Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Don’t call me and my friends Chicken Littles or “boys (and girls) who cried wolf.” The sky was beginning to fall down—and the wolf was approaching the lamb—three decades ago when we joined the National Commission on Excellence in Education in warning that the country’s future and the career (and income and social-mobility) prospects of millions of its citizens were in jeopardy due to the weak condition of our education system.

A quarter-century or so later, we face a slack economy, widening income gaps, and diminishing prospects for those who lack a solid education—as well as all manner of other problems that befall them.

As Northwestern University sociologist Robert Gordon recently wrote, “Companies pay better-educated people higher wages because they are more productive. The premium that employers pay to a college graduate compared with that to a high school graduate has soared since 1970, because of higher demand for technical and communication skills at the top of the scale and a collapse in demand for unskilled and semiskilled workers at the bottom.”

To be sure, multiple factors have conspired to raise unemployment and hold down wages for unskilled and weakly skilled Americans. Included on that list are globalization, outsourcing, robots, recessions, bubbles, bankruptcies, declining unions, and deteriorating families. But the line of causation runs in two directions: A weakly educated population also holds down the national economy, the evidence of which is admirably summarized in Endangering Prosperity, the recent book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. As Lawrence Summers states in a perceptive foreword to that book, “[I]n a knowledge economy nothing is more important than the cognitive quality of those who produce goods and services. And so education has become and likely will continue to be even more important for economic performance at the individual and the national level.”

Now (if you’re old enough) think back to the resistance, denial, and pooh-poohing with which most American educators greeted A Nation at Risk. Or read this excerpt from Tom Toch’s fine 1991 book, In the Name of Excellence:

The reform movement received scant support…from the powerful professional organizations that represent the managers of the nation’s schools and school systems. By and large, organizations such as the…American Association of School Administrators and the Council of Chief State School Officers were cool, and in some cases openly hostile, to the calls for education reform. They charged that the indictments of public education in A Nation at Risk and the other reform reports were overstated. And they argued that the critics’ recommendations for reform were in many cases ill-conceived….The executive director of the National School Boards Association, writing in a July 1983 column, condemned the “stridently negative view of public education” and the “near-hysterical narrative” of A Nation at Risk….The solution to the crisis in the schools, the organizations argued (even as they denied that a crisis existed), lay not in a spate of reforms but in increased spending on education.


They were wrong. The Excellence Commission was right. And so, forgive me, were a bunch of the rest of us. Examples follow.




1981: “[U]nless and until we can agree that the future of America, the betterment of society and the security and survival of generations to come are directly and inseparably related to what and how well we teach our children—and how well they learn—we will continue to pursue a course fraught with peril. …The United States cannot risk passing through another decade with its elementary and secondary education system in disrepair. At state are the lives and minds of our children: nearly 47 million of them….” (Yes, that’s me, writing in Life magazine.)

1985:  “Because of the growth of professional, semi-professional, and technical occupations and the decline of industrial and manufacturing jobs, schools have an important mission to perform in preparing youngsters to fill these new, more intellectual careers. Job training will be of less importance in the year 2000 because of the rapid pace of technological change….Because the social and political trends of our nation are increasingly egalitarian, we will want the school in the year 2000 to provide for all children the kind of education that is available today only to those in the best private and public schools.” (Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve)

1986:  “[T]ypical high school graduates in the class of 1987- who will be only 31 years old in the year 2000- will hold a variety of jobs and undergo many educational experiences in their lifetimes. There is no way to prepare them in detail for the specific requirements of each. And if we work too hard now at helping students become cooks or typists or auto mechanics, we may cripple their ability to make the shifts that lie ahead….[S]chools can fulfill their utilitarian role without a great deal of difference between the curriculum of those who are college-bound and those who are not. All students need preparation for life’s transitions and for the worlds of work and of future education and training.” (Me again, in The Phi Delta Kappan)

1989: “If you care about the distribution of educational opportunity in this society, it seems to me you have got to care about the fact that an awful lot of young people are not even being exposed to the things that we hope they will learn. If we are not prepared to go through with the exposure, we are plainly not going to achieve the standards.” (Sorry, I said that, too, in National Standards: A Plan for Consensus)

1991:  “[E]fforts to restructure education must work toward guaranteeing that all students are engaged in rigorous programs of instruction designed to ensure that every child, regardless of background or disability, acquires the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in a changing economy.” (Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, America 2000: An Education Strategy)

1992: [The study's outcome was a] "clear warning that even good schools are not properly preparing students for world competition." (Lamar Alexander, commenting on a new international comparison of student achievement)

1987: “Hard economic times and slumping tax revenues might once have suggested cutting back on education and human development spending, he said. ‘But that will not work today. In our highly integrated, highly competitive world economy, either we press ahead or we are pushed back. There is no status quo.’” (President Bill Clinton—then governor of Arkansas—in his 1987 “Making Arkansas Work” inauguration speech, quoted in Friends in High Places)

No, Japan didn’t eat our lunch. We got that part half-wrong. Today it looks more like China, Singapore, and maybe Brazil. But our predictions about leaving behind those of our fellow citizens who lack strong educations—that part we got right.

The education establishment was completely wrong then. So are today’s deniers, excusers, and blame-shifters (including, alas, the new Diane Ravitch). But they haven’t given up. Indeed, if history repeats itself, they’ll continue to prevail on most of the big issues. And Americans will continue to pay the price.



For the past year, much of the ed-reform world has been concerned about the (seemingly) growing opposition from the right to the Common Core standards. But the closer you look at these critiques of Common Core, the weaker their case appears. Can something as solid as CCSS really be stopped by such an intellectually flimsy attack?

The Pioneer Institute is a leader in the conservative anti–Common Core brigade, launching reports, op-eds, and testimony in a seemingly unending effort to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the standards. They are nothing if not fanatical in their opposition to the Common Core; even when they acknowledge the facts aren’t on their side, they simply refuse to change their story.

Take, for instance, Pioneer’s recently released white paper, written by former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and entitled, “A Republic of Republics: How the Common Core Undermines State and Local Control over K–12 Education." In terms of criticism of the Common Core, there is very little substantively new in the report—the arguments are all very familiar to anyone who’s been following the backlash over the past several months. What makes the report so curious is that they actually accept four facts about the Common Core that leave little of their argument intact.

Fact #1: Local Control. On page 2, Scott acknowledges that, across all states—even those that have adopted the Common Core—it is state and local leaders, not the federal government, who will make decisions about curriculum and instruction.

Fact #2: Not a National Curriculum. Scott admits that it is “premature to claim that the CCSSI amounts to a national curriculum.” Indeed, he goes as far as to say that the CCSS “are not a curriculum” and that “local curricula will still be defined at the school and district levels.”

Fact #3: Not Federally Mandated. The report notes that while it’s clear the Obama Administration “would like every state to adopt the CCSSI,” “neither [Race to the Top] nor the conditional waivers being provided under NCLB mention the Common Core State Standards Initiative.” Of course, there are lots of things presidents and education secretaries want—and they ordinarily take full advantage of their bully pulpits to push their preferred policies. But preferences and wishes do not a federal curriculum make.

Fact #4: State Led. By acknowledging the groups actually involved in the development of the standards—the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, Achieve, and on—the report tacitly concedes that the federal government had no part in the standards development itself.

Yet, the title still suggests that the Common Core undermines state and local control over K–12 education.

Throughout the report, the author works overtime to raise concerns about Common Core, despite having conceded most of the argument. He questions the fact that the first round of RTT asked states to commit to the CCSS before the expectations were finalized. He worries about the speed with which the RTT-endorsed policies were adopted in state legislatures, and he criticizes Duncan and his team for rejecting waiver applications from states that didn’t do exactly what the administration wanted. (He cites, for example, the fact that California was “denied a waiver because of its unwillingness to tie teacher evaluations to test scores.”)

But these critiques center almost exclusively on RTT, not on the standards themselves. In fact, while Pioneer scholars have long lamented the loss of the Massachusetts ELA and math standards, they seem reluctant to acknowledge the broad support that Common Core adoption had within the Bay State. The State Board of Education, for example, brought together a committee of Massachusetts-based university professors and educators to review the CCSS. That committee voted unanimously to adopt the Common Core and made several suggestions about content from the previous Massachusetts standards they wanted to see incorporated into the CCSS. The State Board listened and made all of the recommended additions.

Similar processes have happened in statehouses and departments of education throughout the country, and most of those hearings and committee recommendations have reinforced support for the Common Core. And that’s largely because so many state education leaders and educators—both at the K–12 level and from colleges and universities—think these standards are an improvement over the expectations they replaced. (Indeed, even Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, Pioneer’s chief content experts, have acknowledged that returning to previous state standards would mean returning to low-quality, “non-rigorous” K–12 expectations.)

Under close examination, the arguments about federal intrusion are, so far, incredibly weak. And if Duncan and his team were to heed Scott’s sound recommendation that they “prohibit any future federal funding from being conditioned on…state adoption of the Common Core,” we could rest assured that the CCSSI will remain, as intended, a state-led effort to improve the quality, content, and rigor of K–12 ELA and math standards.

This valuable paper from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings sounds an important alarm: “The danger is that grade inflation, the often discussed phenomenon of students receiving higher and higher grades for mediocre academic achievement, has been joined by course inflation. Completing advanced math courses does not mean what it once meant because course titles no longer signify the mathematics that students have studied and learned.”

In brief, algebra is indeed an important gatekeeper subject for students to master if they are going to go anywhere at all in math. That’s why there’s been so much pressure from so many directions to get more kids to take Algebra I as early as possible, preferably in eighth grade, and then to make sure they take Algebra II during high school. There is no doubt that enrollments in—and completions of—courses with those labels have risen dramatically. Yet there is mounting evidence—which this paper does an excellent job of aggregating, analyzing and explaining—that the labels no longer signify what they once did and that, while youngsters who have passed such courses may have “credentials,” they have not, in fact, learned much math and are not, in fact, prepared for what follows.

If course completion and teacher grades don’t prove mastery of the subject matter—the knowledge and skills—that the “real world” (mainly employers and college professors) believe is associated with passing such courses, then external monitoring and assessing is required. But Loveless goes to some pains to demonstrate the weakness of most of today’s assessments in that regard—and his frail hopes for the Common Core assessments to solve that problem. What seems to be called for are high-quality end-of-course exams at the state or national level—but that’s exactly what several states (most conspicuously Texas) have recently decided to do less of going forward.

It should be noted (though Loveless doesn’t) that this analysis also illuminates the absurdity of one argument that has raged around the Common Core—namely, whether they do or don’t expect kids to study algebra in eighth grade. What we learn from Loveless is that putting a bunch more students into courses labeled Algebra I, whether it’s in eighth grade, fifth grade, or tenth grade, doesn’t per se mean they’ll learn algebra there. The argument worth having is whether the forthcoming Common Core assessments will adequately gauge whether they have learned algebra, as the standards themselves certainly expect them to do.

A separate argument worth having, but not here, is whether Algebra II (“advanced algebra,” in my day) is truly essential for college and workforce preparation. (It’s definitely essential for any reasonable version of “college math” and certainly for STEM-related courses and jobs.)

SOURCE: Tom Loveless, The Algebra Imperative: Assessing Algebra in a National and International Context (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, September 2013).

Among the provisions of Indiana’s so-called Common Core “pause” legislation was a requirement that the state’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provide an estimate of the cost of implementing these standards and their assessments. The results are in, along with OMB’s conclusion: “Local schools had already or were capable of transitioning to new standards with existing levels of funding.” The report examined a number of scenarios for assessment implementation, comparing annual costs for adoption of PARCC tests ($33.2M); Smarter Balanced tests ($31.4M); a hypothetical state-developed, CCSS-aligned assessment ($34.8M plus $23.5M in one-time development costs); and a hypothetical state-developed assessment not aligned to the CCSS ($34.7M plus $19.1M in one-time development costs). Yes, you added correctly: Sticking with the Common Core and its assessments is the cheapest option. This analysis, we suspect, may turn the tide in Indiana and help convince wobbly policy makers to stay the course. But the impact of this “fiscal impact” study should really be much broader. Leaders in any state with a raging Common Core controversy should give it a look.
SOURCE: Chad Timmerman, Amy Pattinson, and Parvonay Stover, Indiana Common Core Implementation: Fiscal Impact Report (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Office of Management and Budget, August 2013).

This study of Teach For America (TFA) and Teaching Fellows secondary math teachers explores how their students compare to peers taking the same course, in the same school, from teachers who entered the profession through traditional certification programs (or other programs not as rigorous as TFA or Teaching Fellows). Conducted by Mathematica and the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the report is the first look at this question using random assignment, the gold standard for empirical research: Students in each participating school, 9,000 overall taught by 300 secondary math teachers, were randomly assigned to their instructors. The upshot? First, students who had TFA teachers performed better on end-of-year assessments than students in the comparison classrooms, scoring an average of 0.07 standard deviations higher, which is equivalent to 2.6 additional months of school or moving from the 27th to 36th percentile. Second, students who had Teaching Fellows teachers did not do any better or worse than students in comparison classrooms. However, students of novice Teaching Fellows did better than those instructed by novice comparison teachers. To be sure, these findings are not necessarily reflective of the programs alone. They also reflect differences in the people who choose to enter them. Finally, a bit on the characteristics of these teachers: Both TFA and Teaching Fellows have less experience than their peers, are less likely to be minorities, more likely to have graduated from more selective colleges, less likely to be math majors but more likely to score higher on tests of math content. However, only years of experience and, for high school, math content knowledge were associated with higher student achievement. These findings add to the glut of research indicating that traditional certification programs could benefit from greater selectivity, indeed from a radical overhaul.
SOURCE: Melissa A. Clark, et al., The Effectiveness of Secondary Math Teachers from Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows Programs (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, September 2013).

Mike tries to goad an unflappable Michael Brickman into a fight on New York’s mayoral election, whether school choice is the only path to reform, and whether Arne Duncan is bullying California. Dara does the math on math teachers from TFA and Teaching Fellows.