Published on April 1, 1857, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was Herman Melville’s last novel and one in which he coined a new term for American hucksters. Melville’s satirical tale has some relevance for better understanding the drive for national education standards, testing, and curricula, as well as the major players behind this movement.
Here’s the Wikipedia plot summary of Melville's book:
The novel's title refers to its central character, an ambiguous figure who sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool's Day. This stranger attempts to test the confidence of the passengers, whose varied reactions constitute the bulk of the text.
In this work Melville is at his best illustrating the human masquerade. Each person including the reader is forced to confront that in which he places his trust. The Confidence-Man uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for those broader aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. Melville also employs the river's fluidity as a reflection and backdrop of the shifting identities of his "confidence man."
As many know, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) came onto the scene between 2006 and 2009, but got greater momentum when adopting the still-under-development standards became a criterion for states seeking grant funding under the US DOE’s Race to the Top contest in 2009-10.
Similar pushes for national standards, driven by various DC-based trade organizations, including Marc Tucker’s National Center on Education and the Economy, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and Clinton administration education officials who later migrated to Achieve, Inc., had been attempted in the 1990s and failed.
This recent drive for national standards reinvigorated a collection of unsuccessful DC-based players; and was fueled by more than $100 million from the Gates Foundation. A few years ago, I blogged on the Common Core convergence. Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that the push for national standards is an illegal, costly, and academically weak effort by D.C. trade groups, the Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education to impose a one-size-fits-all set of standards and tests on the country. And the effort goes beyond that: With the tests come curricular materials and instructional practice guides.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the CCSSI advocates keep trotting out that these national standards are “state-led” and “voluntary.” My organization has done research on the key elements of national standards—academic quality, cost, and legality.
In our report, The Road to a National Curriculum, Kent Talbert and Bob Eitel summarize how Arne Duncan’s US DOE used Gates money and DC trade groups to circumvent federal laws that prohibit national standards:
The Department has simply paid others to do that which it is forbidden to do. This tactic should not inoculate the Department against the curriculum prohibitions imposed by Congress.
Since the 1990s, Massachusetts, California, Texas, Indiana, and Minnesota, to name a few, developed high-quality standards, state assessments, and reforms, which led to education improvements. The most noted of which was Massachusetts with its historic 1993 education reform law, nation-leading state academic standards and assessments, and the unprecedented gains on national and international testing.
Sadly, even though literature was 80-90 percent of the basis for MA’s historic success on National Assessment of Educational Progress testing in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 (the test is administered bi-annually), CCSSIers too often disparage literature’s central use in ELA standards. What’s interesting is that the reading portion of NAEP tests “informational texts,” as CCSSI will, while MA’s former ELA standards/MCAS were based on literature. Yet, the Bay State students still tore the cover off the NAEP.
So, it being April Fools Day and Melville’s Confidence Man being a nice point of departure for appreciating literature and flim-flam artists, let’s compare the average and combined NAEP scores of the states from which the major CCSSI players hail. To make it simpler and because performance in the early grades, especially in reading, is a strong predictor of future academic achievement, we’ll take a look at combined 4th grade reading and math scores.
First up, Kentucky, which was the first state to adopt the national standards after the thoroughly mediocre first drafts were released. Kentucky is the former home of Gene Wilhoit, who served as the Bluegrass State’s education commissioner before heading up the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSO is one of the lead DC trade organizations behind national standards. Kentucky has moved from a below average state to a slightly above average state on the NAEP. Glad to see it, but is that justification for entrusting our nation’s education future to the Kentucky model? Seems to me that it is a recipe for seeing the country plug along at the nation’s woefully inadequate performance level.
Even that level of standing and improvement is not to be found among other fellow leaders of the national standards effort. Take West Virginia. WVA is ground zero of the agenda of “softy” 21st century skills and the home of Dane Linn, head of education policy for the National Governors Association (NGA), another leader of the push for national standards. Other noted national standards boosters hailing from WVA include former Governor Bob Wise, now of the Alliance for “Excellent” Education, and Steven Paine, former state superintendent of schools for West Virginia, and CCSSO's former Board President. Twelve years into the 21st century, WVA’s NAEP scores make you wonder what Linn, Wise and Paine were doing in WVA. They started below the national average and 21st century skills later they perched right where they started.
Then there’s North Carolina, home to former Governor Jim Hunt, a national standards backer since the late 1980s. Hunt is especially close to the Massachusetts education community given that the Hunt Institute (via the Gates Foundation) commissioned the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education to evaluate the Massachusetts standards vs. CCSSI’s. Not surprisingly, the report said that CCSS were superior. Again, North Carolina’s NAEP scores are slightly above the national average, with improvements only in line with the country.
Next up, Ohio, original home to the two Chesters—Chester “Checker” Finn and Mitchell Chester (once Ohio’s deputy commissioner). Finn’s Fordham Institute has been in the Buckeye state for 20 years; today Mitch Chester is Massachusetts Education Commissioner and heads up the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the national testing consortia. Ohio, like North Carolina, is slightly above the national average, with virtually no improvement over the 2005 to 2011 period. Even the nation as a whole improved over that time. Yikes.
But then let’s look at Achieve, Inc., which has served as weigh station for national standards advocates for the greater part of its existence. Its America Diploma Project (ADP), launched with Fordham at the start of the last decade and working in 35 states, was the stalking horse, err… model, for Common Core. How do the average NAEP scores of the 35 states in the ADP fare in comparison from 2005 to 2011? Below are the US scores, the scores of the full slate of states in the ADP, and then the ADP states minus Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut (three states that were performing already at a high level in 2001, and no one I’ve ever talked to has suggested that ADP led to raising their NAEP scores).
Of course the mother ship of national standards is the Gates Foundation. Chapter 10 “The Billionaire Boy’s Club” in Diane Ravitch’s recent book maps out in careful detail how the Gates folks have spent billions on ed reform in the last decade and with little, or no results, to offer. So, I’d encourage you to read Diane’s chapter on Gates to learn who they fund and why little that they ever support works.
So, here’s the summary graph: Massachusetts vs. the states where national standards advocates have worked in. Given the historic success of Massachusetts on NAEP and TIMSS testing and the very average performance of the states that have worked with national standards players, unless national standards weren’t a “a race to the middle” why didn’t other states just adopt the Massachusetts standards, as 2010 Pioneer and Diane Ravitch recommended:
Ravitch goes so far as to say that the Obama administration is wasting its time trying to establish national standards in English and math. “I wish they had just adopted the Massachusetts standards,’’ she said. “They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.’’
Melville’s The Confidence-Man never commanded much popular acclaim during his lifetime, but, then again, neither did Moby-Dick. And the literature-lite Common Core ELA standards don’t include Moby-Dick, which some regard as America’s greatest novel.
Given the very average and in some cases below average performance of these players and their inability to move the needle on NAEP over decades, one can understand why in desperation they would try national standards. What you would not expect is that people and organizations with zero record over 20 years of improving either academic standards, or student achievement, would be entrusted to set standards for 40-50 million schoolchildren. Nor would you expect that they would create the Leviathan of testing systems, curricular materials and instructional practices to guide the nation's teachers.
In addition to Common Core’s academic weaknesses, questions about illegality, and prohibitive costs, the reform records of Common Core’s players certainly do not instill much confidence.
Yesterday, the Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes reported on the spat between Newton North High School’s food contractor and the student-run Tiger’s Loft Bistro. The contractor, Whitsons Culinary Group, was sore about the school allowing a competitor to serve food in the building. After all was said and done, the school and the contractor made up, and the student-run bistro will re-open and be able to serve students once again.
There are two lessons to learn:
Businesses may like to talk about the need for competition, but they never like it when there is a direct competitor. That’s why for over a year, Whitsons sought a clause in its contract that barred competition. Not much of a news flash there, but it is always worth reminding ourselves that businesses are frequently not friends to free markets and competition.
As there is little news there, let’s move on to the second point. Outsourcing non-educational functions saves a lot of money for educational activities. In Fernandes’ piece there are a couple of paragraphs worth highlighting:
In the past, district officials have stressed that the contract with Whitson is saving Newton schools money. The district used to operate its own food services program and had to traditionally subsidized it at about $1 million annually. But since the program was privatized last year, costs have declined and by the 2014 fiscal year, the district won’t have to put any additional money into food services, Guryan said.
Newton is pleased with the number of meals being served by Whitsons and both the schools and the company are at least breaking even on the venture, Guryan said.
A million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for the services rendered in a single (large) school. Makes me wonder how many school districts contract out food services. Ask your local officials what they are doing. It could save serious money that can go to the core work of schools—teaching and learning.
(But if you get your food services contracted out, make sure the firm in question does not get to bar the door for competitors.)
Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.
We all want high-quality teachers, right? What are we doing about it? The state has started to push teacher evaluations across the state, and that is great. Especially great because for far too long school managers and supervisors did not perform regular evaluations, which at the very least are useful for professional feedback and growth.
I do have my doubts that a bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all evaluation system is terribly useful besides the obvious fact that it will require more people to fill out paper. My doubts are practical ones. If you are running a school and seeking to peg its performance at a very high level, there are times when you want your teachers to focus on improving their individual performance; and there are times when you want to build the sense of team. No bureaucratic rule is going to get you there. In addition, any performance pay scheme has to start at the top. At the very least, this new system has to be implemented for superintendents, administrative professionals, principals and supervisors first; if not, it will again feel like something that is being done to teachers.
So, if we want high-quality teachers, let's start with some basic, well-known facts:
- The intellectual capacity of individuals seeking to join the state's and the nation's teacher corps is too low. We've known this for a long while, but the 2006 report Educating School Teachers led by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, does a pretty good job of making the case. The report notes that not only are teachers unprepared in technology, curriculum development and assessments, and dealing with ELL and special needs students, but "the SAT and GRE scores of aspiring secondary school teachers are comparable to the national average, the scores of future elementary school teachers fall near the bottom of all test takers, with GRE scores 100 points below the national average."
- Teacher quality is the one of the most important elements in improving the quality of our schools.
- There is no way to attract aspirants to the profession if starting salaries are not higher. Starting salaries can often be in the $30,000+ range. That's not enough to attract the top tier of young, ambitious and smart graduates, which is what we need in our classrooms. That is especially so for math and science graduates, who have many more high-paying prospects in the private market.
- We are arguably investing a lot of money for teacher compensation but have the compensation built in a way that is not attracting high-quality teachers. The current compensation system maintains low initial salaries and rewards "system" people. The average teacher in Massachusetts now makes $70,000, a good salary (especially given that many pursue summer work in July and August) which is part of an extraordinarily rich benefits package well beyond the reach of mere private sector mortals. In 2010, Wisconsin teachers were estimated to have an average salary of $56,000, but when their benefits were included the average annual compensation package calculated out at just over $100,000. I'll look up the Massachusetts benefits overall later and share, but the WI numbers are likely not terribly richer (perhaps 20-25% richer if that?) than our own. Then there is the fact that the benefits schedule truly kicks in around 20 years of service, when the proverbial hockey-stick effect is observed and future benefits skyrocket in value.
So here's a question: Why can't we "frontload" some of the overall compensation by reducing the richness of the benefits package in order to make room for salaries for starting teachers?
One objection is that surveys of current teachers suggests that they like the make-up of their compensation package. Yep. I get that, but the objection misses the point. The point is not to ask the current teacher corps what got them into the business and how they like it. The point is to attract a significantly different group with different career options into the profession. Why not survey graduating students who are significantly above average in terms of SATs, GREs, and collegiate accomplishments? That would be more meaningful.
Another objection is that teachers self-fund their pensions and therefore it is up to the current teacher corps to do whatever the heck it wants with their pensions. OK. Two things I would like to bring out: (1) That ducks the question of how to attract high-quality teachers to the profession, and (2) it is absolutely untrue. On the first point, even if teachers did self-fund their pensions, the current compensation schedule stinks as a way to recruit high-quality teachers to the profession. On the second point, teachers don't self-fund their pensions.
The state has a multi-billion dollar unfunded pension liability for a reason, which is that teacher pensions are not self-funded. Here are the figures from the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission report for 2011. Please see the chart on page 11 (Section 5, labeled 'Audit Information: Part B / GASB Statement No. 27') showing the Massachusetts and Boston Teachers’ share of the ‘state pension fund payment;’ i.e., the annual required contribution by the state to ensure that pensions are whole.
Of the state’s annual obligation of $1.35 billion for state and certain local pensions, the Massachusetts and Boston Teachers make up the lion’s share of the total. In the chart, teacher pensions are broken out into "normal cost" and "amortization cost."
- The “normal cost” of $107 million is what the state’s pays into the pension fund this year to properly fund what is expected to be paid out in future pensions to Massachusetts Teachers. For Boston Teachers the number is $8.5 million. So in 2011, the state is paying over $115 million to make the Massachusetts and Boston Teachers’ pensions whole. That’s not fully-funded.
- The “amortization cost” is this year’s payment to pay down the unfunded liability. For Massachusetts teachers the number is $661 million; for the Boston Teachers it is $86.2 million. That’s a total of $747.2 million that the state, again, is paying in.
All tallied up, payments on teachers’ pensions make up $862.7 million of the annual $1.35 billion the state pays down on pensions.
That’s quite a bit short of “self-funded.”
What I am arguing for is decidedly not a 401(K) plan for teachers. Teachers should be treated fairly, and attractive retirement benefits are (like any portion of compensation) helpful in attracting high-quality people to the profession. What I'd suggest is that we create a defined benefit package that is more in line with what Social Security provides and then when a teacher makes above a certain salary, s/he can additionally buy into a 401(K) with matches from the state. That's what we do in the private sector -- and it would allow greater ability to flow to and from the teaching profession.
It would also allow us to pay starting teachers quite a bit more. I think that's a good thing. How to do it? For now, here are some things you might want to read to get some perspective on the issue. This piece by Jacob Vigdor in EducationNext is a great overview on the topic. This EdWeek piece from 2009 points at many of the challenges and the thinking of some superintendents and unions. This study tries to take a look at both backloading (current system) and frontloading. More to come on the topic.
Periodically, over at the Fordham blog, Checker Finn does his best imitation of the cop waving traffic through at the scene of the car crash we like to call Common Core. In a post last week ("The war against the Common Core”), he morphs into good ol’ Sergeant Finn, crabbing at any observers, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, move along.” The mishaps around Common Core national standards are simple driver misjudgment, he explains. Steering mistakes. Nobody’s breaking the law. And don’t worry, because even though there have been lots of accidents, the road ahead is not dangerous.
This is classic Checker handwaving, passing off politics as policy. Let’s look at the four arguments he makes.
1. Don’t worry about the quality of the standards, amending them, etc. Checker starts in his usual way by calling people who disagree “zealous assailants” (we were kvetchers a few handwaves back) who have mounted “ceaseless attacks” creating a “tempest in a highly visible teapot.” I suppose he is referring to Pioneer’s four studies (1, 2, 3, 4) on the quality (or lack thereof) of the national standards. Checker argues that
[O]ther states could simply copy the best of those that already exist. But that’s more or less what the Common Core is: an amalgam of good standards put together by people who know a lot—and care a lot—about both content and skills.
No matter how many times Checker and Fordham say this does not matter. It is factually untrue. The experts who conducted our four comparisons of the national standards to specific state standards were the best in the business, far more qualified to make judgments than the ones employed by Fordham. And they found not only that there are a few flaws related to algebra, but that the math standards are a significant step down on algebra; that they have numerous problems with basic arithmetic; they impose an experimental (and not likely to succeed) pedagogical method for teaching geometry; and they aim at community college level math. On the English language arts side of the ledger, they found that the national standards markedly de-emphasize literature, which will slow the acquisition of a rich vocabulary; they put English teachers in the position of teaching technical readings (good luck with that); and they, again, aim far too low.
Checker’s handwaving on the significance of these flaws is a sign of an impractical, overly theoretical approach to education policy, and nothing short of irresponsible:
Insofar as such criticisms are warranted, the Common Core can be revised, states can add standards of their own, and jurisdictions that find the common version truly unsatisfactory can change their minds about using it at all.
The two assertions made here are just wrong. Yes, states can add standards of their own (up to 15% of content), which for places like Massachusetts does little to get us to the same level of expectations we had set before. In addition, content added by specific states will not be included in the national tests, so few schools will teach the add-ons. Finally, the idea that it is oh-so-easy to change the national standards is overindulgent daydreaming. Any state desiring to change a strand of the standards will have to negotiate with 40+ jurisdictions, the non-profits involved in this effort, and of course the federal government. To date, there has been no process established for amending the standards. Just think about that for a second.
On whether states can pull out, well, more below.
2. We the DC People working on the national standards are all of good will and working hard to implement these things. Yup, OK. I do have reservations about the intentions of some, but let’s not go there. What is worth stating clearly though is that Checker and the folks in DC pushing this aren’t serious about upholding the public trust and in devising policy in a responsible and publicly accountable way. Big words, I know. Here are the facts to back my view up.
• We know very well that there is a lack of settlement around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and that is due in part to the way it was forced through Congress and the perceived costs of implementing it. (Clearly control of your own health care matters to a large portion of the US population as well.) Including the adoption of national standards in grant program requirements and then having the federal government fund the development of curricular materials and instructional practice guides directly, well, these actions were never even approved by Congress. The reason there has never been a Congressional Budget Office scoring of the cost to states is because, again, it was never approved by Congress. So the lack of settlement around Common Core is even more to be expected than what we've seen to date regarding the PPACA.
• Checker holds himself up as working to “cost it all out.” Shouldn’t that have been done before moving ahead? Have we grown so irresponsible as to adopt blank check policy making? That’s ridiculous, and that’s why Pioneer Institute is the only research outfit in the U.S. to have performed an actual cost accounting of the implementation of national standards and tests. Ted Rebarber of AccountabilityWorks conducted a fair and empirical analysis of the cost of implementation, and found that it will cost $16 billion.
That’s almost assuredly going to be an unfunded mandate. Fordham’s working on it? The fact is that when our report came out, they assigned someone with no ability to review the study. Kathleen Porter-Magee’s criticisms of the report for Fordham are flimsy in the extreme. For example, KP-M wants the study’s author Ted Rebarber to build into his cost estimates something outside of empirical data—an assumption that as yet unheard of reforms by the feds will lead to big cost reductions. It is worth nothing that this is just more evidence that the quality of Fordham’s work has fallen quickly these past years as the good Sergeant and his troops have taken up handwaving and pom-poms for the national standards. We’re supposed to skip empirical evidence and assume reforms in order to make the numbers work?
We saw the same thing with the Fordham Institute’s review of the Massachusetts state standards prior to our state board’s vote to adopt Common Core. Then, Fordham's researcher(s) did not include key aspects of the Bay State’s revisions to its English standards.
Sloppy stuff. Reason #4212 why DC players, who don’t know what they’re talking about, should stay out of state education policy.
• While the Fordham Institute and its friends who are supporting the Common Core might find it a pesky reality, the advancement of standards, tests, curricular materials and instructional practice guides is illegal. Go back and read that sentence. Perhaps the view of two former counsels general doesn’t matter to Checker and his fellow travelers, but you are breaking three federal laws—the General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The three laws prohibit the direction, supervision or control in any way of standards, curricula and curricular materials and instructional practice. For example, the GEPA clearly states:
No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.
If I were Checker, I would think hard on this one, especially with attorneys general not shy in taking on expansions of federal power (at the end of March the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing oral arguments on the PPACA presented by state AGs).
3. States can pull out of the Common Core and go it alone any time they want. For rhetorical reasons, Checker has separated his argument on this issue into two points (#4 and #6) but they all are closely related. Yes, Texas and Virginia and a handful of states have not adopted the Common Core. Checker admits that the likelihood (not fear) that
Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive … is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core.
I say this is likely because this has been the march of the Department since 1979. It is the reason why the Department (and supporters like Checker) thinks that breaking three federal laws is the acceptable price of progress. They know their intentions are good, so breaking the law is in the interests of the country, and therefore the right thing to do. That mindset makes what Checker calls fears and suspicions a likely outcome. But it's not fear telling us that but rather judgment based on past experience. It’s an incontrovertible fact that Democrats and Republicans have grown the Department’s reach and budget enormously in the past three decades.
In Checker's telling, all opposition is related to “suspicion” and “lingering fears” about past attempts. Conveniently, he then pivots to his political exercise of pointing fingers at an “over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.” You know, it’s a simple steering error.
The problem is that Checker has no more standing on this issue. He didn’t fight back when remarks by the Secretary and President made their intentions clear. He did not fight back when the administration created a “fiscal ‘incentive’ in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core.” Calling the department out now for that is just political posturing on Checker’s part.
Then, of course, there’s the “incentive” built into the NCLB waiver process for states to adopt the Common Core. When Arne Duncan announced his decision to move ahead with waivers that posed conditions on the states that had never been approved by Congress (and which violated the aforementioned three federal laws), Fordham’s Mike Petrilli was reduced in his blog to begging Sec. Duncan not to overreach:
Walk away from this one, Mr. Secretary. Please, those of us who support the Common Core are begging you.
That's a rather unbecoming act for a citizen in a free republic: Americans don't generally like begging our federal officials. Yet that is what we all will be doing forward. And that was made clear to South Carolina, which recently debated leaving the Common Core. That earned a press release directly from Secretary Duncan’s mouth, “lambasting” lawmakers and the governor for even considering such a thing.
Checker downplays the feds’ funding of national assessments, admitting that it is a “third federal entanglement.” Conveniently, while he notes some requirements that come with the national tests, he skips over the fact that these assessments come with curricular materials and instructional practice guides—which are again illegal.
4. “National” is the right way to go. Let me be as kind as I can (at least to start).
- It’s illegal. We are a nation of laws, not megalomaniacs.
- Just as many nations with national standards score below as above the United States on international tests.
- Most of the nations with national standards are much smaller and often more homogeneous than the United States.
- Did I mention that it’s illegal? (I’d love to see your argument on that one, Checker.)
- The U.S. Department of Education has no track record of improving schools.
I would also note that I bristle at the thought that Massachusetts or other states should follow the advice of the Fordham Institute, which has a limited record of improving schools. I would invite readers to take a look at Ohio’s NAEP scores, as well as the performance of Ohio’s charter schools, an issue on which Fordham has been very active.
Once again, Checker gives us so many good reasons and so many good opportunities to demonstrate that he is wrong, and it’s largely because he is playing politics not policy. Obviously, he is a smart man and someone, to be honest, that has done important work in the past. But right now everything he is writing ostensibly on standards policy smacks of political positioning. He’s always looking to angle for what he thinks observers will read as the mid-range, reasonable position. Checker's latest schtick of being for national standards but harboring thoughtful concerns about the people in power just doesn't pass the laugh test.
Sarge, I have a couple of constructive suggestions to help you deal with that incessant handwaving tick you have.
The above Providence, RI, traffic cop has taken to dancing in the middle of the street to entertain rush hour. Such a set of moves would allow you to take people’s minds off of the Common Core crash-up and do it redirecting your handwaving to productive ends.
Or perhaps we could celebrate good ol’ Sergeant Finn’s retirement in style, as was done for this fine officer on his last day of service, marked by a box of donuts.