Why there’s a Common Core backlash

In response to a conservative defense of Common Core Standards, Heritage fellow Lindsey M. Burke describes the conservative backlash on National Review Online.

The federal government has spent billions to move Common Core forward, and it has put billions more on the line. Unfortunately, parents, teachers, tea-party activists, and governors have every reason to believe Common Core represents major, unprecedented federal intervention into education.

In theory, Common Core is a state initiative. But the Obama administration has pushed states to adopt the new standards, Burke writes.

Washington is financing the two national testing consortia that are creating the Common Core assessments. Lawmakers have tied $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to the adoption of standards similar to those found in a significant number of states, and they’ve made the adoption of Common Core a major factor in securing a No Child Left Behind waiver. And now, they have established a technical-review panel to work with the testing consortia on item design and validation.

For an undertaking that claims to be largely free of federal involvement, Common Core has quite a few federal fingerprints on it.

Many parents and teachers share an “understandable fear” that “the federal government is on the brink of dictating the content taught in every school,” Burke concludes.

I wish the feds had allowed Common Core to remain a state effort.

Duncan: AmeriCorps will help failing schools

AmeriCorps volunteers will help raise graduation rates at the nation’s worst schools, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. With $15 million in federal funding, the School Turnaround AmeriCorps will send 650 members into 60 schools.

Duncan said AmeriCorps members will improve school safety, attendance and discipline, help students improve their reading and math skills and increase college enrollment by helping students and their parents apply for financial aid.

AmeriCorps members must be 18 to 24 years old. They don’t have to be high school graduates, much less college graduates. They get a subsistence wage, plus college aid or help paying student loans. It’s hard to believe they’ll be effective tutors, though perhaps they could patrol the halls and restrooms.

High school dropouts are costing some $1.8 billion in lost tax revenue every year, estimates a new report, which foresees a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

It’s not that simple, education economist Henry Levin tells the Huffington Post. “It’s like saying, if my 3-foot-tall child were 6 feet tall, my child would be able to do all sorts of things.”

Or, as they used to say: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Gates targets education policy

The Gates Foundation, with a whopping $37 billion in assets, is spending more to influence education policy, writes Joy Pullman in Heartlander Magazine. The foundation funds “myriad seemingly grassroots” advocacy groups. That’s causing concerns, she writes.

“Philanthropists, unlike teachers unions, they don’t have an obvious constituency,” said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State political science professor. “Teachers unions represent teachers. Who does the Gates Foundation represent?”

Gates has spent $173 million to develop Common Core State Standards and to persuade 46 states to adopt them, writes Pullman. At an Indiana legislative hearing, 26 of the 32 people who testified against a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Core are members of organizations the Gates Foundation funds.”

“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” said Jay Greene, who runs the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Still, Greene thinks the foundation is following education reform trends already adopted by the “D.C. elite,” not setting them. Gates and the U.S. Department of Education are together “push[ing] down into states and localities the consensus they have already arrived at,” he said.

The Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2009 after four Gates employees moved to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, worries that Gates has too much influence.

“I’d like others—particularly [in] the communities that are impacted by the most high-profile school policies—to have at least an equal voice to those from the outside,” he wrote in an email to School Reform News.

Nearly everyone Pullman interviewed “agreed Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation’s employees are, as Greene put it, ‘good people trying to do good things.’ But that does not quell their concerns.” (She must not have talked to Diane Ravitch.)

There are people who think Bill Gates is trying to get even richer by giving billions of dollars away. I think that’s crazy. But I do worry about the foundation’s enormous clout in education debates.

Conspiracy theories about nefarious philanthropists are “laughable,” writes RiShawn Biddle. There’s nothing stealthy about the Gates Foundation’s role in advocating for the Common Core, he adds. Bill and Melinda Gates are “doing nothing more than what any of us would do if we had the cash: Using their dollars and influence to  engage in efforts to improve the world in which they live.”

The American Federation of Teachers gave $6 million to advocacy groups and charities in 2011-12, reports the Education Intelligence Agency. The largest donation was $1.2 million to Californians Working Together, which backed a state ballot measure that raised taxes to fund schools.

Most of the donations were ho-hum, but I was a bit surprised to see $10,000 went to the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center and another $9,155 to the Center for Citizenship Education in Mongolia. I like Rabin. I favor good citizenship in Mongolia. But is this why teachers pay union dues?

Closing bad schools — a civil rights issue?

Closing or reorganizing low-performing urban schools discriminates against black and Hispanic students whose schools are most likely to be targeted, charge community activists in the Journey for Justice Movement.

Closing neighborhood schools is “a violation of our human rights,” said Jitu Brown, an organizer from the South Side of Chicago, in a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday.

Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, said the current reform movement is tantamount to racism. “We are now reverting back to slavery,” she said. “All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we’ll fight to the death.”

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating civil rights complaints against Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark. Closure plans in New York, Chicago and Washington also have been challenged. However, 27 investigations in the last few years found no bias in school closures. Duncan’s spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said the Education Department doesn’t have the power to order a moratorium on school closings. (Finally, there’s something the feds think is out of their jurisdiction!)

Why would anyone fight to the death for schools with low test scores, high dropout rates — and empty classrooms?

Urban schools aren’t just a place for education, says Sarah Garland, author of Divided We Fail on the end of school segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. “For most people their high school is part of who they are and who the community is.”

High school grad rate tops 78%

The on-time high school graduation rate hit 78.2 percent in 2010, the highest in a generation and up 2.7 points in a year.

“If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told AP.

While 93.5 percent of Asian-American students and 83 percent of whites complete high school in four years, that drops to 71.4 percent for Hispanics and 66.1 percent for blacks.

State graduation rates ranged from 57.8 percent in Nevada to 91.4 percent in Vermont.

Comparing graduation rates to any year before 1992 is impossible, writes RiShawn Biddle. The data collection method changed significantly. Some states and districts are reporting very dodgy data. Connecticut reported a 98 percent graduation rate for the class of 2010, which NCES refused to accept. The District of Columbia claimed “only one percent of students officially drop out over a four-year period.”  The key word is “officially.”

Gates: Mix measures to evaluate teachers

Combining growth in students’ test scores, student feedback and classroom observations produces accurate information on teacher effectiveness, according to Gates Foundation research.

A composite measure on teacher effectiveness drawing on all three of those measures, and tested through a random-assignment experiment, predicted fairly accurately how much high-performing teachers would successfully boost their students’ standardized-test scores, concludes the series of new papers, part of the massive Measures of Effective Teaching study launched three years ago.

No more than half of a teacher’s evaluation should be on growth in student achievement, researchers concluded.  In addition, teachers’ classroom performance should be observed by more than one person.

Of course, the controversy on how to evaluate teachers — and what to do with the information — is not over.

The ever-increasing federal role in education makes no sense, writes Marc Tucker, who complains that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is forcing states to evaluate teachers based on student performance in order to get No Child Left Behind waivers.  Most researchers don’t think value-added measures of teacher performance are reliable, writes Tucker.

The study is a “political document and not a research document,” Jay Greene tells the Wall Street Journal.  Classroom observations aren’t a strong predictor of student performance says Greene, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. ”But the Gates Foundation knows that teachers and others are resistant to a system that is based too heavily on student test scores, so they combined them with other measures to find something that was more agreeable to them,” he said.

Duncan: ‘Everybody won’ in Chicago teacher strike

“Everybody won” in the Chicago teacher’s strike, said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the National Press Club Tuesday. Duncan was CEO of Chicago public schools from 2001 to 2009.

Politics and the Chicago teachers’ strike

Teacher evaluation — what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on students’ improvement on tests? — is at the heart of the Chicago strike, writes Marc Tucker, looking at the politics. The city wants a higher number than the one set by state law. And why did Illinois require the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers? It wanted to please Arne Duncan to get Race to the Top money.

The very policy that the teachers are most furiously opposed to is not just Rahm Emanuel’s policy.  It is core Obama administration policy.  The mayor is carrying the water for the Obama administration’s education reform strategy, and, in doing so, may be undermining the very reelection effort to which the mayor is personally very committed.

. . .  The administration has ardently and successfully advocated a reform agenda that teachers and their unions see as anti-teacher.  They have been successful in this advocacy because a tough-minded stance on teacher evaluations is one of only a tiny handful of issues on which the administration can find common ground with Republicans around the country.

President Obama has taken no position on the strike, notes Stephen Sawchuk on Teacher Beat.

“The president has said what’s appropriate to be said, that this is a local issue,” (American Federation of Teachers president Randi) Weingarten said.

. . .  I overheard the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers telling the striking teachers that he’d removed his “Reelect Obama” lapel pin.

After vehemently endorsing the Wisconsin teachers’ union’s fight with Gov. Scott Walker, Weingarten “has been careful to not embrace her Chicago chapter too closely,” writes Rick Hess in a New York Daily News op-ed. There’s been no fiery rhetoric this time.

What’s different is that this is a bad fight for the teacher unions – most of the public, seeing the facts, will not be on their side – it comes at an awful time, and an ugly defeat could be a crushing blow.

The district is opening more “Children First” centers to provide games, arts and crafts and recreation for children and expanding to normal school hours, reports Sawchuk.

It’s about power, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. “The unions are feeling whipsawed by tectonic shifts that have occured within the Democratic Party in recent years.”

There’s talk the strike could be settled soon — perhaps soon enough to start classes on Monday. Striking teachers are planning what to tell their students, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Christopher Barker, who teaches math and humanities at an elementary school, said he’ll ask students. “Is there anywhere that you go in life when you do have to speak up for yourself when there’s a perceived injustice?”

Donielle Lawson, who teaches special education at an alternative high school at Cook County Jail, also plans to discuss the strike. ”They’re all too familiar with bullying and societal injustices, so it would be a very easy conversation with them,” Lawson said.

Goosing the gander

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is granting No Child Left Behind waivers to states that adopt Duncan’s favored reforms, notes Rick Hess. If Romney wins, what sort of waivers would sauce the gander?

First, Romney ought to announce that waivers from NCLB will require real options for parents in all persistently low-performing schools. Since Democrats are right to point out that there aren’t enough seats for all the affected kids to escape to, Romney ought to insist that states adopt the “parent trigger” in order to give parents the option to radically remake their children’s school. Given that the parent trigger has been championed by Democratic school reform activists, but angers traditional Democratic allies in school districts, it’d be a neat piece of political jujitsu.

If states can’t provide alternatives for kids in failing schools, Romney could require a voucher option, Hess suggests.

In addition, waiver-seeking states could be required “to emulate Wisconsin and Indiana and restrict the scope of collective bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits, so that it no longer encompasses policies that can impede school improvement.”

Romney could require waiver states “to undergo an independent audit of their health care and retirement obligations and to adopt a plan that establishes a sustainable financial model.”

Finally, he ought to insist that states demonstrate that they’re spending federal funds wisely. This requires meaningful cost accounting, including calculating ROI (return on investment) at the school and district levels.

Yes, it would be federal overreach, Hess writes. But if the Democrats can do it, the Republicans can too.

NCLB waivers let states set goals by race

Virginia will revise its new goals for student achievement, but will continue to set “different achievement goals for students according to race, family income and disability,” reports the Washington Post.  That’s OK with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The Obama administration has allowed states to set different goals for different groups of students, as long as the low-performing students are required to make greater rates of progress, so that the gap between struggling students and high-achieving students is cut in half over six years.

The District and 27 of the 33 states that have received waivers from the Obama administration under No Child Left Behind have also set new goals that call for different levels of achievement for different groups of students.

In Maryland, for example, state officials say they want Asian students to progress from 94.5 percent proficient in math in 2011 to 97 percent by 2017. During the same period, the state wants black students to improve from 68 percent to 84 percent. The black students are expected to reach a lower endpoint but they would have to improve at a faster rate.

Virginia’s goals qualified the state for a NCLB waiver. While 89 percent of Asian students and 78 percent of whites are expected pass state math tests in 2017, only 65 percent of Hispanics, 57 percent of blacks and 49 percent of special-education students are expected to pass.