A Lesson in Propaganda: Reporting of Nation’s Report Card Results

Despite important, but rarely noted criticisms like test-takers’ classroom-3weak incentives to give maximum effort, the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is widely referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. The recently reported 2015 results are an interesting lesson in boosterism, obfuscation, and handwringing. Handwringing resulted from the decline in score overall, and the still terribly low proficiency levels. Those are not NAEP numbers an outgoing administration will want to cite as a legacy of frenzied effort and unprecedented federal spending on K-12 education.

Only Massachusetts (MA) has more than 50% (51%) of its 8th-graders proficient in math. I’ll focus on the math scores because, overall, those 8th grade NAEP scores are better than the reading scores. The national average 8th grade reading score is 264/500 (52.8%); 274/500 (54.8%) for MA. The national average 8th grade math score is 281/500 (56.2%); 297/500 (59.4%) for MA. Notice the small difference between the USA and MA scores, and the low level of both. The same thing is true internationally: #1 scores are at a low absolute level, and aren’t much above the average. Internationally, and within the USA, the best are still pretty bad.

When I assign grades to my students, between 50% and 60% is a ‘D’ or an ‘F’. Perhaps wishing not to fail everyone, Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts gives Massachusetts a ‘B’ for an average score of 59.4% and proficiency at 51%. By the way, if you’re wondering why I’m discussing 8th grade results rather than the scores of the school system’s (NAEP scores include private schools) final product – which I would prefer to do – the answer is that the even more terrifying NAEP scores for children older than 8th grade are not broken down by state. For older children, only national numbers are available, giving states room to deny that things are that bad in their states.

Since Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts reports all of the numbers that are the basis for their assessments (you can decide what a 297/500 score or 51% proficiency means), I will not accuse Education Week of boosterism. To check for that, I decided to look at some Massachusetts sources. Sure enough, the Boston Globe chose feel-good boosterism over the appropriate journalistic integrity. In an article entitled “Massachusetts Again Tops National Test Student Achievement,” the Globe made no mention of actual scores or proficiency rates. The article only reported the differences between the 2015 NAEP scores for Boston and Massachusetts and past scores, scores in neighboring states, and the national average. I’m sure the Boston Globe and other sources obfuscated reality with the best of intentions, and we know that the path to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.

“There is Nothing More Unequal than Equal Treatment of Unequal People”

Brevity being the sole of wit [and wisdom], I should not be surprised that I was scooped 200 years ago by the smartest person ever, Thomas Jefferson. That’s why my title is in quotes. They are his words. I’ve quoted him before, so I’m not very surprised. Somehow, I missed this gem about unequal treatment resulting from attempts at equal treatment. The most important reason we need school choice is because of the significant differences in how children learn, and differences in engagement factors like the subject theme packaging of basic academic content.

My version of why the U.S. school system suffers persistent low performance is a couple of pages; The Roots of the Problem. Jefferson managed to distill a key underlying cause of low performance into a single sentence. No doubt a closer examination of his writings will reveal an understanding that the government very frequently practices equal treatment of unequal people and other things such as business firms. It happens often, perhaps nearly always, because the APPEARANCE of fairness is a political imperative. It’s not that holders of public office are generally foolish or crooked. Quite the contrary. The bigger reason for wacky, often counter-productive policies is the nature of the process that makes laws and spends public funds. Every elected officeholder knows that an opponent will definitely jump on even the hint of favoritism. So, when intelligent and well-meaning people with disagreements forge policy, they often produce an outcome that yields a lot of unintended consequences. And enough of the time to foster cynicism, the outcome is exactly the opposite of what was intended at the front-end of the process.

In, “Why I’m Tired of Grit“, James Delisle lists a number of importance differences in children that our school system deliberately overlooks in the name of fairness. We mainstream nearly everyone, and then promise to address differences with “differentiated instruction” rather than with the personalization of schooling through technology or school choice. But as Delisle points out in another article, differentiated instruction is so difficult within diverse-by-design, public school classrooms that it is widely ineffective, or not even attempted.


Central Plan Optimization is Worthwhile, But Not Enough

In “What PISA Can’t Teach Us,” Carnoy, Garcia and Khavenson directly deliver three key findings, and implicitly deliver a fourth.

  1. “There is no causal evidence that students in some Asian countries, for example, score higher on international tests mainly because of better schooling.” As I’ve pointed out previously, similar school systems around the world are producing similar, disappointing scores. Echoing a recurrent theme, the #1 South Koreans are not happy with the performance of their school system. Relentless performance pressure, not better formal schooling, seems to be a much better explanation for the ~11% difference between U.S. and South Korean PISA scores.
  2. In the U.S., because K-12 governance and funding policy is made at the state level, it is inappropriate to compare a U.S. average test score to the world’s other school systems. The U.S. actually has 51 school systems. The same thing is true for some other countries; for example, Canada, where provinces make primary and secondary education governance and funding policy.
  3. There are significant differences between the 51 U.S. systems. Not only do the scores differ, but score trends differ. For example, two states were similar a few years ago, but one shot ahead. For central plan improvement, it would helpful to compare those two states’ recent policy changes. And the differences between the scores can be used to explore which policy differences between the states account for the score differences. But, state comparison can ONLY reveal the importance of ways in which the fifty states and DC actually differ.
  4. So, implicit in the Carnoy et all findings is that U.S. state comparisons can only inform central plan improvement. All fifty states and DC rely on the political process to decide which instructional approaches will be produced, how, where, and for whom. As the international comparisons and within-country state comparisons reveal, central plan improvement has a low upside. The best in the U.S., and the best in the world, are not that far above the “Nation at Risk” — level average U.S. performance. Internationally, we can find some price system presence to facilitate the with/without prices comparisons — for example, the Sweden-Chile comparison I suggested — to provide some empirically-grounded insight into the nature of differences between centrally planned and price system-orchestrated schooling. We’ll also need the will and wisdom to rely, when necessary, on theory-based evidence, and experience from outside modern formal schooling, to move us forward towards productive, transformational school system change.

Standardized Test Discontent Spreads Across the Nation

As the nation moves into the peak weeks of the 2016 standardized exam season, the backlash against standardized tests is escalating sharply with opt-outs and protests being staged in many states. Parents are angry that governors, legislatures and educators are ignoring their requests to reduce testing and return classrooms to learning instead of teaching to the test.

In theory, standardized tests are supposed to identify gaps and hold districts accountable for student success. However, parents claim the tests are setting up their children to fail. Reading passages are reported to be several grade levels above the current grade level of the student. Teachers have reported that students cry because they do not have time to complete the tests, so randomly bubble in answers.

Brain-Dead Discussion of Teacher Supply Issues

In a February 10, 2016 Education Week article, Daarel Burnette II described several strategies to increase the number of applicants for teaching positions, including to replace “droves of teachers quitting midyear.” Despite the latter occurrence, it didn’t occur to Mr. Burnette that a key issue might be the daunting — unnecessarily challenging — classroom conditions of public school teachers, or that the single salary schedule might be a key cause of particular shortages (“hard-to-staff fields like special education, science, and math”). The lengthy article mostly described the struggle to find money for across-the-board teacher raises, and one-time teacher bonuses (“sidestep bargaining agreements”) to lure teachers for the “hard-to-staff fields,” which might reduce out-of-field teaching. Recall that out-of-field teaching is a key root of the public school persistent low performance problem.

Common Core-Aligned SAT Faces Free Market Competition

The College Board is a non-profit association with a mission of promoting excellence and equity in education. The Board was founded in 1900 by twelve prestigious universities to create a standardized test to admit students based on merit — including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program.

Now it has changed its mission to one that dictates the use of Common Core curriculum for success on the test. This has been effected by the College Board aligning the SAT to Common Core Curriculum Standards.

In 1999 the non-profit organization was facing a cash-flow crisis. Under the leadership of former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, the association was turned into a profitable business — a cash cow — raking in hundreds of millions in increased student fees.

With the testing frenzy that permeates American public education, the College Board is riding on a gravy train.

Now market forces may create another cash-flow problem for the College Board. There is a huge backlash against the Board’s change in the SAT to reflect an ideology. Students who want to apply at an institution requiring the SAT or ACT will be forced to take a test that is now Common Core aligned. Those students who have not used Common Core materials will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Fortunately, students may soon have an alternative. Vector A.R.C. (Assessment of Readiness for College) has produced a college entrance exam for students who have used curriculum products that are not based on Common Core.

Vector A.R.C. is seeking at least 1,000 volunteers to participate in Beta testing its new test. With the rapidly growing resistance to Common Core, Vector A.R.C. will likely have no difficulty in attracting students who are opposed to all things Common Core.

With the increasing number of four-year colleges and universities — now 850 — no longer using the SAT or ACT to admit students, there is going to be market pressure for the remaining institutions to use a proven alternative to the tainted Common Core-aligned SAT.


The Poverty Excuse for School System Failure is Nonsense

Thank you, Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright for a systematic examination of the age-old, teacher union and education establishment allegation that poverty is the reason for the U.S. school systems’ persistent abysmal performance, including in comparison to other countries. It is true that affluence yields increased receptivity to instruction and engagement in academic content. But the United States does not have more or worse child poverty than the countries that rank ahead of us, internationally. Petrilli and Wright conclude, “that excuse turns out to be a crutch that’s unsupported by the evidence.”

Will that assessment of the evidence stop supporters of the status quo from repeating their claim that the system is working fine; that we have a “poverty crisis, not an education crisis?” I doubt it. That claim never made any sense. Why would the wealthiest nation on earth have a bigger poverty problem than less affluent countries? And now Petrilli and Wright have run the numbers and confirmed the logic. Apologists for the status quo will probably continue to assert the poverty excuse because their polling has told them the message is effective with low information voters. Sadly, there are adults willing to lie with numbers as part of a power struggle, even at the expense of children and our “Nation-at-Risk” circumstances.

Don’t Let the Opt-Out of Common Core Testing Movement Fool You

While the Common Core and its testing programs may have their issues, there exists a major national movement to end testing for students because they say that the testing has undermined schools, hurt students, is unfair, unreliable and an invalid method of assessing students’ abilities. The movement even goes on to say that the Common Core testing is “demoralizing” to teachers.

However, the real reason behind the Common Core Testing Opt-Out movement is because the testing is tied to teacher performance. Many teacher unions are flat out against this because they do not want their members held accountable.

At their national convention, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teacher union in the United States, recently discussed how they would oppose and/or reform Common Core, having called for a moratorium on the accountability standards over a year ago.

Additional teacher union Common Core opposition includes:

  • The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) would like to rewrite the Common Core standards as well as remove testing measurements that hold teachers accountable for student performance.
  • National Education Association President Eskelsen Garcia brands value-added measures as a “mark of the devil.”
  • Union leaders in Tennessee initially adopted Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative (thus receiving federal money); however the union has now called for a delay and even entered a lawsuit against the evaluation phase of the initiative.

While there are many people against the federal education initiative Common Core and for numerous reasons, teacher unions are against it because they do not want to have their members held accountable. Tying teacher performance to testing, might be one of the only good things about the federal initiative. However, when it comes down to it, Common Core is yet another failed federal education reform. The federal government should get out of the business of education and let the states handle it on their own.

Differentiated Instruction is Still Politically Correct

The latest attempt to make federal intervention productive — the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — promotes an “instructional strategy that supporters think has enormous potential for reaching learners with diverse needs.” “Universal design for learning” (UDL) is the name of that strategy. UDL’s supporters believe that lessons can be constructed so that one size will fit all; something that the political process is driven to attempt. To do otherwise, would violate the “appearance of fairness” political imperative; that nearly anything provided through taxation must be available to everyone.

UDL amounts to another “differentiated instruction” approach. UDL proposes that differentiated instruction occur through a package of very diverse ways to present lesson content.

The UDL something-for-everyone way for one size to fit all, “might include audiovisual components, illustrations, traditional lectures, enlarged print, or glossaries.” Hey, use a shotgun, and at least one of the pellets will hit the target. Is there time in the school day to present every important concept multiple ways? And UDL seems to assume that the only significant differences in how children engage in academics is pedagogical, and within the pedagogical realm that pace is not in issue. UDL assumes that consequential differences in how lessons should be presented do not include subject theme.

Is UDL another more-of-the-same-harder, heroic assumption aimed at making the current arrangements — existing school systems — yield the academic gains that ESSA’s predecessors (No Child Left Behind, Goals 2000) failed to realize from their own, similar heroic assumptions? I think so. We should not wait for time to tell. Since ESSA, like its predecessors, does not address the roots of the persistent low performance problem, more disappointment is likely. ESSA, like its predecessors, probably has some useful provisions, and a very low upside. A new central plan is not an answer.


South Dakota Gets School Choice

With the enactment of its first tax-credit scholarship program, South Dakota becomes the 29th state in the nation to offer school choice. There are now a total of 60 school choice programs in the U.S.

The funding is available to low-income families with 60,000 of the state’s 147,000 students being eligible. The cap on the scholarship for this year is $4,023 which is 82.5% of public school per-student spending.

Though admirable that lawmakers have made progress in providing school options for low-income students, there are likely many others who want educational opportunities that better meet their needs than does a one-size-fits-all centrally planned system. The new legislation seems to place burdensome restrictions on the scholarship program:

  • a cap of 80% tax credit for contributions,
  • a cap of $2 million in contributions,
  • tax credits are available only to insurance companies,
  • funding is available only at the beginning of each public school semester, and
  • the student must attend public school for one semester prior to making application.

Since tax credits are given in exchange for charitable dollars, why must there be a cap on contributions and the amount of tax credit? Why must students attend public schools for one semester before making application to win charitable funding to attend a private school that is receiving no public dollars?

Do lawmakers really want to provide education choice for the children of South Dakota or is their mindset locked into the government school model?

If lawmakers truly want to provide education choices for the children of South Dakota, why must the charitable funds be available only at rigidly defined times that are based on the bureaucratic system from which people are fleeing?

Since tax-credit scholarships are charitable dollars instead of public money, why are insurance companies the only businesses allowed to participate in the program? Why not other businesses and also individuals?