March 10, 2009

Obama's Five Ponies of Education Speech

Today, President Obama promised us five ponies to cure our education woes.

It started off well enough:

My outstanding Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars. It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.

But then he goes on to offer us five ideas which largely don't work.

In other words, we won't be getting five ponies; we'll be getting at best one pony, three broken down mares, and a gelding.

And a large pile of horseshit for the next generation to clean-up.

Let's take a look at each of our ponies.

Pony One: Early childhood initiatives.

Obama sells this pony by pointing us to some non-educational benefits.

For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly ten dollars back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs, and less crime.

He has to do this because these early childhood initiatives tend not to have any educational benefits that don't wash out rapidly once the child enters the public school system.

He also offers what appears to be an preschool version of NCLB by offering grants to states that:

[d]evelop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of [their] early learning programs. Show us how you’ll work to ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten.

Letting states develop their own plans and then define what success looks like didn't work too well under NCLB.

This pony might have offered some hope if the funding went to actual preschool programs that directly remedied identifiable deficits that many low-SES children enter school with: low language skills.

Pony Two: Better standards and assessments.

Next, Obama wants to challenge states to enact better standards and assessments.

Why would they ever want to do a thing like that? It's much easier to enact low standards that appear to show that students are achieving, rather than actually getting them to achieve to high standards. Where is the incentive? And Obama isn't providing any new incentives in this speech. States will either answer the "challenge" or they won't. My money is on "they won't."

Obama is also promising funding for data systems "to track how much progress a student is making and where that student is struggling."

This is one of the few good ideas in the speech. Although, why states aren't doing this for themselves is beyond me.

Pony Three: Recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers.

Then Obama attacks teachers. Apparently, the ones we have now aren't any good. I disagree.

When the automakers ran their businesses into the ground and came begging for relief, the CEOs got the spanking from Congress, not the assembly line workers.

The problem isn't the teachers. The problem is with the management from top to bottom. They are the ones who made the silly rules, who created the impossible work environment, that entered into bad contracts wit the unions, and hired teachers from education schools that failed to prepare teachers with the skills they need.

And, let's be honest, you'd have to be a little crazy to want to work in many schools today given the conditions. I think most teachers simply don't realize what's in store for them. That's changing with the Internet.

Pony Four: Promoting innovation and excellence in America’s schools.

Obama promises to remove the current caps on charter schools. This is a good thing. No student should be forced to go to a failing school. There's no guarantee that a particular charter will be any good, but at least the student gets a choice and isn't forced to attend a bad school.

Obama also ants to increase the school day and year. That's great, students get to waste even more time in crappy schools. Let's focus on improving the schools first and then we'll worry about gaining further efficiencies by lengthening the time requirements.

He's also going to develop "new strategies to make sure at-risk students don’t give up on their education" by dropping out in high school. Here's a good way: improving their K-8 education. I thought that was what this whole speech was about in the first place.

Pony Five: Providing every American with a quality higher education ...

... by making it more expensive to go to college by floating more "grant" money into the system.

This one fails Econ 101. It also ignores the primary problem preventing students from attending college: they aren't sufficiently prepared for the rigors of college. And, there's precious little in this new plan that's going to help here. Let's work on that.

This plan is long on lofty rhetoric, but short on anything that stands a good chance of working, much less has an established track record. Basically, more of what we've come to expect from education from the Feds.


Unknown said...

I'm going to have to agree with every point you made! Good work KD!

Brett Pawlowski said...

I'll disagree on one point: early childhood education. Just because the vast majority of programs don't work doesn't necessarily mean that they can't. Check out "Annual Growth, Catch Up Growth" - The school board in Kennewick, WA decided to do what it took to get 90%+ of kids reading at grade level by 3rd grade (starting at 57%), and they did it with a combination of community-level preparedness prior to school, and DI in school. It shows what's possible, even if it's not prevalent.

Brett Pawlowski said...

Oops - scratch most of that last comment. One day I'll learn to read your entire posts before responding...

But I'm leaving the note so you can follow the link - it's a good resource.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Early education may confer benefits. Early institutionalization harms normal children.

1) Studies which find a benefit to early institutional childcare compare children of deficient parents who receive remedial treatment to children of deficient parents who do not receive remedial treatment. These results do not generalize to the population at large.

2) States which compel attendance at age 7 have higher 4th abd 8th grade NAEP Reading and Math scores than States which compel attendance at age 6.

3) According to a former US DOE official quoted in a Cato study of homeschooling, the rate of dyslexia in a population is inversely related to the age at which reading instruction is institutionalized.

Later is better.

Anonymous said...

President Obama is getting very bad educational intelligence. His address didn't give us "Change we can believe in" because the "believers" he is relying on are the same people who created the present condition of el-hi education.

Ken explains why the five ideas don't and won't work. But it's even worse. The "Clearinghouse for What Works in Education" doesn't work.

Standardized achievement tests don't tell us "what works." The fact of that we haven't given any systematic attention to mechanisms for determining the reliability of instructional accomplishments, their costs or their benefits.

In short, not only do we not know what works; we lack the means to determine what works.

But there's more bad news in the intelligence report. The $100 million evaluation conducted by the Institute of Educational Sciences of the impact of the $6 billion Reading First expenditures--the guts of NCLB--reported that the expenditures had NO impact.

The President is talking about "raising standards" (which he's very confused about, but that's a whole nother story) when we can't even reliably teach kids to read.

In short, again. The only reason we don't have an educational meltdown is that there is there is nothing to melt down. El-hi education has been running on rhetoric.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the present cadre of teachers and the present population of kids are quite adequate to reliably accomplish the aspirations of NCLB--and more. But not with the presently prevailing instruction and testing practices.

The Educational Stimulus package will save jobs and pump money into the economy. That's enough.

Improving the productivity of the el-hi education enterprise will not involve more money. It will involve less money for greater reliability in delivering specified instructional accomplishments and educational services. Improving el-hi productivity is a tractable matter, but it's both more and less than the empty rhetorical "reform" the President offered.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Most curent teacher quality arguments are either circular (students of teachers whose students score above average on standardized tests score above average on standardized tests) or so vague as to be useless as a guide in hiring and promotion. From the empirical observation that some teachers do a better job than others, system defenders construct the (false) implication that College of Education credentials enhance teacher quality.

Applicant evaluation, in-service teacher evaluation, and merit-based compensation, like current student evaluation and internal financial control, will instantly succumb to "regulatory capture". System insiders will pervert any internal evaluation mechanism.

I once took the grades which the Education Trust and the Fordham Institute gave to States for their academic standards, converted these grades to numbers on a 0-4 point scale, and took the correlation between these numbers and States' NAEP 8th grade Math 50th percentile score. The coefficient of correlation was negative. The correlation between the percent of districts which use Praxis or the NTE to screen teacher applicants and NAEP 8th grade Math score is negative.

The only effective teacher standard is the parent standard: "Do I want my child in that school?"

Anonymous said...

Your general argument is sound, Malcolm. Actually less, rather than more pre-training and "professional development" is needed. If President Obama and Secretary Duncan were to cut "programs that don't work" those would be up close to the top of the list.

And if teachers's unions were to "become responsible" they would step up and set up apprentices programs and useful "upgrading" programs like other unions do.

If there were anything more than rhetoric to meltdown in EdLand, we'd be in a post-meltdown era.

'You say The only effective teacher standard is the parent standard: "Do I want my child in that school?"'

We can do better than that for both schools and teachers. Take reading for example. That's a responsibility of the school, not the individual teacher. It's a team matter and all K-3 teachers should be working from the same playbook.

The team/school should be delivering Capable Readers (kids how can read any text composed of words within their spoken vocabulary) by the end of grade 2--or grade 3 at the latest. For this instructional accomplishment the team/school should receive a substantial monetary payment.

No fictitous "growth models" no data base blah, blah, no artificial instructionally insensitive standardized tests. Just "Instructional accomplishments we can see to believe in."

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Schultz: "You say 'The only effective teacher standard is the parent standard: 'Do I want my child in that school?''

We can do better than that for both schools and teachers. Take reading for example. That's a responsibility of the school, not the individual teacher. It's a team matter and all K-3 teachers..."

..."In each school" I hope you mean.

"...should be working from the same playbook. The team/school should be delivering Capable Readers (kids how can read any text composed of words within their spoken vocabulary) by the end of grade 2--or grade 3 at the latest. For this instructional accomplishment the team/school should receive a substantial monetary payment."

Which would happen if funds followed the child and parents selected schools. That was my point.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to step on your points, Malcolm, but rather to extend them.

'..."In each school" I hope you mean.'


"Which would happen if funds followed the child and parents selected schools. That was my point."

I think this is what we'll eventually get to, but my point does not demand this.

My point is that formal reading instruction cannot be reasonably be completed for most kids in one year. It has to be a school, not an individual teacher responsibility and "merit pay" should recognize that point.

The logic and statistical considerations of current "value added models" are so shabby as to be embarrassing

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Schultz: "I wasn't trying to step on your points, Malcolm, but rather to extend them."

No offense taken. I saw it that way. This isn't an argument at this point.

Schultz: "...formal reading instruction cannot be reasonably be completed for most kids in one year. It has to be a school, not an individual teacher responsibility and 'merit pay' should recognize that point."

There's a lot involved here. "What works?" is an empirical question. If a State legislature were to consider a merit pay proposal, all kinds of considerations would appear in the hearings on the merit pay bill. If, alternatively, a legislature were to enact a school choice proposal, institutions which formulated workable merit pay proposals would out-perform those which did not (if some form of merit pay is indeed a good idea).

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Ken: "Pony Five: Providing every American with a quality higher education."

If you suppose that the purpose of State (government, generally) school policy is to transfer wealth from taxpayers to political insiders, this makes sense. Otherwise, not. Why should everyone go to college? If you want to learn Russian History, read a book or ten. If you want to manage a business, start as a counter clerk. The Wright brothers dropped out of high school. Thomas Edison was homeschooled and went to work at 13. John D. Rockefeller (at one time, the richest man on the planet) never went to college. Physicians and surgeons at one time learned their trades on the job, as did lawyers and accountants.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm asks: "Why should everyone go to college?"

Good question. President Obama and Secretary Duncan come off as shills for colleges and universities with Pony Five.

El-hi schools should deliver students who have the prerequisites for college admission. Currently these prerequisites vary from "soup to nuts"

If a case could be made for "national standards" anywhere it would be for colleges and universities to clean up their admissions act. But there's a fat chance of that happening any time in the foreseeable future.

mmazenko said...

Your comparison to the CEO's of the auto industry being faulted is insightful. I have long argued for criticism of the administrators and school boards that are unable to manage their schools, signing obtrusive contracts, granting tenure to less than competent teachers, complaining that tenure and unions prevent them from getting rid of bad teachers (not true), and being generally unable to provide effective work and educational environments. I also agree that Obama is not going to fix any of that.

Additionally, his view toward lengthening school days and years and assuring at least a year of post-graduate work is naive unless there is a movement to redefine the traditional K-12 curriculum. One valid idea is the plan in New Hampshire to move toward graduation at sixteen if the students can enter a trade school or associate program. Like the European and Asian systems, this concept may provide the greatest benefit to a system that is not, despite the hyperbole, in a state of ruin, but could certainly be more efficient.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late...but I loved your pony points. Everything Obama said sounds so good. Yet, it's all so unachievable or unrealistic. But, rhetoric is easier than actually fighting the system.

Anonymous said...

"rhetoric is easier than actually fighting the system."

The scary thing is that this isn't rhetoric as far as President Obama, Secretary Duncan, the Congress, and the bulk of the national media are concerned. They believe it, and $100 billion has been appropriated.

The Directive from D-ED to states says:

Principles: The overall goals of the ARRA are to stimulate the economy in the short term and invest in education and other essential public services to ensure the long-term economic health of our nation. The success of the education part of the ARRA will depend on the shared
commitment and responsibility of students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, education boards, college presidents, state school chiefs,
governors, local officials, and federal officials. Collectively, we must advance ARRA's short-term economic goals by investing quickly, and we must support ARRA's long-term economic goals by investing wisely, using these funds to strengthen education, drive reforms, and improve results for students from early learning through post-secondary education.

Four principles guide the distribution and use of ARRA funds:
Spend funds quickly to save and create jobs. ARRA funds will be distributed quickly to states, local educational agencies and other entities in order to avert layoffs, create and save jobs and improve student achievement.

States and LEAs in turn are urged to move rapidly to develop
plans for using funds, consistent with the law's reporting and accountability requirements, and to promptly begin spending funds to help drive the nation's economic recovery.
Improve student achievement through school improvement and reform. ARRA funds should be used to improve student achievement.
In addition, the SFSF provides funds to close the achievement gap, help students from all backgrounds achieve high standards, and address
four specific areas that are authorized under bipartisan education legislation – including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the
America Competes Act of 2007:

1. Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities;

2. Establishing pre-K-to college and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous 2. improvement;

2. Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and in the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly
students who are most in need;

4. Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

Ensure transparency, reporting and accountability. To prevent fraud and abuse, support the most effective uses of ARRA funds, and
accurately measure and track results, recipients must publicly report on how funds are used. Due to the unprecedented scope and importance of this investment, ARRA funds are subject to additional and more rigorous reporting requirements than normally apply to grant recipients.

Invest one-time ARRA funds thoughtfully to minimize the "funding cliff." ARRA represents a historic infusion of funds that is expected to be temporary. Depending on the program, these funds are available for only two to three years. These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.
These 4 mandates are altogether inconsistent and incompatible. It's just not possible to
*spend money fast
*improve instruction
*account for expenditures categorically
* and ensure that the expenditures are non-sustainable.

This is not "Change we can believe in." President Obama is receiving very bad educational intelligence.

Jamie said...

The language piece for early childhood education is interesting to me - other countries perhaps are just coming to these same conclusions, like the Netherlands: