Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cabin Fever and Search for Real Differences

Over the last two weeks, Rick Hess (conservative thinky tank AEI) and Peter Cunningham (former official Duncan voice) ran series called Cabin Fever at both EdWeek and Cunningham's reformerster PR flack attack machine Education Post. The premise was a conversation between two friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum considering aspects of ESEA reauthorization.

It's not news that public education is under attack from both self-identified liberals and conservatives, so it's interesting to read a side-by-side comparison and see whether real differences, or if we're simply in a Coke vs. Pepsi situation here. So let's take a quick look at each entry in the series.

Testing and Transparency

This one is easy. Hess and Cunningham started with a subject on which they fully agree-- keep all that testing in place and provide lots of data and transparency. That includes a requirement to report everything schools have spent and what they've spent it on (I'm not sure what we're after here-- here in Pennsylvania any taxpayer can walk into their school district office and demand a financial report or, actually, pretty much any document the district possesses that's not an issue of, say, student privacy.)

We'd also like to see states required to provide a broader bucket of consistent metrics on school and system outcomes like numbers of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses or completing career certifications, and operational factors like turnover, experience, and benefit costs. 

So, on this issue, no difference.

Should the USED set goals for adequate school performance?

Cunningham is sure that states will screw it all up, lie and cheat and fake their way to adequate performance levels if the feds aren't on their case. But he acknowledges that top-down fed goals have been a bust, so he recommends "negotiations." The feds don't dictate, I guess, but still have to be satisfied. How that doesn't turn into "the feds dictate" he does not make clear.

Hess has several good lines in this series, and here's one of them:

The problem with federal involvement is that federal officials have no responsibility for meeting the goals they insist upon and no accountability if schools fail to do so. All the blame falls on local educators and on local and state officials. The result is that it's all too easy for D.C. officials to insist upon ridiculous goals. 

E.g., 100% proficiency for NCLB. Then this:

The NFL season just ended. Over the next couple months, coaches should sit with their executives and owners in order to set goals regarding the kind of performance they expect to see. That process is valuable and I heartily endorse it. At the same time, I don't think it would be constructive for the Pennsylvania legislature to declare that the Eagles and Steelers need to go at least 11-5 next year.

What Hess doesn't address is the question of what difference it makes whether that unrealistically specific goal comes from federal, state or local authorities, other than the implication that such a goal best comes from someone who will lose his job if the goal is not met.

Should the feds tell states how to turn schools around?

Cunningham likes the School Improvement Grants, and he thinks conservatives and liberals should, too. He thinks conservatives don't because it's federal intrusion and liberals don't because it will get teachers fired. He fails to note that because it's a competitive grant, it's a federal commitment to help only some schools.

"Children only have one chance for an education," opines Cunningham. He fails to explain why that chance should rest on a local administrator's ability to fill out paperwork to fed's satisfaction.

Hess's argument is simply that the feds have no business dictating how schools should be turned around because the feds don't have the faintest clue how to do it.

Should Title I fund follow students (aka vouchers 3.12)?

Cunningham says no, which frankly surprises me, given Education Post's deep love for charter schools, which live only by draining the funds of traditional public schools through one portability mechanism or another. Maybe I'm missing something here, but Cunningham says A) even though we know it costs more to educate poor kids than rich kids, we spend the other way around and B) if poor kids pool their funds, it allows those funds to get more done.

Hess is an unequivocal yes, which does not surprise me.

Neither questions the assumption that once education dollars leave taxpayers hands, those dollars somehow attach or belong to individual students, as if schools are service provided for individual students and their parents and not a public service provided for the benefit of all members of a community. And neither brings up the question of how the federal could or should guarantee full funding for schools across the country.

Should the feds have a role in teacher evaluation?

Teacher evaluation that includes some measure of student growth on tests simply would not be happening without federal pressure. If we remove the federal role, it will disappear. The losers will be not only children who desperately need more effective teachers, but also the teachers themselves. Absent real accountability, teachers will be denied the resources, recognition, and respect they need and deserve.

That's Cunningham, encapsulating every wrong argument about teacher evaluation in the reformster canon. Well, okay-- he's correct that test-based evaluation wouldn't exist without federal pressure, but that's because every single respectable authority on the matter recognizes that such value-added test-based measures are evaluatory crap. So the federal insistence on them is a big fat fail for the feds. I suggest Cunningham look at the story of Sheri Lederman, a top NY teacher who is actually a terrible failure according to New York's test-based system. Then Cunningham can explain how Lederman and her students are benefiting from this federally-pushed malarkey.

His argument just gets worse. "Just as annual assessments help parents and teachers understand where students are at and how to get them where they need to go--" and you can just hold it right there, because annual assessments don't actually do that.

Hess agrees that anything that helps teachers be better is a Good Thing. But as always, he argues that the feds don't know jack squat about how to do that, so they should stay out of it.

Should the feds support education innovation?

No real separation on this issue. Both believe that the feds should fund innovation; they just express a disagreement about how carefully directed such innovation searching should be. In other words, should the feds be telling innovators what sort of innovation they should be innovating, or should they just look for people who are Doing Good Stuff and throw money at them?

There's probably a good conversation to be had about how much money to spend and what else we could otherwise be spending it on. At the very least, it would be nice to acknowledge that the search for a startling new idea that will all by itself revolutionize education is an exercise in unicorn farming. There are always ways in which public education can grow and strengthen and become better, but if you tell me you've come up with something that will completely change the face of public education and radically improve schools, I'm going to assume that you're either smoking something or selling something.

What is the proper role of the feds in education?

Cunningham just can't keep himself from speaking bite-sized chunks of PR baloney.

My view is clear: the core federal role is to protect kids. 

Well, that's a pretty thought-- but what does it actually mean.

Returning oversight to the states will put millions of at-risk kids at even greater risk. The notion that getting the feds out of the way will suddenly trigger a renaissance of innovation, accountability, and equity is a fairy tale.

Straw man. I've read few writers who suggested that there is a state ed renaissance waiting to emerge from under the federal boots. That's not the point. The point is that the feds aren't helping, at all. Plus the notion that federal bureaucrats are somehow more wise, virtuous, and corruption-free than state ones is simultaneously hilarious and insulting.

Hess redefines the question.

I'd say that our discussion has been about what Washington can do usefully and well within our federal system. The question is when federal activity will help schools, given all of their complexity, layers of governance, and dependence on personal relationships and local cultures, and when it's more likely to fuel rigidity, bad decisions, and counterproductive compliance.

Of course, a couple of their ideas for DC do rather match up. From Cunningham

Choice is an effective but limited strategy. Charters and vouchers will never serve all kids. We must also get better at improving traditional schools.

From Hess:

Play an active role in "trust-busting" and bureaucracy-taming—freeing up educators and enabling promising new providers to get a fair shot.

What did they miss?

I don't see much here that highlights a difference between the "conservative" or "liberal" position, because this conversation stayed clear of the area where these guys most agree. Modern education "reform" is the application of government principles pioneered by the military-industrial complex and later moved into social program arenas from the treatment of adults with mental issues to the management of the food system.

First, we declare that the government has an obligation to make sure that widgets are provided to all citizens who need them. Nominal liberals nod and say, that's great. Government should do something about the widget problem. Then policymakers create an assortment of widget-related programs that are co-created by folks in the widget industry; these are sold as solutions to the widget problem. Then the administration of these programs is handed over to corporations, and nominal conservatives nod because, hey, free market private sector solutions.

From that point on, it's simply an ongoing negotiation between government and corporate functionaries about how the money is going to flow. The corporate interest is in functioning with minimal government interference, while the government's only source of power is its ability to control that money flow. Add a revolving door so that it's hard to keep track of which offices the players are working out of, and you have the system in place.

It plays out in public as a battle of virtuous idealism versus heartless pragmatism, and that's reflected in this series of posts. Hess wins in terms of practical, specific, pragmatic, smart comments. Cunningham puts out more pretty thoughts with high moral purpose with no hint of how to really make it happen.

But all in all, this is a discussion that assumes more than it debates and it reads more like to VP's from the same corporation discussing the best distribution of corner offices than a deep-level discussion of the corporations fundamental direction.  The two agree on what should be done-- charters, privatization, test-driven accountability-- they're just arguing over who should get to say exactly how these things should be done, and not whether these things should be done in the first place. This is all about tweaking the ESEA-- neither is proposing any serious large transformation.

When it comes to "liberals" and "conservatives" and ed reform, we really are in a Coke and Pepsi world, with public schools the RC Cola of the marketplace. Or maybe we're actually milk-- a good healthy alternative that nobody even talks or thinks about until we finally come up with a cheesy PR campaign of our own.

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