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.

 

Mishmash museum

The new National Children’s Museum in Washington D.C. is a “lame” and “boring,”, according to the Washington Post reviewer’s sons, six and eight years old.

There was a giant crane, which they could crank to lift baskets of stuff. It commanded their attention for a couple of minutes. They liked the textured ramps that they could send cars racing, bumping or crawling down. And the exhibit designed to explain politics and campaigning offered them an opportunity to make campaign buttons. They drew goblins with butts (which some folks may agree is an accurate depiction of much of Congress).

I tried hard to get them excited about the play kitchen or the African marketplace.

Not even the fire engine held their attention.

A Yelp reviewer, Stacy A. from Arlington, wrote,  “This isn’t a children’s museum, it’s a mid-sized playzone.”

On Education Gadfly, another parent blames the blah on “the sad outworking of too many years of mushy social-studies standards.”

No structured content, just a mishmash of world culture with clothing and food prep, etc.,  focusing on their place in the world, neighborhoods, even a bunk bed to understand . . . not sure what.”

Few states have good social studies standards, though South Carolina and Ohio are exceptions, writes Checker Finn. “The effort now underway to develop some version of national standards for social studies is off to a dreadful start.”

I recently took the grandkids to the Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview, Illinois, which is designed for little kids. It’s a “playzone.” The girls enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s any more educational than playing at home.

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.

 

The case for common core standards

Common core standards, now adopted by 28 states and counting, are “remarkably strong” and vastly better than the standards in most states,  write Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli of Fordham on National Review.

One reason the Common Core fared so well is that its authors eschewed the vague and politically correct nonsense that infected so many state standards (and earlier attempts at national standards). They expect students to master arithmetic and memorize their times tables; they promote the teaching of phonics in the early grades; they even expect all students to read and understand the country’s founding documents.

. . . Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) But without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet or live longer.

Massachusetts has made steady achievement gains by setting high standards backed by well-designed assessments and a high bar for graduation, they write. But most states have vague standards that are erratically  implemented.

Expectations are low: Fordham’s 2007 comparison of how states define proficiency found some states where students scoring below the 10th percentile nationally were considered “proficient,” while other states set “proficient” as high as the 77th percentile.

“Most Americans understand that this is not the way a big, modernized country on a competitive planet should operate its education system,” they write.

Race winners set low standards

Tennessee and Delaware, the first-round Race To The Top winners, set low standards for their students, concludes a new report on state proficiency standards by Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón in Education Next.

Tennessee earned an F, as did Alabama and Nebraska.

Based on its own tests and standards, (Tennessee) claimed in 2009 that over 90 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, whereas NAEP tests revealed that only 28 percent were performing at a proficient level. Results in 4th-grade reading and at the 8th-grade level are much the same. With such divergence, the concept of “standard” has lost all meaning. It’s as if a yardstick can be 36 inches long in most of the world, but 3 inches long in Tennessee.

Delaware earned a grade of C-  for claiming that 77 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math versus 36 percent on NAEP. “In 8th-grade reading, Delaware said 81 percent of its students were proficient, but NAEP put the figure at 31 percent.”

. . . Tennessee earned almost full marks (98 percent) on the section of the competition (weighted a substantial 14 percent of all possible points) devoted to “adopting standards and assessments,” even though its standards have remained extremely low ever since the federal accountability law took hold. The proof will be in the pudding. If Tennessee and Delaware and other states now shift their standards dramatically upward, RttT will win over those who think it is performance, rather than promises, that should be rewarded.

Five states — Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, and Washington — earned an A for world-class or near-world-class standards. Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont earned a B.

In Ed Next’s blog, Peterson worries that national standards will end up slightly above the C level.

The selection of Tennessee and Delaware was “subjective and arbitrary,” concludes an Economic Policy Institute report, Let’s Do the Numbers.

National standards lock in mediocrity

California should reject national standards, which inevitably will be tied to national testing and a national curriculum, writes  Jon Fleischman on Flash Report.

. . . one-size-fits-all national standards and curriculum will stifle competition and could lock in mediocrity on a countrywide scale rather than promote excellence.

California’s state standards are high. Student performance is not.

Common standards, many opinions

Comments are pouring in on common core standards, reports Ed Week’s Catherine Gewertz.

Chris Minnich, who’s leading the common-standards work for the Council of Chief State School Officers, told me that the comments are currently trending about 75 percent positive and 25 percent negative. Not that we can know that independently; the current plan is not to post any of the actual comments, so we can see for ourselves, but to summarize them at the end.

Gewertz suggests editing out the profanity and posting the rest.

Standards will raise expectations in math and English classrooms, conclude Fordham’s experts.

On the math side, while some tweaks are needed, particularly to the organization of the high school expectations, our reviewers found rigorous, internationally-competitive standards that earn an impressive A-.

On the ELA side, the draft standards earn a solid B. And with some clarification of vague standards and the addition of more references to specific content that students must know in order to demonstrate mastery of the essential college-readiness skills outlined by the draft, these standards have the potential to be top notch.

Fordham warns:

On the implementation side, if these standards are going to realize their promise and truly drive student achievement, states will need to ensure that these standards are linked to rigorous, content-rich curricula and outstanding instruction. Even rigorous standards, after all, only describe the destination.

The wheels are coming off the national standards train, counters Jay Greene.

Standards at the core

Skeptics are giving surprisingly positive reviews to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s proposed language arts and math standards, which are now available for review.  Curriculum Matters rounds up “interesting” responses, including  support from E.D. Hirsch of Core Knowledge Foundation (“a not-to-be-missed opportunity“).  

K-12 reading standards are “pretty damned impressive,”says Fordham’s Checker Finn.

Besides doing justice to the “skill side” of English language arts (from early reading on up through sophisticated writing), they’ve taken language “conventions” and content seriously–and cumulatively–in a dozen ways. They’ve devised deft ways of incorporating literature (including means by which monitors of state/district curricula can gauge the quality and rigor of what students are actually asked to read). They’ve delicately balanced between “traditional” and “modern” approaches, between “basic” and “21st Century” skills, etc. They’ve imaginatively incorporated the reading sides of science and history as well as English per se. They’ve supplied plenty of compelling examples of what kids at various levels should be reading. And they haven’t overpromised. Indeed, they state plainly at the very start that proper implementation of these standards hinges on also having a topnotch curriculum in place.

Lynne Munson, who feared the standards would emphasize skills over content, gives the draft an A-, saying it has far exceeded her expectations.

 In the reading standards for literature for grades 3-5 students are required to “compare and contrast thematically similar tales, myths, and accounts of events from various cultures” and “compare the treatment of similar ideas and themes (e.g., opposition of good and evil) as well as character types and patterns of events in myths and other traditional literature from different cultures.”  This cannot be done without reading and deeply comprehending mythological stories. 

The standards “push schools, teachers, and students hard in the direction of reading the best of the best, Munson writes.  The appendix lists examples of works students should be able to read at each grade as well as historical and literary documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers.  

The English Language standards have an “elegance” and “leanness” that most state standards lack, writes Rick Hess, who sees many challenges ahead in changing testing, data systems, teaching and training.

Tom Vander Ark praises the math standards, but warns that implementation is difficult and states are broke.

. . . we’re about to make a big mistake.  Instead of designing new assessment systems that take full advantage of technology, most states will adopt another version of paper and pencil bubble sheet standardized tests.

On the negative side, Sandra Stotsky critiques the “content and culture-free” reading standards and Ze’ev Wurman thinks “too many pieces are missing” from the math standards to prepare students for algebra.

Some states — notably Virginia and Minnesota — are signaling they prefer theor own state standards. That’s OK, writes Finn. There’s no need for everyone to jump in at once.

Jay P. Greene, blogging at Education Next, is surprised that so many have jumped on board the common standards train, which he predicts will derail.

The standards will inevitably be diluted and made even more 21st century skill-like to gain sufficiently broad support.  The standards-based reformers at Fordham and Core Knowledge will end up renouncing the final product, but will continue to believe that if only the right standards were adopted all would be well.  And we’ll start this all over again in about a decade. 

On Pajamas Media, Andrew J. Coulson faults the false premise of national education standards, pointing out that kids learn at different rates.

Another nay sayer is Neal McCluskey of Cato, who predicts the standards will be ignored or dumbed down. His real fear is a slippery slope toward centralization of education.

The Alliance for Childhood thinks standards ask too much of young children.

I’m blogging from Australia’s Hunter Valley. We’re staying with Silicon Valley refugees turned winemakers.  Saturday we’re going to a rodeo.

Kill NCLB?

Mr. Obama: Kill NCLB writes Jay Mathews in Class Struggle. Accountability will survive without the federal law, he writes. Instead, we should set “national standards — with a uniform national test” to back them up. States would decide how to meet standards and what to do about schools that fail.

The many different state tests, despite valiant efforts by thoughtful policy makers, started soft and have gotten softer. They set a mediocre standard, and are often so different that it is difficult to tell if a high score in Texas is any better than a low score in Massachusetts. Let’s have one test. In fact, to save money, let’s just make the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, now given to only a sample of students in each state, the test everybody has to take.

Public opinion will push states to pay attention to schools that aren’t meeting standards, as long as the data is public, Mathews argues.

This is Checker Finn’s plan, as Mathews writes, and it makes a certain amount of sense. The time and energy now devoted to NCLB compliance could be devoted to arguing over what the national exam should test and how to test it. That would be a useful argument.

National standards internationally

How do national standards work in other nations? Fordham’s new report looks at standards and testing in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore and South Korea.

Flypaper’s Amber Winkler offers some teasers:

Testing is a hot topic in South Korea.

The Netherlands funds private schools, including religious schools, if they follow  national requirements and standards and give national tests.

Singapore is trying to balance national and local control.