The lunatic right vs. the Common Core: why can’t both of them lose?

Shorter Diane Ravitch. Yes, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malking hate the Common Core. But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

Shorter Diane Ravitch:

The Common Core may be a bad idea even though the lunatic right hates it.

Outcomes-based school management is essential. But that doesn’t mean anyone knows, yet, how to actually do it right, at a national scale, in the face of the actual institutions in place. It sounds as if the Common Core is a big step up on No Child Left Behind, but that doesn’t mean that, on balance, it will do more good than harm.

Note that this is fully consistent with Ed Kilgore’s point that the Republican Party is increasingly dominated by lunatics, whose opposition to the Common Core has nothing to do with the serious flaws – amounting, in the case of the Rupert Murdoch/E.D. Hirsch/Joel Klein Core Knowledge ripoff in New York State, to something close to corruption – that Ravitch identifies.

Sabotage of a generation

Everything in this heartbreaking article rings bell after bell, from the perspective of more than forty years on both sides of college and graduate classrooms.  And from my desk, critiquing student written work.  I think we will find the intellectual damage done to current American students by the testing/NCLB disaster is comparable to the effect of poisoning previous generations with leaded gasoline.  Well, at least it doesn’t cause violent crime.

This outcome is the predictable offspring of  a  marriage of two profound misapprehensions.  The first is a desperate, but doomed, hope that something as complicated and personal as education can be fixed by a piece of bureaucratic, mechanistic administrative machinery.  Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing! The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics that (i) infers, from the undeniable effects of money (and firing-threat) incentives in some contexts, that people can be either bribed or threatened to do anything, and (ii) that the only reality is what can be easily measured, whether by prices in markets or bubble short answer tests.

As readers of my other posts are aware, I am far from hiding behind the preparation problem as an excuse not to attend to our own (college) practice.  But two things can true at the same time.  There is no way four years of college can do what we traditionally expect of it, and also make up the unfinished work being passed to us.


What does an accountability enthusiast do when a favored charter school gets a low score? Why, he cheats.

What does a Republican charter-school enthusiast who believes in school-level accountability for educational results do when a charter school run by a big Republican donor gets a lousy evaluation score? Why, he cheats, of course.

Tony Bennett, former head education honcho in Indiana and current head education honcho in Florida, to his chief of staff:

Anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.

Bennett to the official in charge of the grading system for schools:

I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.

Somehow, magically, the score for Christel House went from 2.9 (C+) to 3.75 (a solid A).

Look: I believe in outcomes measurement. I believe in accountability. I even believe in school choice. (After all, I live in the jurisdiction of the LA Mummified School District.)

What I don’t believe is that the current testing/accountability/choice con artists and racketeering enterprises are going to make things better rather than worse. The cheating is so pervasive that I now see no basis for believing any claimed good result. That’s why Diane Ravitch has switched sides.

You’d have thought that charter schools, like private prisons, could hardly have done worse than their big, clumsy, bureaucratic, union-dominated public competition. But you would have been wrong, twice.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The History Boys

Adapting a stage script for the screen is not straightforward. For one thing, learning how to navigate the differences in pace between a live theatre performance and the screen screen requires tremendous skill. Every once in a while, however, a stage script is strong enough that it can be lifted almost verbatim and will still work as a splendid film. This week’s movie recommendation, Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), is one such film.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.33.36The film is set in 1980s Yorkshire, in a small town outside of Bradford. Eight high school-age boys have done exceedingly well on their final examinations, and show some promise for university spots at Oxbridge. They are impossibly erudite, and uncontrollably hormonal. Thanks to their charming but unconventional teacher Hector (played by Richard Griffiths) they can recite the poetry of Hardy as fluently as they can procure the services of a French prostitute. While their minds are brilliant, they are also puerile. What they lack, according to the officious schoolmaster, is panache. In order to compete with the aristos against whom they’ll be pitted in the dreaded Oxbridge interviews, they must learn to rein in their bawdy schoolboy attitude. The schoolmaster therefore hires a temporary history teacher, Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), to whip the boys into shape.

The rest of the film deals with the boys’ (and teachers’) struggles with their friendships, their beliefs, and their sexualities. Those challenges play out in the context of two fundamentally different approaches to schooling: on one hand, the instrumentally-minded Irwin is focused on the ‘game’ of getting the boys accepted to Oxbridge; Hector, on the other hand, cares little for the boys’ destinations, and urges them to focus instead on the journey of learning.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.34.14Those familiar with Hytner’s earlier adaptations of stage scripts will notice a common theme: like his versions of Miller’s The Crucible (1996), and another Bennett play, The Madness of King George (1994), this isn’t a film one watches for the use of camera, lighting, or soundtrack. Sometimes one even gets the sense that the talented acting is being used merely as a vehicle to maximise the wit of the script. Nonetheless, sterling performances shine through on all counts. I’ll highlight Richard Griffiths in particular, only because Hytner successfully brings out in his portrayal of Hector that same quality that you notice in Nigel Hawthorne’s King George – despite all his flaws, he is instantaneously and unavoidably likeable.

The film never succeeded quite as well as the stage version. But, given that the play was one of the most well-received stage productions in the last 50 years, that isn’t saying all that much.

The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process

One reaction some people had to my post on elite university admissions in a winner-take-all-society could be easily summarized: So what? Hundreds of thousands of families invest time, energy, hope and resources into attaining a child’s admission to Harvard, Princeton etc., most of them don’t make it, but life is tough, deal with it, nothing to fix here. I don’t agree with that, which is why I proposed a positional arms control agreement among elite universities that would reduce the pressure for adolescents to have a thousand extracurricular activities, SAT training camps, admissions coaches and the like.

The harms that I think do warrant some type of reform are of two types. The first, which is well-discussed by Frank and Cook in their book The Winner-Take-All Society, is mis-allocated resources. Certainly there is no damage done when students strive to improve their odds of elite university admissions by making sure that they become proficient at math and writing. These are investments that will likely pay off no matter what happens to them afterwards. If you become an excellent writer in the hopes of getting into an Ivy League school and you don’t make it, you are still an excellent writer, which will have professional and personal value for you forever.

In contrast, what use is knowledge of how the SAT is designed once you have taken the test? Kaplan is currently charging between $300 and $1300 to prepare students to do well on the SAT and its brethren. Families can spend even more money on an “admissions coach” who will help their child choose the “right” extracurricular activities (many of which also cost money), craft the “perfect” admissions essay and otherwise reveal the tricks of the admissions trade. As with SAT prep courses, virtually none of this has economic value that outlasts the moment when that fearful letter arrives from the elite university’s admissions office.

Meanwhile, the money required for all these services is a strain for many families, drawing down resources they need for other things. And of course countless families whose children will never get into an elite university (A key feature of winner-take-all markets is that they attract too many participants) will make the investment anyway and have their elite university dream crushed just the same.

These sorts of harms are fairly visible and I think most people can see them. But there is another type of damage I see when I work with elite universities on problems of mental health and substance use among students. Fair warning: I cannot prove with systematic evidence what I am about to describe, so take it as only as one person’s report from the front line.
Continue reading “The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process”

Schooling, testing, cheating, and Michelle Rhee

Of course the Atlanta school miracle was faked. All school miracles are faked. Remember Dukenfield’s law!

All of my instincts call for competition in public services rather than monopoly bureaucratic supply, and for measuring results rather than relying on professionals organized in guilds to tell us that their traditional practices are just fine and that therefore we should pay them a lot of money and let them alone. With respect to public K-12 education in particular, the drastic decline in the quality of the labor pool must surely be part of the problem.

That said, No Child Left Behind (like other approaches relying on high-stakes once-a-year standardized testing) violates every known principle of quality assurance and process improvement: Deming was right, and Taylor is therefore obsolete, but no one in the Department of Education seems to be aware of that. And charter schools live, so far as I can tell, primarily by selection bias: if you take all the well-behaved kids with ambitious parents, and kick the ones who get out of line back to the public schools, it’s not hard to get higher measured performance.

The Atlanta scandal is just the latest illustration of Dukenfield’s Law: “Anything worth winning is worth cheating for.” Whatever the incentive is for actual good performance, the incentive for simulating such performance by fiddling with the tests is exactly the same. (Campbell’s Law enunciates a related principle: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The pithier version, the Goodhart/Strathern Law, holds that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”)

Scandals have already erupted in Houston, Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. In each case the top school administrators, having taken credit for producing impossible results, were shocked – shocked! – to find that their subordinates had cheated rather than working miracles. Replacing the ethics of lazy bureaucracy with the ethics of a crooked stock promoter doesn’t strike me as progress.

It might have helped if Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been half as enthusiastic about funding schools as he was about investigating them for doing what they had to do to survive in a hyper-competitive, resource-starved environment. (Any bets on how many suburban systems with Republican school superintendants were – are – doing the same thing?)

High-stakes testing wasn’t an obviously unreasonable idea, but in practice it turns out to be a double con game: politicians bamboozle voters with the idea that they have a potion that will produce educational gains in the face of budget cuts, and school administrators and teachers rig the test results.

Clearly, the rules have to change. If we’re going to keep making those tests high-stakes, we have to put resources into making them high-integrity. Audit should be as routine a part of testing as it is of financial accounting.

Having said that, let me say a word in defense of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee was one of the chief boosters of high-stakes hoo-hah, and it turns out that her prized results were substantially faked. She is now partnering with wingnuts to win school board races for teacher-bashing”reformers.” So she’s hardly one of my heroes.

But I don’t see the scandal inRhee’s sending her own kids to a high-priced private school run on progressive principles. Rhee’s whole point is that public education currently runs badly. Sending her kids to private school is the opposite of “hypocrisy”: it shows she’s prepared to put her money where her mouth is. And so what if the school isn’t run on the principles Rhee tried to put in place for a big-city school system serving a mostly-disadvantaged population? The Deweyan idea, quoted approvingly by Diane Ravich, that “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children” sounds good until you think about it for ten second and it occurs to you that the optimal schooling for the child of two people with Ph.D.s might not be the same as the optimal schooling for the child of a single mother who didn’t graduate from high school.

More generally, the practice of attacking the private lives of public officials, like the practice of underpaying them, might have been designed to drive talent and ambition out of the public sector. That’s a feature for the Grover Norquist crowd; but progressives should recognize it as a bug.

What price democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.
Continue reading “What price democracy?”

The numbers don’t lye: our kids reely have goodness righting skills.

Appalling, essential article on what level of writing earns a passing grade on New York’s high school leaving exam.

This morning’s New York Times contains an essential, shocking article by Michael Winerip on the level of writing needed to earn a passing grade on New York State’s high school leaving exam. This year, for the first time, the exam has teeth: any student who doesn’t score at least 65 on the exam in English (and a few more subjects) will receive no diploma.

It’s always possible to come up with “sky is falling” articles by quoting samples of things students write. A few egregious examples do not prove a trend; and, after all, some poor student will always score at the bottom. But Winerip’s article is so telling because it cites the official scoring guide. And this is what the official guide gives as an example of writing that deserves a more-or-less passing grade (1 on a scale of 0 to 2):

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

That’s no accident. Here’s another:

In the poem, the poets use of language was very depth into it.

Those are taken from short-answer sections of the test. There is also an essay question. The following sentence is from an essay response that is supposed to receive a 3 out of 6—good enough, combined with two “1s” on the paragraphs and a 20 out of 25 on the multiple choice, to pass the test:

Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.

Students who write like this will be granted by the State of New York certificates that let them attend college. How many will graduate from college? How many will be well qualified for responsible jobs that don’t (or shouldn’t) require a college education: as an auto dealer, an office manager, a bank teller? But as Winerip notes, those designing the test felt they had to set the standards this low, since otherwise the non-graduation rate would be shocking. The problem is that giving diplomas to students who perform at this level is equally shocking. As Winerip notes, “[t]heoretically, passing the English Regents would mean that a student could read and write.”

No more than anyone else do I know of a magic formula for ensuring that every student will learn. But I know that imposing high-stakes tests on a failed educational system cannot be that formula. It won’t make students literate. It will just make the rest of us hypocrites. Actually, it already has.


More high-stakes testing, more open cheating

The latest from Philadelphia.

The latest phony educational “miracle” comes from Philadelphia. In this case, in addition to direct evidence of egregious cheating, the scores on the tests that count were completely contradicted by other test scores at the same school: 73% of seventh-graders were “advanced” or “proficient” in reading according to the high-stakes test, but only a third were actually reading at grade level according to another test.

At some point, do you think governors are going to stop showing up to shower praise on cheating principals before having staffers do elementary reality testing? Or will the people running the testing programs institute minimal consistency checks? Even a hotline where teachers and parents can anonymously report cheating incidents – and have them investigated by someone without a personal stake in having the testing program look good – would make a difference.

Given the absence of such simple integrity measures, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the politicians who buy in to high-states testing don’t really want to know the truth about how the sausage gets made. The nonsense at this school has been going on for years, and is only now coming to light. Why should I believe any of the other claimed good results? And that applies to claims about superior performance by charter schools; is there any reason to think that charter operators aren’t cheating, too?

Michelle Rhee is a liar …

There’s no way on earth those test results weren’t faked, and no way Rhee can’t know that they were faked. Her slime-and-defend denial makes her an accomplice – at the very least – in a massive fraud.

… and not a very clever one.

The scandal about cheating on standardized tests in the DC schools couldn’t help but put a dent in Rhee’s reputation. Still, it was, barely, possible that Rhee was culpably negligent – but no worse – in the cheating and the cover-up via a grossly inadequate “investigation.”

However, her slime-and-defend reaction to the exposure of the cheating eliminates that possibility. She was, and is, complicit in the cover-up, if not the cheating itself. Continue reading “Michelle Rhee is a liar …”