Category Archives: Common Core

In Defense of Standardized Testing

According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety, and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: standardized testing does have positive– and predictive–value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.

More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right? Continue reading

Forbes on Why Investing $6.2 Trillion in Public Education is a Good Idea

I have a love hate relationship with economics as a discipline. On the love side, to my very core, I am an analyst, and I love the structure and the neatness of it. It gives the illusion of clear answers on complex questions and canonizes words like efficiency and incentives. Benefits outweigh cost? Good. Other way around? Bad.

On the hate side, it’s a cold calculus, and it can be difficult to inject values other than those that can be measured numerically into the analysis and have that taken seriously, particularly by economists of the armchair variety (of which I am one, full disclaimer).

So I’m always excited when economic analysis lines up with social welfare—as it does with a vengeance in this Forbes piece on investing in education. Forbes identifies 5 strategies for moving the U.S. up the ladder in global competitiveness in education. Don’t get excited yet—these are not new strategies:
1. Improve teacher effectiveness
2. Universal pre-k
3. Common Core standards
4. School leadership
5. Blended learning

They defined some specific policies in each of those areas, gathered up a group of A-list researchers (some real economists among them, famous ones), and set out to figure out if it was worth it. And as it turns out, it is. Really worth it. They calculated a $225 trillion return on a $6.2 trillion investment over time. So, here are their strategies in a nutshell. Continue reading

The Spinach of Education Reform

Education policymakers, practitioners, and thought leaders across the country have spent recent years doubling down on Common Core, teacher evaluation and tenure reform, innovation and technology. These policies have led to heated political debates and dramatic headlines. They are trendy, high profile, and federally incentivized. They are the candy of education reform, in demand and hard to resist.

Of course, it is necessary to prioritize. But I wonder if we are choosing wisely. Are these policy issues commanding so much of our collective attention that we are undervaluing high-impact policies that have a delayed, indirect, or less visible impact on students and teachers?

For instance:

  • Education research: Thomas Kane, Russ Whitehurst, the Knowledge Alliance, and others have highlighted the need for more and better investment in rigorous education research. Teachers are on the front lines of implementing new standards and blended learning models, but an analysis of the research on professional development casts significant doubt on whether teachers are receiving effective support.
  • Procurement rules: Digital Promise published a new report this week on procurement challenges with education technology. Procurement has also thrown a curve ball to the implementation of Common Core-aligned assessments in Tennessee and Florida and sidelined countless smaller projects, such as those described here.
  • Teacher retirement plans: Pensions affect multiple aspects of human capital management in schools—where teachers work, whether they are willing to move, and how long they stay. My colleagues Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan are among the few who regularly draw attention to this topic.

Policies like these are the spinach of education reform, but they are critically important. Addressing them may even make other policy reforms and their implementation more effective. Then why have we seen such little progress on them?

Tedium probably has something to do with it. These issues are a far cry from page-turners and generally are not the press release fodder a Public Affairs Office is looking for. The average tenure of education leaders may also have an effect. The Council for Great City Schools surveyed urban superintendents and found an average tenure of just 3.2 years. The tenure of state chiefs is probably about the same. This is hardly enough time to focus on more than a few signature policy issues. Finally, the benefits of research and pension reform are delayed. Elected officials have weak incentives to champion reforms when the benefits are unlikely to materialize until after they have left office.

Until it attends to issues like research, procurement, and pensions, the education reform community will be pursuing more popular policy issues with one arm tied behind its back.

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading

Rural Schools and Education Reform

Here at Bellwether’s great new blog, I’m going to be writing regularly about rural K-12, with special attention to the important developments getting too little attention and the interesting reform work flying under the radar.

rural schoolhouseSome of these posts will be dedicated to fascinating, hot-off-the-presses research from the ROCI Task Force, a joint effort of a group of terrific scholars (led by Paul Hill), Bellwether, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. Stay tuned for my first installment along these lines: a piece about Hill’s excellent introductory piece to the ROCI work and contemporary rural education reform.

But to get things kicked off, I wanted to offer just a flavor of the big stuff going on in this field. Continue reading