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.

If you like local control, you can (heh) keep it …

The Common Core is a thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power, conservative pundit George Will said on Fox News.

“The advocates of the Common Core say, if you like local control of your schools, you can keep it, period. If you like your local curriculum you can keep it, period, and people don’t believe them for very good reasons,” Will remarked.

With textbooks and the SAT aligned with the Common Core, we’ll have a national curriculum for all states, warns Will.

The U.S. Education Department is demanding that Indiana prove it’s still eligible for a No Child Left Behind waiver after officially dumping the Common Core. Andy Smarick, a Core supporter, fears a backlash against what many will see as federal overreach.

Washington state already has lost its waiver and others could follow, he writes. “That means there will be a stack of letters from Uncle Sam scolding various state leaders about their inadequate fidelity to federal rules related to standards, assessments, educator evaluations, school interventions, and more.”

Common Core catastrophe?

States rushed the adoption of Common Core standards to be eligible for federal grants, Bill Evers, a former assistant secretary of Education, tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

. . . I really think it’s better to not have a national set of curriculum content standards. It’s better that various states try out their best idea of how to do these things, so maybe Pennsylvania will borrow some ideas from Massachusetts or Indiana, or try some ideas of its own.

Common Core is a “utopian project to align all the classrooms in the country to be doing roughly the same things,” says Evers. “Anything like that is just an unimaginably difficult, complex thing.”

The standards themselves, the standards are lists of topics that the child is expected to learn in each grade. The standards have some sloppiness problems and they have some, I guess you could call them doctrinal, problems where they are trying to teach a certain kind of progressive education. And that may not work out too well. . . . the previous attempts to do this sort of thing have failed. There was new math in the wake of Sputnik, there was an attempt at national standards by George H.W. Bush, and there were two attempts in the Clinton administration at national standards and testing and curriculum. They both failed.

Will it do more harm than good? “I think it has the potential to be catastrophic,” replies Evers.

Opposition to the new standards is growing, writes George Will. The Common Core is “designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity.”

Are teachers conservative by nature?

If Republicans showed respect for teachers, they’d discover people with “conservative values” who might enter the “big tent” writes Colleen Hyland, a New York teacher, in The Weekly Standard.  by nature.

Conservative values go hand in hand with teaching. Teachers see the evidence every day that stable families produce well-adjusted kids who succeed in the classroom. Many teachers are people of faith. Most of us are proud Americans who say the pledge every day with our students and mean it. We teach kids how to show respect and use proper manners by modeling them ourselves. We stress personal accountability.

Teachers are receptive to the idea of limited government and local control, Hyland writes. “Layer upon layer of government bureaucracy” forces teachers to  “spend too much of their day with redundant paperwork, wrestling with standards that are overly complex and often contradictory.”

Get the Department of Education off our backs. . . . Speak about deregulating our classrooms and we are all ears.

Of course Republicans would have to “talk about teachers as if you actually like them,” Hyland writes. Treat them with respect.

Whether it’s coming from administrators or politicians, teachers resent -top-down demands that belittle their expertise and ignore their experience. Give teachers credit for what we do as professionals. We are facing a collapsing American culture that is at odds with education in general. It is that same collapsing culture that unites conservatives in support of traditional -values. Despite voting consistently for liberal candidates who actively court their votes, most teachers I know lead fairly traditional lives that respect faith, family, country, and community.

While some teachers are “entrenched liberals,” others feel “the only respect they receive comes from the Democratic party,” Hyland writes. “They would welcome an invitation into the big tent of the GOP.”

Does she have a point?

 

Spending skyrockets, scores don’t

While spending per-student has “taken off like a moonshot ,” SAT “scores have stayed the same or declined, reports Neal McCluskey at Cato @ Liberty. The fact that more students are taking the SAT doesn’t account for “the overwhelming lack of correlation between spending and scores,” especially as National Assessment of Education Progress scores also have flatlined.

Conservatives are incoherent on federal education policy, McCluskey adds, criticizing Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute for their analysis of federal micromanaging. An addiction to spending federal money and a love of ”standards and accountability” leads to “a great big refuse heap of squandered money, red tape, educational stagnation, and political failure.” Yet Hess and Kelly don’t call for the feds to get out of education policy.

Romney on education

At NBC’s Education Nation, Gov. Romney said the federal government shouldn’t push states to adopt core standards or “financially reward states based upon accepting the federal government’s idea of a curriculum.”

Here’s a transcript.

Romney education plan is radical

“Emphasizing high-stakes tests and charter school expansion, Obama has simply continued — or accelerated — the policies handed down by George W. Bush in his signature education reform, No Child Left Behind,” writes education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in the Los Angeles Times. By contrast, Mitt  Romney’s education plan is revolutionary, writes Zimmerman.

Romney has put forth a plan that could completely transform the way Americans organize and fund public schools. And that’s why it has little chance of being implemented any time soon.

Romney proposes letting poor and disabled students use federal funds to enroll in new schools — private schools or out-of-district public schools.

. . . forget all our effusive rhetoric about education as the great equalizer, the ticket out of poverty and so on. American education is profoundly unequal because it is still circumscribed by local district lines — and still financed, mostly, by local tax dollars.

While President Obama’s education policies “don’t change the bottom line,” Romney “has suggested that kids in a poor public school district should be allowed to enroll in a wealthier one.” That’s a huge change in the status quo.

Romney “hasn’t provided any real details,” Zimmerman writes. And don’t hold your breath waiting for upper-middle-class suburbanites to welcome low-income students.

 Yet the plan does remind us of the radical potential of school vouchers, which are today blithely dismissed by liberals as a right-wing plot to gut public education. But vouchers once drew significant support from the left too, including from such luminaries as Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks and urban muckraker Jonathan Kozol.

To Jencks, who crafted a 1970 report on the subject for Richard Nixon’s White House, vouchers could help equalize American education if public as well as private schools were required to admit a certain fraction of low-income students. And the vouchers would have to be distributed progressively, with the poorest kids getting the biggest tuition assistance.

I don’t see Mitt Romney as a wild and crazy guy. If elected, I don’t think he’ll challenge local control of schools. If he did try to push through a radical voucher plan, he’d face a lot of opposition from suburban Republicans, though he might get support from urban Democrats. I’m not betting the farm on this one.

Medicaid ruling could limit federal coercion — or not

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding ObamaCare includes a restriction on using Medicaid funds to force states to adopt federal policies, notes School Law Blog. That could have implications for education spending.

In fact, just as they did at oral arguments in March over the Affordable Care Act, the justices in their opinions on Thursday raised several education laws and cases, making comparisons between the federal health insurance program for the poor and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for example. Some of the justices most critical of the health law also appeared concerned about an ever-expanding federal role in education.

The court ruled 7-2 that “the Medicaid expansion violates the U.S. Constitution by threatening the states with the loss of their existing Medicaid funding if they decline to comply with the expansion.”

“Congress may use its spending power to create incentives for states to act in accordance with federal policies,” the chief justice said. “But when pressure turns into compulsion, the legislation runs contrary to our system of federalism.”

However, the ruling may not give states much protection from federal coercion on education, opines Rick Hess.

The justices said that the feds can make new funds conditional, but can’t threaten to yank existing federal aid. Hmmmm. What happens when the feds rejigger funding formulas during a reauthorization and a state is now entitled to receive less funding–are states to be held harmless below their old baseline? If programs grow substantially over time, the new, “coercive” federal conditions will eventually apply to much or most of the funds. Is that a problem? What if the feds zero out one edu-grant program, but immediately launch a new, similar program. Since the program is “new,” are policymakers free to attach conditions to their hearts’ content?

States will be pressured to expand health coverage and spending, he predicts. That means there will be less money for K-12 and higher education.

Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.

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.