Sunday, May 1, 2016

Yet Another Core Apologist

At this point, Common Core fans are kind of like those legendary Japanese soldiers who came stumbling out of Pacific island caves long after 1945, unaware that the war was over and they had already lost. Well, the analogy would work better if Pacific island caves were like clown cars, because not only Core fans clueless, but it seems as if there's always just one more.

This week it was Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Holtz-Eakin was an economic and budgetary advisor for Bush II, so of course he is (like all economists) highly qualified to discuss education policy. Holtz-Eakin was also economic advisor to the 2008 McCain campaign. He's from "suburban Pittsburgh" and half of his hyphenated name is the maiden name of his first wife. He was on the "Say no to Obamacare" circuit in 2010. If you want him to come talk to you, you can book him through Leading Authorities for just a cool five figures (depending on travel). And, of course, he is the head of a right-leaning thinky tank, American Action Network, as well as running a related superPAC.

This week, Holtz-Eakin was in US News arguing that there is "A Hidden Benefit to Common Core," which I suppose is the next logical argument to make, since there is no obvious or visible benefit. We'll jst keep rooting around our cave. There must be a benefit here somewhere that we just can't see.

He starts with the premise that the cost of college is a problem these days, though he cites some of his own thinky tank's research that suggests that it's college aid that is making college costs blow up. That seems like a tough bridge to build, but the research showing that college is now too expensive for too many people is certainly out there.

But we're breezing past that conversation so that we can land on the old favorite-- college remediation. Students are arriving at college and taking remedial courses. That's its own discussion; it's not entirely clear what remedial course enrollment tells us. Are colleges seriously loosening entrance requirements in order to fill seats and make bank? Are colleges jamming students into remedial courses to run up some more charges and raise revenue? Are placement tests crap? Holtz-Eakin doesn't want to have that conversation-- remedial classes equal inadequate readiness.

It's a bold argument to make, since the current crop of college freshmen are the students who have been Common Cored through their entire high school careers. So what's the benefit of the Core again?

Holtz-Eakin is going to make another bold move here, and use the NAEP (the Nation's Report Card) as a measure of student achievement. And he's going to drag in some research from his thinky tank that shows that if NAEP scores were higher, the economy would currently be awesome.

Here We Go Again

The American Action Forum finds that had average NAEP math scores been 10 percent higher in 2003, then by 2013 individuals would have benefited enormously. There would have been 14.6 million more adults with a high school degree and 10.3 million more with a bachelor's degree. It also translates into better economic performance, with 12.4 million additional jobs and $1.27 trillion in additional economic growth. 

Also, if we could get people to eat more margarine, there would be fewer divorces in Maine. Don't believe me? Check the data:

If we follow the link to the American Action Forum research (released just the day before Holtz-Eakin's piece), we find not so much "research" as "claims." And we find, once more, Erik Hanushek. Hanushek has made a career for himself pushing the baseless baloney that good teachers will make students grow up to be richer; Hanushek is sort of a cheap Raj Chetty knockoff, stitching together a bunch of baseless correlations, weak suppositions, and unproven baloney. Rich kids do well on tests. Rich kids get well-paying jobs as adults. Therefor, good test scores lead to well-paying jobs. SMH. When AAF says that they based their analyses "on the methods employed" by Hanushek et. al, that's really all we need to know.

I could spend all day poking holes in the classic Hanushek claim that a better first grade teacher will result in more adult income, but let's just look at the assertion before us-- higher NAEP scores in 2003 would have resulted in a better economy in all fifty states in 2013. I don't know. Can anybody think of anything that happened between 2003 and 2013 that had a huge effect on the economy, personal earnings, employment and wealth, that had absolutely nothing to do with scores on a standardized test? Anybody?

How To Tell An Economist from an Educator

Clearly, better educational achievement should be a priority.  

An economist is a person who thinks that you get to that sentence by setting up a whole bunch of specious research to show that higher test scores will yield financial and economic benefits. An educator is a person who believes that providing a better education is a premise, not a conclusion you have to create an argument for. An economist is a person who thinks they need to create research-based data-driven case for the economic benefits of kissing your spouse. An educator is a person who kisses their spouse because they want to because some things really don't require fancy arguments.

The Baloney Gets Deeper

Holtz-Eakin will now demonstrate how many things he does not know.

The most effective way to improve achievement is to utilize educational standards.

Is there any proof that this is true? Any at all? No, there is not. (Also, one point off for using "utilize" which is a fancy doily of a word, unnecessary as long as we have the word "use" in the language).

Holtz-Eakin notes that No Child Left Behind called for standards and tests. But having laid out in the last paragraph that standards are a list of "what students are expected to know and be able to do at specific stage," he now adds another requirement. NCLB let states pick their own standards and  "As a result, the rigor of the standards was as varied as the individual states, and there was essentially no ability to make cross-state comparisons." He is going to skip right over the question of why cross-state comparison is useful, necessary or in any way efficacious. It's a good question to skip, as there is no reason to believe that cross-state comparison in any way improves education.

In Holtz-Eakin's story, folks noticed that state test scores and NAEP scores didn't match up. I would suggest that's because America's Report Card makes a lousy benchmark, but  Holtz-Eakin smells declining rigor, and so...

A state-led effort, the Common Core standards were drafted by experts and teachers from across the country. They genuinely demanded that schools meet sensible metrics and provided parents and policymakers a way to check the quality of their schools against those in other states.

Only intense loyalty and a decade in a Pacific island cave could lead someone to declare that the standards were any of the above. Not state led. Not drafted by experts or teachers. No reason to think that being able to compare your child to a child a thousand miles away was important, necessary, or useful.

Holtz-Eakin also defines the Core as standards "that have been shown to be more rigorous and effective." That link he includes is a ballsy choice, because it leads to the Fordham Institute study of Core standards, paid for by Bill Gates, one of the Core's top sponsors. If Bill Gates hires a firm to compare Microsoft Windows and Apple OS, what result do you think we can expect? Particularly if the firm hired has more expertise in PR and marketing than in computers. And given all of that, look at the report and see that Fordham found some states actually already had better standards than the Core.

None of this is news. Only in a Pacific island cave would this have been news.

Chicken Littling It Home

Holtz-Eakin wants us to know that rolling back the Core will be bad for the country and hurt us all economically. This would perhaps be more compelling if he could show one shred of evidence that the Core has been helping. But of course timing is not on his side as this week also saw the release of the lackluster-- actually, they were bad enough that we could call them suckluster-- results of the latest round of NAEP scores. Just look at this story about stagnant scores. Oops! Sorry-- that story is from 2014. Try this one about the drop in NAEP math scores. No, sorry. That's from 2015. Here we go. Here's the newest bad news. Carry on.

Lowering or eliminating standards will harm economic growth. It will reduce the attainment of educational degrees. But most harmful, it will exacerbate the trend toward under-prepared college students, lengthened time to completion and inflated tuition costs for families.

Did having the Core help economic growth? Did it increase attainment of educational degrees? Did it decrease the amount of remediation at college campuses? Because it seems like answering those questions would be a critical part of Holtz-Eakin's argument. But instead, Holtz-Eakin's argument rests on some "research" claiming that if test scores had been better in 2003, life would have been better in 2013. The proof of his argument rests in some alternate dimension, some parallel universe that can only be accessed by a portal in some mysterious location, like a cave on an island somewhere in the Pacific.


  1. The claim that getting rid of Common Core standards means that standards will be lowered is an obvious false dilemma. Standards could be improved. They could be the same in terms of difficulty. And so on. There are many possible outcomes that are not a lowering of standards. Anyone who uses such an obvious false dilemma is not sincere. What a hack.

    1. Strawman arguments. False dichotomy's. False assumptions. Phony studies. Fraudulent claims. Propaganda. Snake-oil solutions. Junk science. Smoke and mirrors. Bogus memes.

      Bullshit is all they ever had to sell. They even sold it to the mainstream media who bought their BS without an ounce of scepticism. It took a few more years than we expected, but parents are finally seeing through it all.

  2. At my university at least, we have not loosened, but tightened, admission criteria. Admission has always depended entirely on teacher assigned grades in high school. When I started, admission was automatically granted to any high school graduate in the state. Now a high school graduate must have earned a C average across a set of academic classes.

    It may be the case that it is now easier to earn a C average in those academic classes than it was to graduate from high school three decades ago, but that has nothing to do with the university.

    My university does not want to run any remedial courses, but if we want our students to be able to solve an equation for an unknown value or work with fractions it is something we have to do.

  3. Maybe the Common Core just needs a larger sample size? Fifty million students, three million teachers, and 700+ school days.

    Or maybe there is no legitimate way to implement a phony idea.

  4. "The most effective way to improve achievement is to utilize educational standards.

    Is there any proof that this is true? Any at all? No, there is not. (Also, one point off for using "utilize" which is a fancy doily of a word, unnecessary as long as we have the word "use" in the language)."

    I have to disagree. If the word "utilize" means "to put to use, turn to profitable account," isn't it PRECISELY the correct term in this instance?

  5. The wave-function collapses the moment you stand in front of a classroom of 12 and 13 year-olds just back from lunch. You stand there with a perfect lesson (perfected over the last four periods) and sigh. The fight at recess, the break-up, the upcoming 3-day weekend. And what do these kids care about the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant?

    1. Did you try passing out $50 bills?

      Teaching 7th graders after a drama filled lunch period - the toughest job in the business. If you haven't tried this, you haven't lived. You are describing what the average adult just doesn't get. And that is the group dynamic of 20+ highly distracted, emotionally driven, confused adolescents. I am a major proponent of giving 7th graders a sabbatical year off; they are a temporary sub-species during that one year.

    2. I feel like MS is a "warehouse". Not a lot of educating gets done with all the emotional baggage that these kids carry around daily. I have 2 sitting in there now.....I'm hoping HS is much better next year.

    3. I agree! I don't know how anyone can teach this age. It seems like they should only be doing things where movement is involved, because they can't sit still. I would say they should only be doing hands-on things like industrial art, but it would have to be something not involving tools that they could hurt themselves with, because they can't concentrate focus either.

    4. I actually kinda like teaching middle-schoolers. (My theory is that that is where I myself stopped maturing. ;-))

      But it does take a special kind of person to harness all those hormonal and brain changes and help the kids use them for good. It's been an interesting journey with my now-8th-grader, who has had some FANTASTIC teachers who "get" that age and some teachers who, it would seem, never should have signed up for teaching at all, let alone middle-schoolers. Not sure how that will bode for the soon-to-be-6th-grader, but I was encouraged by what I saw at the Open House.

      On the other hand, I think that the people who created our MS curriculum need to re-visit basic ed psych and re-learn what it is that makes teens tick, because I've spent 3 years seeing, alongside the good stuff, some of THE most condescending [stuff] delivered to Older Kid, and I can see EXACTLY why so many kids dis-engage during this period of their education. :-/

    5. I salute you! I subbed for two weeks in an eighth grade class and I don't think I'm qualified by nature to teach anything lower than high school. I would have no idea how to teach elementary either. My own three kids are very close in age and I had trouble just keeping up with the three of them -- I can't imagine 20-30! I think maybe it gets more difficult the lower the grade level! :)

    6. I have been teaching MS for 28 years - 8 years in grade 7 and the last 20 in 8th. The difference between 7th and 8th graders is the difference between night and day - on two different planets. The leap in brain development and social maturity made by 8th graders over the summer and during the first half of the school year never ceases to amaze me. Those 7th graders however, never seem to bet beyond the "gerbils on red bull" phase.

  6. OMG Eric Hanushek! (Making sign of cross to ward off Satan) This is the main guy I blame for all this "accountability" crap, who instituted it all as "an alternative to increasing funding" because funding doesn't matter: "Today the existing knowledge base does not ensure that any added funds will, on average, be spent wisely. That is true even if some schools may spend their funds wisely."

    This post is one of your snarky, ironic best, Peter.

    " of course [Holtz-Eakin] is (like all economists) highly qualified to discuss education policy."

    Economists seem to be people who think that made-up magical algorithms can predict the future, magically create causality where there is none, and through some kind of alchemy transform themselves into facts and "research".

    Please, please, can't we make a law that economists not be allowed to have any say in education? I can't figure out how these pretend education "experts" bamboozle people into believing that being an economist means understanding anything at all about educational policy, which is so much more in the realm of sociology and cognitive psychology than anything else.

    1. Rebecca,

      Perhaps you would not want to rule out James Heckman. He is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and the Nobel prize winner in economics in 2000. This month he will be awarded the Dan David prize for combating poverty, and has been awarded the Spirit of Erikson Award, Erikson Institute, for significant contributions to the education and development of children and the Distinguished Contributions to Public Policy for Children Award,
      Society for Research in Child Development.

      You might want to poke around the website for the Center for the Economics of Human Development, which Professor Heckman directs. The website is here:

    2. Thanks, TE. From what I read, Heckman seems to be a truly brilliant person who is open-minded and has great integrity. He has interest in and is very knowledgeable about many fields, such as sociology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience (his wife is a sociologist.) He partners with people from these fields in his research to synthesize information, and thus has much to offer with his expertise in econometrics. It's good to know that an economist can also have an understanding of other social science fields and therefore has the ability to factor in more elements and get a more accurate picture. More economists need to try to emulate his integrity and inclusiveness.

    3. Rebecca,

      How many economists do you know? Most that I know are very inclusive,have a high degree of integrity, and are very thoughtful about other social sciences and the humanities.

    4. I don't know any personally. I only know of economists like Eric Hanushek and Holtz-Eakin who don't seem to have Heckman's integrity or inclusiveness and whose models don't seem accurate but who for some reason are listened to in areas outside their supposed expertise, for example education, by policy makers, and therefore ruin things for the teaching profession.

    5. Rebecca,

      I would suggest that the two economists you mention may well have the same integrity as Professor Heckman, it is just you do not agree with their policy recommendations. You agree with Professor Heckman's recommendations, and likely hundreds of other economist's whose policy recommendations you also agree with.

      Alas, all our models of everything are inaccurate, including Heckman's work. Models of how children learn are perhaps the least accurate of all, judging from the fierce debates I have seen. Is phonics or sight reading the way to go? The math wars continue, and my preferred side, where mathematics is taught rather than teaching computation, will likely lose again. The reason that these are controversial is that neither side is obviously correct.

    6. Then economists shouldn't use models to make people think they prove something just because they use numbers.

      There are many issues that should be clear. Most of the time there is no one method that should be used by itself; synthesis is needed. In general, the more different strategies used, the more likely for learning to reach all students, but appropriate strategies also depend on the specific skills, concepts, and content being taught.

      My only area of expertise is foreign language, but I think the reading debate has been more centered on phonics vs. whole language, and I think it's pretty clear you need both, but that phonics is more effective earlier rather than later, and of course there are other issues, such as how you reach fluency (where you read easily and comfortably,) and I think to do that you have to read a lot, so to get to a basic fluency you need to read books you like so you're motivated to read a lot. Kids need to get to a basic fluency at some level so they know what it feels like.

      As far as math goes, I think computation is probably like phonics, so that's what should be taught first and well in the early grades, but certainly by seventh grade at least -- depending on the concepts -- you could start teaching math as art, and that would be cool.

      That's what I think.

    7. The reason I think Heckman has integrity is that he came up with the Heckman Correction to correct for selection bias. While it still doesn't assure accuracy by any means, it helps some and it shows that he's very aware of the problem.

      I don't always agree with his conclusions. Heckman's conclusion, for example, that the GED causes a decline in traditional high school graduation, but that if it's made more difficult then HS graduation increases again, makes sense. However, I'm not so sure about his conclusion that GED recipients do no better than people who don't graduate HS because that seems to be based largely on people who got their GED in prison, and clearly people who have been in prison have a hard time with employment in this society. At least he doesn't try to make a strong case that having the GED as an option is bad, because I think you also have to take into account the people who got their GED not because "They thought it was easier," but because they had family responsibilities; so you need to consider if the number of people getting their GED who would not have graduated HS otherwise are helped by that enough to justify it.

      Heckman is also a member of the ASA, and I assume an influential one because of his Nobel Prize for the Heckman Correction, and the ASA stated very clearly why VAMs are invalid to use to evaluate individual teachers, which statement polititians and economists like Hanushek totally ignored.

      Hanushek does not have Heckman's integrity because he clearly has an ideological bias in his push for standardized testing and "accountability" in lieu of better and more equitable funding as the way to improve education and close the "acheivement gap", as there has never been any basis for this claim, and it has now been disproved by recent international testing scores. But Hanushek continues to be an "expert witness" for the frivolous lawsuits designed to destroy the teaching profession.

    8. Rebecca,

      What did you think of Chetty's response to the ASA statement?

    9. Rebecca,

      If you are interested in an overview of how economists think about education, here is a link to a lengthy review article

      The article is a long one, but not overly technical.

    10. Yeah, all I see in Burgess' work is baseless assumptions and wild speculation. And Chetty, like Hanushek, is a poster boy for what I said about what economists seem to be, with their shoddy research to prove pre-determined conclusions, no understanding of the learning process, and the only cognitive scientist they seem to have an understanding of is Skinner, who was debunked back in the 70's.

    11. Rebecca,

      The single most cited author in that paper is Heckman.

      Do you have any specific criticisms? Any specific examples of shoddy research?

    12. The Heckman citings are more for the early intervention, which is the only part that makes sense. Besides, in the rest, he's always saying things like, the literature is mixed and more research is needed, and he starts from assumptions like the importance of effective teachers without being able to really know what an effective teacher is. (What I said about Amrein-Beardsley was about Chetty.)