September 24, 2009

Duncan on the Future of NCLB

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives a pretty pep talk on the future of NCLB. It is unfortunate that pretty speeches have such a long history of not translating into good education policy, or I might have been moved by such a speech.

Let's look at the highlight reel.

I heard their voices -- their expectations, hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. They were candid about their fears and frustrations. They did not always understand why some schools struggle while others thrive. They understood profoundly that great teaching and school leadership is the key to a great education for their kids.

Great teaching and school leadership are but two components of delivering a great education. There are many other needed components and the Secretary doesn't know what they are because if he did, he would have adopted them in Chicago when he ran that school district. But he didn't and Chicago remains a poorly performing district.

The other problem is that no one knows how to convert an average teacher into a great teacher. The great teacher argument is based on statistical games.

Whether it’s in rural Alaska or inner-city Detroit, everyone everywhere shares a common belief that education is America’s economic salvation.

They see education as the one true path out of poverty – the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. It’s the only way to secure our common future in a competitive global economy.

That belief is wrong. America's economic well-being depends it part on our ability to create educated workers, but if we don't grow enough of them at home, it's pretty easy to brain drain the rest of the world for talent as we've been doing for decades. American education is for the well-being of Americans, not so much for America.

But when it comes to defining the federal role in an education system that evolved over a century-and-a-half – from isolated one-room schoolhouses to urban mega districts -- there’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and division.

Last I checked, the Constitution defines that role. And, the Constitution defines that role as "no role" except possibly to make sure there is equal opportunity as defined by the 14th Amendment, i.e., to avoid racial discrimination. And, I don't see much of that nowadays. What the Secretary wants to do is to continue to define the Federal role beyond what the Constitution defines. And, by the way, we do have a mechanism to amend the Constitution to give the Feds whatever role the public wants. The problem is that not enough people want to give them this power.

People want support from Washington but not interference. They want accountability but not oversight. They want national leadership but not at the expense of local control.

As a former superintendent, I can tell you that I never looked forward to calls from Washington.

By support the Secretary means collecting local taxpayer's tax dollars at the Federal level and then sending it right back to local schools, often through one or more intermediaries and often with strings attached. Here's a crazy idea, if you want "support" without federal "interference, oversight, and accountability" just eliminate the Feds and keep the tax dollars in the state. What schools really want is free money with no strings attached and the best way to get that is to send tax dollars through a long convoluted chain thereby diffusing responsibility and taxpayer ire.

And now that I’m here I’m even more convinced that the best solutions begin with parents and teachers working together in the home and the classroom.

Really? Which solutions are they? I can't thnk of one that has originated with teachers or parents. They all seem to originate from special interest groups that are way above teachers and parents.

Our role in Washington is to support reform by encouraging high standards, bold approaches to helping struggling schools, closing the achievement gap, strengthening the field of education, reducing the dropout rate and boosting college access

Only one of these has the patina of a Constitutional mandate: "closing the achievement gap [between black students and non-black students]" And, quite frankly, if you control for student characteristics, the achievement gap disappears. White students with the same characteristics of black students perform the same. So, what we're left with is an attempt to change the student because the characteristics of the average black student is below the average white student. We haven't had much success there with such paternalistic policies. What we really want to do is improve the educational outcomes for all students, but I don't see a Constitutional role for the Feds there.

I always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps, and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.

Possibly the best sentence in the speech.

NCLB helped expand the standards and accountability movement. Today, we expect districts, principals and teachers to take responsibility for the academic performance of their schools and students.

Actually, we've almost always expected that from Federal programs, we just never enforced it very well, so educators simply ignored it. NCLB changed the game by enforcing the accountability provisions and that's when all hell broke loose.

And while existing state tests are not ideal measures of student achievement, they are the best we have at the moment.

Until states develop better assessments – which we will support and fund through Race to the Top -- we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress – but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

I don't undertand why such bribery is needed in the first place.

States are doing exactly what all governments do when they run something poorly, they disguise the low quality of the services to make it appear as if they are doing a swell job.

I also agree with some NCLB critics: the law was underfunded -- it unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they were making progress -- it places too much emphasis on raw test scores rather than student growth -- and it is overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.

Where to begin on this one?

Under Funding: We're going to find out soon that providing more funding (a la Race to the Top) isn't going to improve anything, except a few bank accounts. At current levels, funding doesn't matter.

Schools-Making-Progress Penalized: Does anybody remember NCLB safe harbor provisions. This is how schools get credit for falling short but making progress. The problem is that many schools fail to make enough progress to satisfy the Safe Harbor provisions. This is where Growth Models come in and permit even less progress to satisfy the NCLB mandate. Just one more way for schools to appear to be doing their job when in fact they are not. The issue boils down to how much progress is enough. The desired answer is very little. Sad.

But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards.

In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not.

This is a problem that is endemic to the current system of government-run public schools. States can easily adopt universal high learning standards. We'd just have very low student achievement because few would meet the standards. That's political suicide. So States have done the politically smart thing by adopting low standards which almost very student can pass. That's how you get re-elected. If you want high standards and high student achievement, you are going to piss off quite a few very influential special interests groups who like the status quo just fine. Basically, you need lots of political will which no politician has (especially when you consider many Republicans don't think this falls under the Feds' purview anyway).

It’s one reason our schools produce millions of young people who aren’t completing college. They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school.

Of course, there is an enoormous gulph between setting high (college level) standards and getting students to actually meet those standards. That's the hard part.

Low standards also contribute to the nation’s high school dropout rate.

I never imagined that standards were so magical. I'm thinking we should raise the standards on cancer treatments so all patients will survive cancer.

When kids aren’t challenged they are bored -- and when they are bored they quit.

So, it's boredom that's driving the drop-out rate, eh? Boredom caused by low-standards? This might be the most ridiculous statement I read this week and I've read a lot of education articles this week so this is quite an accomplishment.

In my view, we should be tighter on the goals – with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers – but we should be looser on the means for meeting those goals.

You couldn't get much looser than the current law which permits states to do pretty much whatever they want. They set the standards, the cut scores, and determine what and how to teach.

We should be open to new ideas, we should encourage innovation, and we should build on what we know works.

I'd like the DOE to make a list of what it "knows works" and I can guarantee you two things: most of the items will have no evidence of success and most of the rest won't be built on properly.

We need to agree on what’s important and how to measure it or we will continue to have the same old adult arguments – while ignoring children.

I can assure you this day will never come. And the only reason it has to come in the first place is that we have a system in which consumers of education get almost no choices and consolidating power at the Federal level on common standards will only reduce the few choices we have. That's the main advantage of a competitive market -- consumers get choices and everyone gets a chance to see if their crackpot theories work the way they think they will.

And to those who say that we can’t do this right now – we need more time to prepare and study the problem – or the timing and the politics isn’t right – I say that our kids can’t wait and our future won’t wait.

Isn't this how every other crackpot reform started out? Rushed, poorly thought out and poorly researched. You couldn't ask for a better example of the politician's fallacy.

This is our responsibility and our opportunity and we can’t let it to slip away.

The President has talked a lot about responsibility. He’s challenged parents and students to step up and do more. He’s challenged teachers and principals to step up and do more.

He’s called on business and community leaders and elected officials at every level of government to step up and do more.

Education is everyone’s responsibility – and you who represent millions of people across this country with a direct stake in the outcome of reauthorization – have a responsibility as well – to step up and do more.

I don't believe we're relying on the altruism of others to solve our self-inflicted education woes. Has no one in this administration read Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The problem with the current education system is that the self-interest of the adults running the system is not aligned with the interests of the children being educated. It's that simple.

It’s not enough to define the problem. We’ve had that for 50 years. We need to find solutions – based on the very best evidence and the very best ideas.

You can bet that nothing will be done on the Federal level to assure that the best evidence is generated, gathered or consulted and that the solutions will be based on this evidence.

This is why the Administartion's hodge-podge of upcoming reforms is doomed to failure before it's even begun.

1 comment:

Dick Schutz said...

Giving NCLB credit for "exposing achievement gaps" is like giving the Iraq War credit for "exposing dictators."

The "achievement gap" has been known since the early 1960s. The gap was the prime motivation for enacting the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The "Standards and Accountability by Standardized Tests" that began in the late 1980's has failed aat every step.

Secretary Duncan thinks that NCLB needs "re-branding." If he thinks the NCLB brand stinks, wait till he smells what's going to happen to his "Race to the Top."

We ain't seen nuthin yet--either literally or figuratively.