Defining mastery down

Predictably, most states have responded to the mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act — that 100% of their students achieve proficiency in reading and math by the year 2014 — by dumbing down the tests used to measure proficiency.

The law allows each state to set its own standards. It also, however mandates the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the differences between NAEP scores and state-test scores are instructive. South Carolina is a holdout — and is being punished for it — but apparently many of the red states have instituted easy-to-pass tests rather than trying to get their schools to actually teach anyone anything. In Tennessee, 87% of students are proficient by state standards, but only 21% under NAEP; in Mississippi, it’s 89-18.

There’s a good argument for standards-driven education; we pay for schools so kids can learn, and if you don’t measure outcomes its hard to manage for outcomes. On the other hand, there’s a good argument for hiring competent teachers and letting them teach, rather than trying to convert classrooms into learning factories with dumb output measures. (If we’re going to run out schools by test results, then we ought to spend the money to make sure that the tests measure the right things.)

But surely having test-centered education with low-threshold tests must be the worst of all possible worlds.

Collective guilt

John Moody of Fox News missed his calling. He should have been a press agent for the SS.

Someone — I’m sorry to say I can’t remember who — pointed yesterday to Wonkette’s publication last summer of the whole bundle of Fox News memos unearthed by the Outfoxed team.

Browsing through what read like memos to Winston Smith from his superiors at the Ministry of Truth, I was struck by this paragraph (also highlighted by Wonkette):

Into Fallujah: It’s called Operation Vigilant Resolve and it began Monday morning (NY time) with the US and Iraqi military surrounding Fallujah. We will cover this hour by hour today, explaining repeatedly why it is happening. It won’t be long before some people start to decry the use of “excessive force.” We won’t be among that group. . . More than 600 US military dead, attacks on the UN headquarters last year, assassination of Irai officials who work with the coalition, the deaths of Spanish troops last fall, the outrage in Fallujah: whatever happens, it is richly deserved.

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration at all to call that an instance of totalitarian thinking; because the insurgents are doing evil things, and there are insurgents in Fallujah, all of the people in Fallujah “richly deserve” “whatever happens.”

Can you say “Lidice“?

And this is the semi-official news channel of the party in power.

Waste in public education

A scandal! Arlington, Virginia, is paying its starting schoolteachers amost a third of what the top law firms pay their starting associates.

Volokh Conspirator David Bernstein has discovered a shocking instance of waste in the Arlington, VA public school system. Instead of using the money for education, they’re using it to pay the teachers: a whopping $45,000 for teachers with a master’s degree.

Bernstein is shocked: “New teachers with a bachelor’s degree for example, will make over forty thousand dollars, making it probably the best job available to English and history majors in the D.C. area.” (I don’t know how the private sector pays around the D.C. area, but in fact Arlington starts its police officers, who need only two years of college, at $39,000, which is much better than a teacher’s salary if you adjust for the public safety retirement benefits.)

Questions for Bernstein: Why wouldn’t you want your kids taught by the best? Why shouldn’t teaching be the most attractive, most competitive, most demanding career available? Is there some other social function more important than transmitting the culture to the next generation? Isn’t it obvious that the world would be a better place if the smartest college graduates went into schoolteaching, and only the losers became tax lawyers?

Chester Finn, the sharpest knife in the conservative education-reform drawer, made exactly the opposite suggestion in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week. He points out that if the growth in spending per student since 1970 had come in the form of higher salaries for teachers rather than hiring more teachers — i.e., if we had today’s teacher-salary budgets but 1970’s faculty-student ratios — we’d be starting teachers at $100,000 per year, and argues that a salary increase of that sort is exactly what is needed to upgrade the teaching workforce, now drawing increasingly from the bottom of the college-graduate talent pool.

Now Finn’s proposal isn’t really numerically realistic (any more than Bernstein’s $17,000 per student is a meaningful number): much of the growth in teachers per student, and in cost, has come in the form of special education teachers. A typical urban district spends about a third of its budget on the roughly five percent of its students designated “special needs,” and that fact is mostly dictated by national-level policies not under the control of the school department.

But a 50% raise for classroom teachers and a 50% increase in their wages isn’t an unreasonable proposal. (Or we could skip the class size increase and just spend the damned money.)

Of course Bernstein is right that it’s possible to spend the money and not get better quality. Perhaps Arlington is doing so. But Ron Ferguson has consistently found that paying more, other things equal, buys better teachers as measured by the teachers’ own reading scores, and that better teachers so measured lead to better scores for the students. Higher salaries, if used inteligently, should allow a district to be more selective. Higher salaries across the board, and tougher hiring standards to go with them, might reverse the disastrous decline in the prestige of schoolteaching as a profession.

But as long as folks such as Bernstein are horrified at the thought that a teacher might draw close to a third of a what a first-year associate at a top law firm draws, we’re condemned to have (mostly) teachers who aren’t worth much more than they get.

Why does Rod Paige still have his job?

The President who thinks that education is the key to everything and that performance measurement is the key to education retains, as his Secretary of Education, someone who demonstated that performance measurement could be defeated by outright cheating.

My blood pressure being sufficiently high without artificial help, I rarely read John Derbyshire. But in connection with his celebratory essay on the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Bell Curve, Derbyshire linked to an old post on this site.

Derbyshire’s general point is that Herrnstein and Murry proved that black people are born dumb, and therefore it’s futile to try to change that “fact.” (He puts it in cloudier language than that, but that’s the gist.)

That makes the Darb skeptical of the project — endorsed by none other than George W. Bush — of shrinking the test score gap between blacks and whites. Derbyshire therefore points out, or cites me as pointing out, that the impressive gains in the test scores and graduation rates of Houston’s minority students when Rod Paige was the head of the school department there turned out to be faked.

That is true.

It does not, of course, prove what Derbyshire would like it to prove, any more than the Enron fiasco proves that you can’t make money trading energy.

It does, however, raise another point. Why does Rod Paige still have his job?

Paige is, after all, the Secretary of Education for a President who was the “Education President” before he became a “Wartime President,” and who seems to think, or pretends to think, that “education” is the answer to every domestic question: that testing third-graders, for example, will restore their lost jobs to displaced middle-aged workers. And yet the apparent success that justified Paige’s appointment turned out to be based on rigged numbers.

So the President who thinks that education is the key to everything and that performance measurement is the key to education retains, as his Secretary of Education, someone who demonstated that performance measurement could be defeated by outright cheating. Or perhaps Mr. Bush thinks that apparent success is the same thing as real success: that would explain a lot of thinks about his strategy for post-war Iraq.

And no, Mr. Derbyshire, Secretary Paige turning out to be a fraud does not prove that affirmative action in hiring is a bad thing. It just shows that Mr. Bush knows at least one markedly incompetent and dishonest African-American, and perhaps also that he has internalized “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”


Prize school or failing school? Make up your mind!

The federal school report cards required by No Child Left Behind are giving first-rate schools failing grades for technical reasons, which means that the schools have to send letters to the parents describing their “failures” and offering transfers. Jeb Bush, for one, isn’t pleased. Well, he knows whom to blame, doesn’t he?

Not only doesn’t President Bush believe that America can win the war on terror, he’s so damned … well, I suppose the word is “casual” … about the work of actually governing that his three signature programs (other than tax cuts for his millionaire contributors) — NCLB, Medicare prescription drug coverage, and the occupaton of Iraq — have all more or less collapsed due to sheer incompetence and poor design.

Maybe if he worked during August when it’s not an election year things would go better. On the other hand, they might go worse.

“No child left behind” meets Dukenfield’s law

The central theme of the “No Child Left Behind Act” is that the public schools can perform if given measurable goals and strong organizational incentives to meet those goals. Part of the evidence offered for that proposition was the “Texas miracle,” and in particualr the improvement of the performance of the Houston schools under Superintendent Rod Paige, now Secretary of Education.

Now it turns out that the Houston schools were systematically cooking the books, with at least one large inner-city high school reporting zero dropouts. It turns out that an incentive to meet a target is also an incentive to pretend to meet that target.

In the wise words of W.C. Fields (whose birth certificate read William Claude Dukenfield): “Anything worth winning is worth cheating for.”

More about this at Open Source Politics.


Note to Derbyshire fans:

Of course, the fact that the man President Bush later made Secretary of Education resorted to cheating in an attempt to show progress for minority youths does not mean that real progress can’t be made. It just means that making real progress will cost money, demand sustained, concentrated management attention, and not come overnight.

If you’re considering voting to re-elect the current administration, ask yourself a question: Why does Rod Paige still have his job? A President who actually cared about education would have fired him on the spot after learning that his primary management strategy was rigging the numbers.

When the News is Unbelievably Good, Don’t Believe it

The “Texas miracle” in education, Governor Bush’s implausible account of which the media never bothered to scrutinize when he was running for President, turns out to be based largely on hocused numbers.

In particular, Rod Paige, the Houston school superintendent whom Bush promoted to Secretary of Education and who was the chief salesman for “No Child Left Behind,” turns out to have taken a long summer vacation either from his ethics or from his common sense. He purported to believe, and paid bonuses based on, numbers showing that one high-poverty high school after another had zero dropouts. *

Since every school has dropouts, any large school that reports zero dropouts is reporting what must be untrue. Yet the Houston authorities never queried the numbers, and took predictable revenge on the assistant principal who blew the whistle. (He was assigned to no job in a windowless office, is now second deputy principal at a primary school, and expects to be fired in January: his contract, like all the others, allows dismissal without cause. Remember, we need to get rid of all those pesky civil service job protections if we’re going to make government work.)

Now that the truth is out, Paige, instead of expressing outrage, blandly refers all questions back to Houston. I wonder how much of what he said about his Houston record at his confirmation hearing and in congressional testimony about No Child Left Behind he demonstrably knew to be false?

I can’t pretend to be surprised; after all, this is just another instance of Dukenfield’s Law of Incentive Management, which holds that, since anything worth winning is worth cheating for, an incentive to “perform” is also an incentive to rig the count. But you don’t have to be surprised to be outraged, if not by the fact of cheating by its blatancy and the evident indifference to it of the folks in Houston and Washington who sold the whole country a new education policy based in substantial part on obvious hogwash.

Footnote: Boy, am I ever glad that Howell Raines is no longer editing the New York Times! Under his shrill, partisan regime, this might have run on the front page rather than in the middle of Page 19.