A tale of two movements: Why standards and choice need each other

The modern education-reform movement is essentially made up of two distinct but complementary strands: one focuses primarily on raising K–12 academic expectations, particularly for poor and minority students, who have long been held to lower standards than their middle-class and affluent peers. The second is aimed at expanding education choice through various mechanisms, chiefly charter schools and vouchers.

Unfortunately, these reforms have often been pursued in isolation, with advocates pushing for one or the other but not both together. Some even claim that the two strategies are competitors, if not antagonists. But the reality is that, in order to see real progress and avoid the most vexing unintended consequences of either reform pursued alone, each needs the other in order to deliver on its promise. And therein lies a challenge.

Over the past 25 years, both standards-based and choice-based reforms have moved forward, but standards/assessment/accountability has grown faster than choice. Today, it’s fair to say that every public-school student in the country is impacted in one way or another by his or her state’s standards. By comparison, the number of youngsters benefiting from choice programs is much smaller. In 2014, only 16 states offer tax credits to assist with private-school tuition, while just 13 have voucher programs of any kind; and although 43 jurisdictions have passed charter laws, more than half of these (22 states) have caps that limit the expansion of charters.

Perhaps even more telling, more than two decades after the first charter laws were passed, students enrolled in charter schools across the land comprise just 4.6 percent of the total public-school population. The number of students taking advantage of vouchers or tax-credit-supported scholarships amounts to fewer than 1 percent of the public-school population. In fact, even the most generous estimate of choice—one that accounts for every kind of choice you can imagine—approximates that 52 percent of families exercise school choice in some form (whether by moving into a desirable district; participating in a public choice program; selecting a private school; homeschooling; or choosing a magnet, charter, or virtual school). In other words, standards affect the education of approximately twice as many youngsters as does the broadest conception of choice, and 20 times more children than do charters and vouchers.

At the same time, because standards and testing have expanded more rapidly than choice, states have limited their conception of accountability to top-down, test-driven metrics. States have erected technocratic—and often wildly confusing—accountability systems that tie consequences to test scores and little else.

Educators have responded to these incentives logically, essentially saying: if test scores will define my success or failure, I will narrow my focus to what the test tells me is most important, even if that’s not what’s in the best interest of my students or consistent with the wishes of their parents. We should hardly be surprised that schools spend little time on science, history, and the arts when we’ve provided teachers little incentive to prioritize them.

In a must-read Bridging Differences column published this week, Robert Pondiscio took forceful issue with reforms that prioritized standards and accountability above all else:

As long as we insist on attaching stakes to testing, for students and teachers alike, we are not merely incentivizing teaching to the test, but functionally requiring it. We simply do not have the luxury of blithely ignoring the classroom practices tests encourage or discourage. Those of us who consider ourselves reformers must own that.

Reform opponents, most of whom agree with Pondiscio’s diagnosis, offer one solution: keep the standards if you like, but get rid of the tests and the accountability.

But rejecting state testing and accountability is not the answer, not least because state standards and tests have drawn needed attention to the very real and very damaging expectations and achievement gaps that exist between rich and poor, black and white, and Latino and Asian students. And, perhaps even more importantly, rejecting testing and accountability would ignore the very real and positive impact that standards and accountability reform has had on student learning—particularly among poor and minority students, who have made the most significant achievement gains in the accountability era.

Instead, the answer is to broaden our conception of accountability to include parental choice—something that choice advocates have been rightly arguing for decades.

Imagine, for a moment, if universal choice had spread alongside standards, so that today, every family had an educational option. Or better yet, let’s look at places where that idea is emerging.

Take D.C., for example. There, all parents can choose, which has encouraged a variety of school models to flourish—schools that differ in their approaches to curriculum and instruction, not just structure and management. As a result, there are real choices: Montessori charters, Catholic charters, Hebrew immersion, Reggio Emilia, No Excuses, and on. All are held accountable to the same standards, but real innovation is not only possible—it is encouraged and thriving. In fact, that innovation is possible not in spite of the standards but because of them.

Parent choice provides a much needed counterbalance to the potential excesses of standards-driven reform. Critics are right when they argue that not all parents want the kind of no-excuses, data-driven instruction that has become the norm. But without a mechanism that allows the broader interests of parents to carry real weight—in urban and suburban areas alike—we’re left with an overly narrow set of top-down incentives that crowds out everything else.

Of course, choice advocates maintain that parent choice is all we need. Just yesterday, in an open letter posted on National Review Online, several argued,

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality.

But choice without some kind of standards-based accountability has also fallen well short of its promise. Take, for instance, the experience in Milwaukee, where the nation’s first voucher program demonstrated that market forces alone weren’t enough to drive quality, particularly in urban areas that serve predominantly poor and minority students. Instead, low-quality schools opened or benefited from public money, and Milwaukee students were no better educated or served.

A Hoover report authored by Paul Peterson found that

…even Milwaukee’s strongest school-choice supporters have come to worry about the ease with which new schools, of problematic quality, have been able to attract students and secure state reimbursements under the voucher program … the number of weak and failing schools participating in the MPCP has been uncomfortably large.

Perhaps Howard Fuller, an architect of the Milwaukee school-choice effort, put it best:

When I first became engaged in the parent-choice movement…I believed that parents would drive quality by simply refusing to attend bad schools….I have learned that parents choose schools for a variety of reasons….I think private school parent choice 2.0 or 3.0 has to address the way to keep bad schools from participating in the programs and ways to remove those that continue not to serve kids well.

In other words, as Checker and Mike argued in an Ed Next piece published last June, while “some conservatives saw standards and choice as conflicting…in fact they’re complementary, even (in today’s argot) co-dependent.”

Where does leave us?

Perhaps it’s time, 25 years into this reform effort, to recognize that we can no longer afford to pursue reform on these two parallel tracks. Standards need choice, and choice needs standards; they are mutually reinforcing, not at odds. And so, as states move to reimagine accountability and to build “next-generation” accountability systems, they need to imagine a system that allows real and universal choice to thrive.

Perhaps New York mayor Bill de Blasio is starting to see that attacking charter schools is a better Democratic-primary strategy than governing philosophy. This turn of events can be illustrated by his appearance earlier this week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show, where he encountered a surprisingly sharp round of questioning from the roundtable of (left-leaning) hosts on the matter. The New York Times notes that de Blasio is softening his rhetoric and reaching out to charter groups “more sympathetic” to his administration. With his approval rating already down to 39 percent—just ten weeks after taking office—here’s hoping Hizzoner will stop antagonizing charter schools altogether.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled on an important school funding case this week, finding that the state’s legislature does, in fact, have the authority to make budgetary decisions—but that it also must maintain an educational system that meets constitutional requirements. In Education Next, Eric Hanushek contends that the court got it right. Unlike previous rulings in the state, the court indicated that the “total spending is not the touchstone for determining adequacy”; rather, the skills of students ought to be so.

In a new Huffington Post article, Diane Ravitch argues that the “reform” narrative is a fraud: NAEP scores and graduation rates are at their highest point in history for both whites and minorities, the dropout rate is at a historic low, and so on. But in this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast, Mike Petrilli looks at the same information and comes to an entirely different conclusion: that the education-reform movement, rather than being unnecessary, is working. Listen in to hear more.

After rejecting a slate of curricular materials that claimed but did not deliver Common Core alignment, Louisiana state superintendent John White went back to the drawing board, embarking on an effort to identify quality materials for his districts. Now, he has unveiled a set of curriculum guides and unit plans that are Common Core aligned and optional (but recommended) for districts, as well as a frank review of various vendors’ offerings. Upstarts Eureka Math and Core Knowledge ELA received top marks, while some pretty big names (e.g., Glencoe and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) did not fare so well.

Just because the label on that pint of ice cream says it’s “fat free” doesn’t mean it won’t expand your waistline—and just because a textbook is labeled “Common Core aligned” doesn’t mean it actually covers the material it’s supposed to. In this new study (which has already garnered some serious attention from the press), USC assistant professor (and alum of Fordham and AEI’s EEPS program) Morgan Polikoff studied seven math textbooks aimed at fourth graders, including their work samples and practice exercises. Polikoff found that the content of the textbooks ranged from 27 percent to 38 percent aligned—dismal results. Further, he found that one-sixth to one-seventh of the material in the Common Core standards was not covered in the analyzed textbooks. However, though these findings highlight important Common Core implementation concerns, we would be remiss if we did not point out a significant methodological issue: Polikoff compared the textbooks and the standards using the Survey of Enacted Curriculum, which—while, granted, one of the very few tools available—doesn’t measure content coherence. What’s more, the analysis assumes equal weight for all standards, though school districts, assessments, and common sense dictate that some should receive greater attention than others. For a more nuanced look, stay tuned for a Fordham review of leading “Common Core” curricular materials in the months ahead.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff, “How Well Aligned Are Textbooks to the Common Core Standards in Mathematics?” to be presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, San Antonio, TX, March 13–15, 2014.

Research has repeatedly found that being a firstborn can come with advantages—they tend to be natural leaders, have higher IQ’s, and are often chosen to portray James Bond. They also perform better in school. This new NBER study sheds light on why this is so, testing the conventional wisdom that earlier-born siblings put more effort in school and perform better than their later-born siblings partly because their parents are more strict with them. Using the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (which includes data from parent surveys), they track outcomes for children as they transition between the ages of 10 and 14. Three key findings: First, there is a clear association between school performance and birth order. For example, 34 percent of firstborns are viewed by their mothers as “one of the best in the class,” versus 27 percent of those coming fourth in birth order. Likewise, just 7 percent of firstborns are considered below the middle or at the bottom of the class, compared to 11 percent of fourth-borns. (The analysts use GPAs on school transcripts to validate the moms’ self-reported data regarding how their children perform in school.) Early birth order is also associated with higher scores on standardized math and reading tests. Second, parents regulate earlier-born siblings’ television-viewing and homework-completing behaviors more intensely. Third, the more younger siblings a child has, the more likely are his parents to closely supervise him in the event that he brings home low performance on a report card. For instance, within a family of four, the first born is 6.6 percentage points more likely to have the parent be “very likely” to punish him for bad grades, relative to the last born. (They control for a variety of confounding variables, such as family size and disruption in the family structure.) Now we have a plausible explanation of how parental behavior could at least partially explain why we see birth-order effects relative to student performance—and a clear message to parents: don’t let your high expectations flag when your younger children come along!

SOURCE: V. Joseph Hotz and Juan Pantano, “Strategic Parenting, Birth Order, and School Performance,” NBER Working Paper 19542, October 2013.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has made clear his aversion toward charter schools, singling out in particular his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter schools to co-locate with the city’s traditional public schools for free. But what impact has charter co-location actually had on New York’s public schools? This timely report from the Manhattan Institute digs in, measuring the academic growth of public school students in grades 3–8 in math and English language arts over five years. When the author compared individual students’ test scores before and after co-location or when the co-locating charter schools expanded (taking up more space in the building), he uncovered no evidence to suggest that co-locating with charter schools or losing space within a building has any significant impact—positive or negative—on public-school students’ test scores. The paper concluded with some advice for policy makers: when space is limited, weigh the costs (for the most part, simply the inconvenience of changing school schedules and moving classrooms) against the potential benefits to the charter-school kids.

SOURCE: Marcus Winters, “The Effect of Co-Locations on Student Achievement in NYC Public Schools,” Civic Report no. 85 (New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2014).

“Grit” is a hot new buzzword—and what some believe to be the key to whether a student succeeds. But this study takes a slightly different tack, demonstrating a link between a teacher’s grit and her effectiveness and longevity in the classroom. The authors determined the “grittiness” of a selection of first- and second-year teachers via a blind rating system of their résumés, awarding points to individuals who remained in activities (sports, clubs, and so on) for more than two years and extra points for high achievement in those areas. Then, the researchers assessed the teachers’ performance via their students’ proficiency on a standardized assessment. The teachers who were most effective possessed demonstrably higher grit ratings than their counterparts. Grittier teachers were also more likely to complete the school year. Other measures—such as demographic characteristics, school assignment, SAT scores, college GPA, and leadership abilities—did not yield the same statistically significant correlation. The researchers concluded that strong teachers can be identified during the hiring process through a careful examination of the right personality traits, which manifest in teachers’ high-school and college activities. Principals, take heed!

SOURCE: Claire Robertson-Kraft and Angela Lee Duckworth, “True Grit: Trait-Level Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals Predicts Effectiveness and Retention among Novice Teachers,” Teachers College Record 116(3).

Mike and Leo Casey of the Shanker Institute prepare to duke it out over New York’s charter school debate, education finance, and whether positive school trends mean reform is unnecessary—but end up with surprisingly similar conclusions.

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. Experts will tackle these fears and claims at Fordham on October 23, 2013. Hear from Jason Zimba on math myths, Tim Shanahan on the texts that teachers may assign, and a panel of practicing K--12 educators for an early look at Common Core implementation in their states and districts.
Common Core math myths: A conversation with Jason Zimba
Are teachers assigning Common Core aligned texts? A conversation with Tim Shanahan
An early look at Common Core implementation: A panel discussion
Moderated by Michael Petrilli