Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Sandy Kress Is Sad (Plus, A Smoking Gun)

Sandy Kress is one of the founding fathers of modern ed reform, and he wears his reformster  medals with pride. His LinkedIn bio tells the story of how reformed his way right up through the ranks of Texas ed reform, which earned him the post of senior education adviser in the George W. Bush White House. In that capacity he became one of the architects of No Child Left Behind.

This guy.
Kress's LinkedIn account does not mention his lucrative career as an education lobbyist. In 2011, he pulled in a cool half a million just for his work in Texas. Favorite clients include Teach for America and Pearson, the testing and education giant that made a pile of money in Texas. But by the mid teens, anger about Pearson and the Texas testing regimen was growing into a fire that apparently even Kress's lobbying skills could not extinguish. In 2014, Pearson was caught using its non-profit left hand to help its right-hand business. And when the curtain was peeled back on the testing, it was just ugly. In 2015, Texas ended its three-decade relationship with Pearson.

Kress has been pretty relentless in defending his NCLB work, though he often hides behind the facade of a simple Austin lawyer.

These days, Kress is in Texas serving as a living reminder that you can't have disaster capitalism without a disaster; therefor, nobody must be allowed to think that any problems have been solved or revealed to be hoaxes. You must stand there in the sun, hollering loudly that the storm is raging all around you.

Hence his latest post in Education News, "Pretending We're in Fantasyland Doesn't Solve Texas' Serious Education Problems."

There's plenty of subtext in Kress's post:

Although Texas made substantial gains educationally in the 1990s and the 2000s [when everyone was still listening to me], especially on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we have slipped badly in the 2010s [after people didn't listen to me enough any more].

Kress thinks that Texas legislators lack the proper sense of crisis, and to illustrate his point he will now pick apart a "list of points that purport to show how great things are" circulated by an unnamed State Representative. Here's the point by point breakdown, with an adjudication of which party-- Kress or the legislator-- wins the point.

NAEP Scores and Accountability Systems and the Texas Miracle

Spoiler alert: neither Kress nor the Unnamed Representative is on solid ground here, because the correct response to NAEP scores is "who cares."

USR wants to tout the great NAEP gains between 1990 and 2011, which show great gains in Texas and puts Texas students on a footing with entire nations.

Kress wants to point out that there's a reason USR skips post-2011 scores-- they suck. And he wants to take credit for the great gains of the 90s made "because we implemented one of the best accountability systems in the nation." Kress is super-proud of his accountability system and often refers to it. You may remember it under the name "Texas Miracle."

Google "Texas Miracle" and you find that there are several; apparently Texas cranks out a miracle of some sort every few years. But the Texas Education Miracle refers to the huge gains made in test scores in Texas, a miracle so miraculous that Congress couldn't wait to scale it up nationally into NCLB's test-and-punish regimen.  Except that it was a miracle spelled M-I-R-A-G-E. There was no miracle; in fact, what there was was some clever cheating. One of the best tricks was to set up a system that tested tenth graders; then identify students who would do poorly on such a test (particularly the brown and black ones) and retain them in ninth grade, then after their second year in ninth grade, promote them to eleventh grade so that they're never tested at all. Voila! Miracle!

NCLB won the prize as one of the most hated and least successful federal programs in US history. It wasted billions of dollars on testing and effectively transferred control of local public schools to the feds. And with its innumerate and unachievable-- yet legally mandated-- goals, it set the stage for all the additional excesses of Race to the Top, Common Core, and legislation-by-regulation of the Obama-Duncan era. Who could have predicted that a conservative GOP administration could be so instrumental in crushing local and state control.

It's impressive that Kress still touts his test-and-punish system, which was thoroughly debunked in Texas and has, in its scaled-up national version, proven to be absolutely unsuccessful. Oh, and let's not forget-- the Texas accountability system is based on one of the earliest versions of VAM and it was just struck down by the court

We'll call this one a tie.

Fiscal Responsibility and a Jaw-Dropping Quote

USR says that almost every district in Texas has met the standards for financial responsibility and a whopping 95% achieved the states "met standards" in the educational accountability system.

And then Kress says this:

It strains the credulity of any reasonable observer to be told that everyone meets any real standard, and, even more, at the highest level.

Let that sink in. The guy who helped set up NCLB, a system that demanded that 100% of all students score above a certain level on the Big Standardized Test-- that guy says a reasonable person would never expect everyone, or even nearly everyone, to meet a particular standard. From which I can only conclude that Kress has always understood that NCLB and the rest of modern ed reform are designed to insure that a bunch of schools, teachers, and students will fail. That in fact, by design, by the expectation of any reasonable people, some students were going to be left behind. Every one of us who felt certain that the whole system was setting us up to fail-- we were right, and Kress knows it.

I'm going to give this one to Kress just because he waved the smoking gun at us.

College Readiness

USR says that Texas has early college campuses, early college high school programs, and big passing scores for Texas' terrible STAAR test.

Kress says there's no data to support the assertion that more students are college-ready, and he's correct because nobody yet knows how to measure such a thing-- including Kress. He says having a bunch of early college classes doesn't count because, hey, maybe they're all stinky. And exit exams don't count because Texas doesn't have enough of them any more, because if there's anything that measures college readiness, it's a standardized test. Oh no, wait-- there is something that predicts college readiness and that is high school grades.

We'll call this a draw-- both Kress and the USR are full of it on this point.

Graduation Rate

Graduation rates are up nationally and in Texas, too, says USR.

Well, sure, says Kress, the numbers look good, but the claims are "exaggerated and dubious" because, you know, "knowledgeable observers" have some "serious questions" about whether those grad numbers are legit. He offers seven links to skeptical articles. He does not take a moment to consider what role punitive programs like NCLB have had in incentivizing fakery and gaming the system. Like all the great reformsters (looking at you, David Coleman), Kress never stops bitching long enough to reflect on how his own policies and ideas might have contributed to the problems he's complaining about. He's just a cranky old fart who has blocked off the sidewalk in front of his house and now wants to rail at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

Kress loses this one by virtue of lacking self-knowledge

PISA Rankings

USR points out that when you compare PISA apples to apples-- in other words, US students of particular socio-economic status to other students of a similar status, we come out Number One! USA! USA!

Kress considers this a "doozy" instead of, say, a reasonable way to break down PISA data. Instead, he wants to chicken little the same old point-- the US is average.

Now, there are many reasons for the US to do poorly on PISA exams, including the obvious-- US students don't care about the test. It is also important to note that US PISA scores have never been great. And that changes in the test make current comparisons suspect. But the most important question to ask about PISA results is this one--

So what?

Kress points out that once again we've been smoked by Estonia and Poland, and he points it out like it should be a call to action. But why? Do PISA scores correlate to anything important, like economic strength or political standing or family cohesion or the happiness of a nation's citizens? If we raise our PISA scores, then what benefit will the USA garner other than the chance to instruct the US ambassador to Estonia to go tell Estonians, "In your face, bitches!" As reform-friendly Jay Greene has pointed out at length, test results don't have any predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. So why do we even care about raising the PISA scores. And more importantly, what other educational work would Kress have us abandon in order to make room for more test preparation?

Bottom Line

Sandy Kress got it wrong in Texas, and he got it wrong with No Child Left Behind, a program that virtually nobody holds up as an example of a great government program that achieved great things. And unlike some reformsters who have shown a willingness to say, "Okay, some of this just isn't working," Kress keeps on insisting that we are on the brink of educational disaster and people have to use his great ideas right now!

We've been field testing test-centered accountability for almost twenty years-- long enough that entire generation of children have been educated while soaking in the stuff-- and we have nothing to show for it but corporate profits, people abandoning the teaching profession, and educational results that show the gaps created when schools dropped actual education in order to prep for the Big Standardized Test. We have tried Kress's ideas. They have failed.

I'm not going to argue that the Texas legislature has the answers. But they are not going to find the answers by listening to Sandy Kress.


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