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.

ObamaFlex isn’t very flexible

ObamaFlex — the reform-linked waivers for No Child Left Behind — claim to be tight on goals and loose on strategies, but the plan is heavy on tight and light on loose, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

States would have to adopt Common Core Standards or prove their own standards prepare graduates for college. But states want waivers now and it will take time to prove  standards are “college ready.”

If a state decides to back out of Common Core Standards — perhaps because the standards-linked tests are inadequate –will the feds withdraw the waiver? Cut off funding?

A state can propose its own approach to accountability, for example – as long as it includes “annual measurable objectives,” “priority schools,” “focus schools,” “reward schools,” and on and on and on. This is kind of like Henry Ford’s approach to car colors.

The teacher evaluation mandate sets out six rules for all school districts to follow.

If we’ve learned anything from No Child Left Behind, it’s that to mandate a good idea is to kill it.

There’s a better way to fix No Child Left Behind, argues Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, in the New York Times. Alexander, a former Education secretary, has introduced a set of bills in Congress.

National standards: Good idea or good riddance?

Good riddance to new national standards, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who’s a centrist voice in the education debate. Common Core Standards, adopted by more than 40 states and pushed by the Education Department, “won’t help and won’t work,” Mathews argues.

Such specific standards stifle creativity and conflict with a two-century American preference for local decision-making about schools.

. . . We should focus on better teaching methods and better training of teachers, as well as school structures that help educators work more as teams. Those teachers could then employ whatever methods and standards make sense for their students.

Mathews was persuaded the national standards movement will collapse by reading Jay Greene, who argues that neither the states nor the feds can afford “a ton of money” to change curriculum, testing and teaching to make standards meaningful. Not even the Gates Foundation can afford it, Greene writes.

(Greene) says the digital learning industry, a growing financial and political force, will soon realize that the new standards will frustrate innovation.

“No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top grants are likely to be the high water mark of federal involvement in schools,” Mathews predicts.

States can borrow good standards from other states without creating one set of standards for everyone, he argues. If the tests developed to go with the new standards “probe conceptual understanding in ways state tests fail to do,” then there will be demand to use those exams.

While recruiting, training and supporting good teachers is important, curriculum isn’t chopped liver. I’d like to see states with good standards stick with what they’ve got, at least until the Common Core Standards and tests prove their worth. But plenty of states have nowhere to go but up.

I’m also not persuaded national standards are doomed. Still, it’s odd that nobody will defend the rigor and quality of Common Core math standards for an Education Next forum.  “Common Core advocates seem to have already grown impatient with public give-and-take and eager to declare the issue settled,” writes Rick Hess, who sympathetic but skeptical about the Common Core effort.


Against a national curriculum

A national curriculum backed by national tests will stifle innovation, freeze the status quo into place, end state and local control of schooling  and “impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students,” argues Closing the Door on Innovation, signed by 100 education and public policy leaders.

The U.S. Education Department is funding two groups that are developing assessment systems to match Common Core Standards. A manifesto organized by the Shanker Institute has called for a national K-12 curriculum.

Common Core Standards aren’t good enough to be the national standard, the anti-Shanker manifesto argues.  The highest-performing countries and states set higher standards.

Furthermore, there is no one “best” curriculum design.

The Shanker Manifesto assumes we can use “the best of what is known” about how to structure curriculum. Yet which curriculum would be best is exactly what we do not know, if in fact all high school students should follow one curriculum.

. . . A single set of curriculum guidelines, models, or frameworks cannot be justified at the high school level, given the diversity of interests, talents and pedagogical needs among adolescents. . . . Other countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula; Finland, for example, offers all students leaving grade 9 the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50% of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school.

. . . A one-size-fits-all model not only assumes that we already know the one best curriculum for all students; it assumes that one best way for all students exists. We see no grounds for carving that assumption in stone.

The manifesto was organized by Bill Evers, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; Greg Forster, senior fellow at the Foundation for Education Choice; Jay Greene and Sandra Stotsky, professors at the University of Arkansas; and Ze’ev Wurman, executive at a Silicon Valley start-up. Signers are listed here.

Update:  A national curriculum is in the works, Eduflack points out.  The Gates Foundation is working with the Pearson Foundation to write online curricula for 24 courses.

Robert Slavin believes the boffins can create one best algebra curriculum.

Shanker called for common content, not a national curriculum, responds Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president.

Ed reform: Major combat isn’t over

Education reformers seem to be winning the day, but two Education Next commentaries warn against declaring victory.

In A Battle Begun, Not Won, Paul Peterson, Checker Finn and Marci Kanstoroom warn that “nothing can be done at the national level” to transform education.

Most of the crucial decisions about how U.S. schools run and who teaches what to whom in which classrooms are still made in 14,000 semi-autonomous school districts, nearly all of them run by locally elected school boards, often with campaign dollars supplied by those with whom they negotiate collectively, and managed by professional superintendents, trained in colleges of education and socialized over the years into the prevailing culture of public education.

That culture is in no way reform-minded. It believes that educators know best, that elected school boards are the embodiment of democracy in action, that colleges of education are the path to true professionalism, that collective bargaining is necessary to protect teacher rights, and that any failings visible in today’s schools, teachers, and students are either the fault of heedless parents or the consequence of incompetent administrators and stingy taxpayers.

Teachers unions wield great power at the state level, where they’ve blocked or weakened reforms.

In Washington, reforms are limited to Race to the Top, “an executive-branch initiative lacking a clear legislative mandate.” In the new Congress, “more Republicans than ever are worshiping before the false god of local control.”

Union leaders may pose as agents of change, but local unions “almost always kill any but the mildest changes.”

Furthermore, the U.S. public is lukewarm on education reform. Many think other people’s schools are no good but their own children’s schools don’t need changes.

Pyrrhic Victories? by Frederick M. Hess, Michael J. Petrilli, and Martin R. West sees broad but shallow support for reform ideas.  In polls, Americans say they support charter schools — but don’t know what they are.  They want accountability but are reluctant to close low-performing schools or fire ineffective teachers.

Reformers push overly ambitious ideas, risking “Icarus syndrome,” the authors warn. No Child Left Behind’s mistakes could be repeated by Race to the Top, which pushes states to adopt “a very prescriptive set of policy reforms” to get federal funding.

Just as definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress, Highly Qualified Teachers, and other core elements of NCLB, circa 2001, soon grew obsolete and problematic, so too will today’s conventional wisdom around teacher evaluations, charter caps, and all the rest. Rather than encouraging problem solving and policy tinkering, these “shoot the moon” initiatives freeze reform in one moment in time. And they run the risk of backlash if and when early results prove disappointing.

Obsessed with “closing achievement gaps,” reformers “signal to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about helping their kids.” That’s not the way to build wide support.

We need less cheerleading and more humility, they conclude.

Back to local control?

As the party of local control, Republicans should reject the federalization of education policy, writes Diane Ravitch in the Wall Street Journal. An education historian, Ravitch now opposes Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Ravitch is half right, responds Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.

But local control isn’t the solution, argues Finn.

The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country’s sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns — these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education — as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids’ needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.

Finn wants to vest control in individual schools that “control their own personnel, budgets, schedules, and curricula,” and in parents “free to choose among — and fully-informed about—a wide array of quality schools (and other education delivery systems, including virtual education).”

In his vision:

Washington supplies additional funds to underwrite the education of disadvantaged and special-needs kids, it pays for innovation through competitive-grant programs, it conducts research and supplies a wealth of assessment and other data, and it safeguards individuals from violations of their civil rights. That’s about it.

Every school an independently run charter? I’m not sure that’s doable.

By the way, in an earlier post, a commenter alleged that Ravitch changed sides in the education debate out of pique because her “life partner” had been denied a job by Joel Klein, when he was chancellor of New York City schools.  I think this is untrue and unfair. People who disagree with Ravitch’s current views don’t question her integrity or sincerity, nor do they gossip — at least not when I’m around — about her personal life.