Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Yesterday’s column by George Will condemning Common Core is a very bad sign for the standards’ advocates.

I suspect that many Common Core backers on the political left either don’t know much about George Will or reflexively dismiss him because he’s a conservative. As a general matter, that’s a shame, but in this particular case they should pay close attention.

And fast.

Will is trusted implicitly by many on the right for two important reasons. First, he is deeply learned. He is the son of a philosophy professor, earned a graduate degree from Oxford and a PhD from Princeton. He was a university professor and U.S. Senate aide. He has authored more than a dozen books, and he’s won a Pulitzer Prize.

Second, his conservatism is rooted firmly in time-tested principles. His are not knee-jerk politics; they are not spontaneously oppositional to any utterance by a Democrat—he reveres the late former Johnson administration official and liberal U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Nor are his views dependent on Rush Limbaugh’s or Bill O’Reilly’s talking points. He has publicly and harshly criticized prominent Republicans including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Ann Coulter.

Will believes in the virtues of longstanding institutions and the vices of well-meaning but naïve technocrats. He trusts well-regulated markets to more fairly and fluidly distribute capital, goods, and services than government-generated formulas. He is distrustful of an expansive federal government, because its appetite for money and power is voracious and its interventions are too often ineffective and...

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There were many important releases and developments this week—invaluable new SIG information from IES, Race to the Top audits, new Brookings “choice index”—and I couldn’t keep up! Those subjects and others will get fuller treatments from me next week. But until then, here are some worthwhile things to read over the weekend.

There has been much talk about the 50-year anniversary of The War on Poverty. Here’s the best stuff I’ve seen: This Gerson column smartly points out the federal government’s successes and failures (and though this superb Brooks column on evolving conservative policy thinking isn’t about The War on Poverty per se, it should be read in conjunction with Gerson’s). This short blurb by Checker Finn is terrific; the first-person narrative is compelling, and for history buffs and those fascinated by the intersection of politics and policy, it offers something special. This very good piece by my old high school friend (now at AEI) Josh Good echoes family-related arguments made by Finn’s mentor a half century ago.

If you care at all about Common Core, this Stephanie Simon article about conservative backlash is an absolute must read. There are several different strands in the piece worth thinking about (including the CCSS-as-a-stepping-stone strategy), but these two sentences speak volumes: “Still, (Common Core) supporters have struggled to counter the critics. They have had trouble even understanding the contours of the smoldering opposition.” As I told TNTP (see fifth paragraph),...

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Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that...

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The Arctic Vortex edition

Invigorated by the weather, Mike and Dara give cold shoulders to anti-Common Core strategists, California’s constitution, and Randi Weingarten’s “VAM sham.” Amber gets gifted.

Amber's Research Minute

Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” by Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, Psychological Science 24 (2013), 2013: 648–59.

Wednesday marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the “War on Poverty.” To mark the milestone, National Review Online published an online symposium with a variety of conservative views about that War’s success and failures—and how best to fight a new War on Poverty going forward. Here are three contributions—by Fordham’s Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli, and the Center of the American Experiment’s Mitchell B. Pearlstein—that focus on education’s role in alleviating poverty.

The "war on poverty" and me

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration...

Cities and states faced with rising pension costs have begun to search for the most effective way to balance retirement promises made to workers with the need for fiscal sustainability and employer flexibility. Most prominently, a federal judge ruled last month that the city of Detroit could declare bankruptcy, opening the door for it to cancel or revise contracts such as those for retiree pensions. In Illinois, another state with a constitutional protection for government-worker pensions, the governor recently signed legislation that would raise the retirement age for mid-career workers and reduce cost-of-living adjustments for all workers who have...

Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating...

A new survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice delivers a thorough look at how the public views an array of school-choice issues. The results could surprise even some seasoned policymakers and wonks. After a useful literature review summarizing decades of opinion research on school choice, the author digs into the results of his nationally representative survey: First, respondents were asked whether they support or oppose various forms of school choice, and he found greater public enthusiasm for tax credits and...

This year, Education Week’s Quality Counts report tells a story of districts facing formidable pressures, both external (such as budgetary and performance woes) and internal (demographic shifts), as well as a maturing market of expanded school options—and how this competitive environment is leading to governance change. Ed Week overhauled its long-running State of the States comparisons, paring its sets of indicators down to three: the (still-questionable) Chance-for-Success Index; the K–12 Achievement Index; and school finance. (No longer do they include standards, assessment, and accountability; the teaching profession; or transitions and alignment.) For the rundown of states at the top...

Nearly three decades ago, 320 students below the age of thirteen took the SAT math or verbal test and placed in the top 1 in 10,000 for their math- or verbal-reasoning ability (some called them “scary smart”). This article details a twenty-year follow up that analyzes their accomplishments by age 38, with the purpose of determining whether they went on to make outstanding contributions to society. And no surprise, they did. Of the total, 63 percent held advanced degrees, 44 percent of which were doctorates—that’s compared to barely 2 percent of the general population who hold PhDs. These students...

Invigorated by the weather, Mike and Dara give cold shoulders to anti-Common Core strategists, California’s constitution, and Randi Weingarten’s “VAM sham.” Amber gets gifted.

Dara Zeehandelaar, author of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets, explains teachers pensions and the difference between defined benefits and defined contribution plans that states offer teachers.

We’ve passed the time for standing by and patiently hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own. Or that the authorizers of such charters will solve this problem on their own. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my New Year’s resolution is to seize the promise of change and resolutely champion the effort to strengthen the quality of the charter sector across the Buckeye State.

I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies won’t likely yield much change. But timing is everything—and now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality schools.

The problem

Charters have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. We’ve been blessed with some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and hundreds other like them around the country, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of at-risk students. Yet too many other charter schools in Ohio (and elsewhere) have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In Fordham’s own recent review of Ohio charter performance, we found the urban schools in this sector overall performing at the same low levels as district schools. That just doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t do the state’s neediest kids nearly enough good.

The challenges in...

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The appointment of former educator and experienced administrator Carmen Fariña as the new chancellor of New York City’s one-million-student public school system has been met with cautious optimism from several fronts, spanning from those who hope she will soften de Blasio’s stance against charter schools to those who hope the opposite. Gadfly, however, is deeply concerned about her recent comments—specifically, her contention that facts are learned “maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life. As anyone who understands the past thirty years of cognitive science knows, that’s as false a dichotomy as they come. Gaining knowledge and learning to think critically, rather than being mutually exclusive, are in fact dependent upon one another. Gotham’s students need more knowledge, not less.

Call it a Christmas present to value-added haters: Over the holiday season, news broke that an error in the District of Columbia’s Mathematica-designed value-added model—specifically, the calculation of teachers’ “individual value-added” score, which constitutes 35 percent of teachers’ score under the city’s IMPACT evaluation system—led to mistaken job evaluations for forty-four teachers, one of whom lost their his or her job as a result. In a statement issued just before the winter break, district official Jason Kamras announced that the twenty-two teachers who should have received higher IMPACT scores will “receive all benefits (such as bonuses) that go with the scores,” while the twenty-two who...

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Amber loses her marbles

In the first podcast of the year, Mike and Brickman discuss NCLB’s goal of universal proficiency, an error in D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation scores, and the correct pronunciation of Fariña. Amber is no good with marbles—but great at educating us about student mobility.

Amber's Research Minute

Reducing School Mobility: A Randomized Trial of a Relationship-Building Intervention,” by Jeremy E. Fiel, Anna R. Haskins and Ruth N. López Turley, American Educational Research Journal 50 (2013): 1188–1218.

I’ve obviously made up my mind about SIG and other school turnaround efforts.

But I suspect many others are still wondering if turnaround attempts are a sensible strategy for creating more high-quality seats for kids in need. And I’m sure there are lots of folks curious why SIG has shown such paltry results so far.

If you’re in either camp, you really ought to take a look at a new report from A+ Schools and Democrats for Education Reform–Colorado, Colorado's Turnaround Schools 2010 - 2013: Make a Wish. It adds fuel to the fire of my anti-turnaround argument, but it also helps explain why $5 billion in SIG funds are producing so little.

According to the report, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) was virtually indiscriminate when handing out SIG grants. If a school applied, it won. At first, the state was evidently making awards without a rating system or even a scoring rubric. When it finally did develop a system, it didn’t have much of an effect—those seeking funds got awards no matter how flawed their applications or budgets. In year four (2013), CDE again approved 100 percent of requests.

In the report’s words, “Accountability at the state and federal level has taken a backseat to trying to spend the funds quickly and support schools.”

And so the results aren’t surprising. About a quarter of early winners are actually doing worse than they were pre-award. And based on student-growth measures, schools getting these...

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Proficiency versus Progress

Mike and Andy keep it civil while discussing gifted education, and Andy humors Mike’s enthusiasm for driverless cars—but the gloves come off when they get down to TUDA. Amber also wants to talk TUDA, and admonishes Mike and Andy for stealing her thunder.

Amber's Research Minute

The Nation’s Report Card: A First Look: 2013 Mathematics and Reading Trial Urban District Assessment, by National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2013-466 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, December 2013).

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