show you that we do, in fact, play a gadfly role here too and are more than willing to admit that not everything is going swimmingly. Look at our survey of English teachers, which illustrated that many of them do not appear to understand (or at least embrace) the “instructional shifts” of the Common Core. Or our examination of four districts who are “early implementers” of the standards, who are stumbling at least as much as they are succeeding. Or our cost estimate of Common Core implementation, which acknowledged that changing practice isn’t going to be free. Or Kathleen Porter-Magee’s regular red-flag-raising at her Common Core Watch blog, on all matters of implementation. Even our landmark 2010 review of the Common Core standards versus those in place in states at the time admitted that the Core standards weren’t perfect. All of these studies have been used by the opponents of Common Core. So be it.

Still, it’s true that we’ve gone deeper into advocacy for the Common Core than any other issue in Fordham’s history. We haven’t done so without a great deal of internal debate. We generally prefer to stay an arm’s length away from such political fights, but we’ve made a strategic decision that this time is different. The reason is that we’ve been calling for almost two decades for states to improve their standards —ever since our very first publication (by Sandra Stotsky!). And from 2005–09, we pushed hard for states to develop common standards as a way to get to higher standards. As one of the progenitors of the Common Core idea, we feel strongly that we have a responsibility to see it through to successful implementation. We are not going to walk away.

Meanwhile, as you know, the Common Core initiative has faced an existential crisis, as opponents (particularly on the Right) have sought to strangle it in its crib. This has forced us—and many others—into defense mode. I wish I didn’t have to travel “around the country testifying in front of various legislatures and appearing on various news shows defending the Common Core,” but I’ll be damned if we lose this historic opportunity to raise standards because of crass politics.

Which, again, is not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns with the standards or their implementation. I’ve tried very hard to show respect to opponents (see my debate with Joy Pullman, for instance, or my recent appearance on C-SPAN) and acknowledge their valid points, a few of which you raise. Let’s talk about them.

You write,

The problem I have, and this is one that I have not heard you address specifically, is that it is based on several shaky premises. The weakest premise, and one I really hope you’ll address, is that “raising standards” — making them harder, you can call it ‘rigor’ if you want to use a euphemism will “raise achievement.” Do you have any basis for that belief? 

Yes, I do. First, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw that states that adopted standards and consequential accountability got big bumps in student achievement for their lowest performing kids; the rest of the states followed suit once No Child Left Behind kicked into action. So we proved that we could get schools to respond to standards-based accountability. Now our lowest-achieving students are performing one to two grade levels ahead of where they were back in the 1990s. That’s huge progress. Take a bow, public education system.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that because the standards were set at such a low level¸ and the tests were so easy, these accountability systems had almost no impact at the middle and top of the performance spectrum. So now the question is this: If we set tough standards and introduce rigorous tests, can we see a similar reaction for average and high-performing students?

I can’t prove that we can, but I think the evidence from Massachusetts—arguably the only state that has followed this path—is encouraging.

I also think the Common Core standards offer a chance to shift instruction in the classroom for the better. As Tom Loveless wrote recently, that depends on thousands of decisions and is far from a sure thing, but if the Common Core assessments encourage the adoption of better curriculum and instructional practices, I think we could see a generation of better-prepared students coming through our schools.

For instance, the standards are clear about the need for a strong phonics program in the early grades and then a big focus on a content-rich curriculum. They also want students to master arithmetic, in line with research that shows that “automaticity” in math facts is essential for students to be able to do higher math as they get older. If schools respond by teaching these things better (or, in some cases, teaching them at all), I think it will lead to better results in student achievement.

You also asked, “Did Alabama and Mississippi really have such low standards that it required a federal intervention?”

Did you say “federal,” Gary? Tsk-tsk. As you know, the feds provided incentives a la Race to the Top, but that hardly counts as a “federal intervention.”

But did their standards require a serious intervention like Common Core? Alabama’s standards were pretty good (though far from “college ready,” and the test they used, like most, was terrible). But what about Mississippi? Common Core is a huge step forward, as we found in 2010, especially for ELA. Our reviewers wrote,

The Mississippi standards are mysterious, as if they were constructed to obfuscate rather than clarify student expectations….Mississippi’s reading comprehension standards are bloated, repetitive, and skills-based, with little connection between the skills and any content…. Nowhere is the study of American literature required, nor are any examples offered of the quality and complexity of reading that students should be doing. The writing standards are process-heavy and repetitive across grades.

Math was somewhat better, but still not great:

The development of arithmetic is inadequate, in part because automaticity with basic number facts is not explicitly required. In addition, although there are some clear expectations for whole-number arithmetic, the development is sometimes weak. Specifically, fluency with the standard algorithms is not specified.

Are Mississippi’s students better off with the Common Core? Absolutely.

Finally, you ask, “Do you have some sort of estimate of the complete cost of the common core and the expected boost in achievement because of it?” Yes on the cost (see here), no on the boost in achievement. In short, implementation is not free, but in comparison to the $700 billion we spend on education each year, it’s a pretty small investment. As for results, as you know, I don’t expect miracles. We’re not going to magically get all students to “college and career readiness.” If we could get the nation to Massachusetts-level achievement over the next decade or two—half of students “college and career ready”—it would be a remarkable accomplishment. Let’s talk about how we can help the other half escape poverty and build a good life.

You and I agree on quite a bit, Gary. I think that’s true for most folks in this debate, regardless of which “side” they are on. Let’s work on finding some solutions that we can work on together, even though that makes for less than exciting dialogues on Twitter. In this case, boring might be better.

Sincerely,

Mike

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