Jindal and the irony of local control

Governor Jindal is determined to pull Louisiana out of the Common Core. He wants “Louisiana standards and a Louisiana test” for Louisiana kids. But here’s the rub: Louisiana’s top education officials aren’t having it. According to the Times-Picayune,

Education Superintendent White and board President Chas Roemer dismissed Jindal’s rejection of Common Core as a dramatic but meaningless gesture. They said the state’s 714,000 students will continue lessons aligned with the national academic standards and its associated tests.

So, in the name of local control, Jindal wants out, but local officials are pushing back. This brings up the question: what is local control?

I find much of the Core implementation dismal (and consider the standards themselves partly to blame)–but question the claim that the main problem  is federal overreach. Those making this claim cite a long tradition of “local control,” which, in their view, should remain. What do they mean by that?

If “local control” is state control, well, I’d be happy with local control in Massachusetts but somewhat worried in Kentucky, say.

If “local control” is district control, great–if I live in a district with a liberal curricular tradition (“liberal” in the sense of “liberal education,” not necessarily liberal politics). In a weak district, or a district with strong religious or ideological biases, there’s a much greater chance of fads, poor curriculum, upheavals, and so on, in which case a counterbalance of power could potentially do good.

If “local control” is control at the school level, good for you, if your school has a strong staff, a good curriculum, adequate resources, and wise leadership, or at least some of these. If not, you’re out of luck.  School-level control may be liberating in some cases and confining in others.

Beyond that, within any of these definitions of “local control,” a hierarchy exists. The person in charge (for instance, Jindal) might see things one way, and those directly below him might disagree. Who, then, controls the local control? “Democratic process,” some may say–but democratic process doesn’t always uphold local control.

My point is not to bash local control. In many ways I support it. I am just observing its conceptual fuzziness and practical contradictions.

Accountability light and lighter

Sen. Tom Harkin and the Democrats have proposed a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind). So have Sen. Lamar Alexander the the Republicans. Both “move away from the strong federal accountability system at the center of the much-maligned NCLB law, but to different degrees,” reports Ed Week.

The Harkin bill would require states to create accountability systems that essentially build on the administration’s waivers (which are in place in 37 states plus D.C. so far), meaning that states would have to set goals for student achievement and come up with some sort of system to help turn around the schools that are struggling the most. The Alexander bill, on the other hand, would continue to require states to test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the senator is counting on transparency to be the main lever for school improvement. And under the Harkin bill, schools would be on the hook for helping the bottom five percent turn around—plus fixing another 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps. There’s nothing like that in the Alexander bill . . .

Harkin wants teachers to be evaluated based on student achievement with the results used to ensure that low-performing schools get an “equitable” share of high-quality teachers. The Alexander bill eliminates the provision on “highly qualified” teachers and leaves teacher evaluation to the states.

The House Republicans don’t agree: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education committee, wants to mandate teacher evaluation. He introduced his ESEA reauthorization bill today.

Alexander also would let “federal Title I dollars follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring,” writes Klein. And the Alexander bill specifically forbids the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.

Harkin claims to be ending federal “micromanaging” of schools and offering states “flexibility.”

That’s laughable, writes Mike Petrilli on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  He lists 40 policy questions that Harkin’s bill decides, ranging from “equitable distribution of quality teachers” to collaboration time for teachers in low-performing schools.

School report cards must include  (“detailed data on the number of pregnant or parenting students and their outcomes,” data on “school violence, bullying, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, in-school student suspensions, out-of-school student suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, school-based arrests, disciplinary transfers (including placements in alternative schools), and student detentions” for each subgroup, etc.)

Fordham favors “reform realism” about the limits of federal power. On Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle calls that “mushy.” He thinks both bills are “lackluster.” But, at least, Harkin is trying to hold schools accountable.

States would still have to provide data on how districts and schools are helping poor and minority children, keeping one of the most successful aspects of No Child’s accountability provisions. States would also have to provide families with an “equity report card” complete with data on how well districts are doing in providing comprehensive college preparatory courses – including Advanced Placement classes – to all kids; this would make data easily accessible to families so they can make smarter decisions and be lead decision-makers in education.

But Harkin repeats the Obama administration’s error of focusing on the worst-performing schools and letting the rest off the hook, Biddle writes.

Neither bill will pass, nor will there be “anything even resembling a compromise, anytime ever until there are new folks in Congress (and maybe a new president),” writes Alyson Klein. That means rule by waivers will continue.

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.

Conservatives can like the Common Core

Conservatives should support the Common Core standards, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, who describe themselves as “education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks” (Fordham and the Manhattan Institute).

Glenn Beck  calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Michelle Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.”  Not so, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

Common Core State Standards . . . describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

Common Core doesn’t force English teachers to drop To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of government manuals, they write.  All teachers — not just English teachers — will expose students to informational texts and literary nonfiction. That includes “foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau.”

(Non-fiction reading can inspire creativity, writes an AP English teacher in Ed Week’s Teacher.)

On the math side, opponents argue the standards are “squishy, progressive and lacking in rigorous content.”  But the math standards are dominated by content, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

 Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.

“For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” conclude Porter-Magee and Stern. “This is our chance to make it happen.”

Common Core could lead to “federal control of school curricula,” writes Neal McCluskey on Cato’s blog.  Porter-Magee will serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s technical review panel vetting Common Core tests developed by “Department-selected consortia,” he adds. If the feds control the tests, they control what’s taught in schools, argues McCluskey.

Do we want the feds to run our schools?

Without discussion or debate, the U.S. education system is being nationalized, writes Marc Tucker, who heads the National Center on Education and the Economy, in the Los Angeles Times.

Historically, the federal government’s role was to aid, assist, prod and push schools, districts and states. But the key word was always “aid.” . . . The feds avoided interfering in any important way with the design of a state’s education system unless issues of civil rights were involved, and in those cases, it was generally the courts rather than the executive or legislative branches that sparked the intervention.

“The federal role in education has undergone a massive transformation” since the George H.W. Bush administration, Tucker writes. President Obama’s Education Department — acting independently of Congress and the states — is setting education policy for the nation.

(Policies) include national standards aligned with national tests, a push for evaluating (and rewarding or punishing) teachers based on their students’ test scores, and a strong emphasis on marketplace pressures, including charter schools, to ensure the survival of successful schools — and the failure of weak ones.

. . . Do we really want the executive branch of the federal government to decide, pretty much by itself, what the aims of American education should be and how they should be achieved?

It’s time to talk about the proper federal role in education policy, “before we wake up one day to find that the executive branch, or even the entire federal government, has become our national school board,” Tucker concludes.

 

Reform School: What’s the federal role?

Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor of education reform,  and Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, discuss the federal role in education on Reform School, a new PBS series by ChoiceMedia.TV.

Other people’s money to hire teachers (and administrators)

Vice President Joe Biden went to York, Pennsylvania to sell the teacher stimulus to fourth graders, notes Mark Steyn. Biden told the kids that York is broke, but the federal government can send money to hire teachers.

Public school employment has increased 10 times faster than enrollment since 1970, Steyn writes.

In 2008, the United States spent more per student on K-12 education than any other developed nation except Switzerland – and at least the Swiss have something to show for it. In 2008, York City School District spent $12,691 per pupil – or about a third more than the Swiss. Slovakia’s total per student cost is less than York City’s current per student deficit – and the Slovak kids beat the United States at mathematics, which may explain why their budget arithmetic still has a passing acquaintanceship with reality. As in so many other areas of American life, the problem is not the lack of money but the fact that so much of the money is utterly wasted.

York schools employed 440 teachers and 295 administrative and support staff in 2006 (the most recent data available), Steyn writes.

For every three teachers we “put back in the classroom,” we need to hire two bureaucrats to put back in the bureaucracy to fill in the paperwork to access the federal funds to put teachers back in the classroom.

 . . . when a nation of 300 million people presumes to determine grade-school hiring and almost everything else through an ever more centralized bureaucracy, you’re setting yourself up for waste on a scale unknown to history.

The teacher jobs bill doesn’t have unified Democratic support or any Republican support, so it’s not going to happen.