Sunday, May 10, 2015

Is the Right Splintering on Testing?

Last week both Rick Hess (American Enterprise Institute) and Robert Pondiscio (Fordham) turned up in the pages of US News, each to post his own response to the opt out movement. Since both of these guys come from the Fordham-AEI-Stanford axis of market-based reformsterism, it's interesting to note that they seem to disagree. Of course, the right is no more monolithic than any other segment of opinion, but it's still interesting to look for points of debate within reformsterdom.

Pondiscio presented Four Lessons To Learn from the Opt Out Debate, which was really a list of four things that opt-outers need to wise up about.

4) Unions are driving discontent. Pondiscio and Mike Petrilli have both tried to sell this idea, but it is a pig that will not fly. Has the union in NY successfully stirred up agitation among parents over everything? That's a clear "no." The union could not roil up opposition to the Big Standardized Test if the parents of New York thought the test was just peachy. One could argue that the teachers simply removed one last obstacle to opting out (fear that opting out would hurt beloved Miss Othmar) and let nature take its course.

Bottom line-- the union could not create discontent out of thin air.

3) Black test scores matter. Here Pondiscio tries to sell the "opt out is a middle class white thing" narrative, which ignores a great number of details (and makes the odd assumption that white = middle class and black = poor which-- really?) It also tries to sell the pretense that non-wealthy non-whites have really been benefiting by having their neighborhood school bulldozed and their democratic voices silenced.

2) Don't follow the money. Pondiscio's argument here is that everything in a school costs money.

"The test prep industry is lucrative," writes anti-testing NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz, who also points to a report that calculated $669 million spent on tests in 45 states, or $27 per student. That's it? The desk on which your kid takes his tests costs four times that amount.

Pondiscio is arguing that "money-making" does not automatically equal "evil and untrustworthy." But the difference between the test and the desk is that the desk has a proven and recognized purpose in the classroom. The test is there because of an artificially created "need," and since the test manufacturers were themselves instrumental in creating that artificial "need," they are suspect.

1) Respect parental choice. I saved this one till last because it is the crux of the issue. The opt-out movement has put many people (at least those who care about some level of intellectual consistency and honesty) in a bind. If you think parents should get to choose their own schools, it seems awfully inconsistent to say they should not get a choice when it comes to testing. (There's also a problem if you're anti-school choice but pro opt-out-- I have an answer for that, but that's for a whole other piece. I just didn't want you to think I'd missed that).

Those of us who value testing need to do a better job of explaining to unhappy parents what's in it for them. But we also must respect parental prerogative, whether we like it or not. 

Rick Hess went first, but he still calls Pondiscio on that last point.

Oddly enough, suburban parents seem oddly ungrateful for these efforts to help them see that their children’s schools actually stink. When reformers wonder why these parents don’t get it, the usual culprit is “messaging.” And the usual solution is better PR. 

Hess's piece "Opt out parents have a point" is pure Hess. Whatever you think of his goals and track record, Hess is smart, and he doesn't hesitate to call his fellow-reformsters on weak arguments, like a white hat hacker strolling in to say, "You can't argue that. It's weak and stupid and they will punch a hole in you right here--" and then he punches the hole himself to prove the point, even as he subtly plays the angle to strengthen other pieces of the argument. Of all the people I read, few are as good as Hess at playing the chess game of arguments and angles and looking dozens of moves ahead.

So Hess points out that parents are not idiots and the opt-out revolt is not some crazy tin hat fluke, even as he doubles down on the idea that opt out is white suburban thing. In Hess's narrative, "Middle-class parents are right to question whether today's education reforms will help their kids." That line is the sub-heading of his article.

Reformsters, Hess suggests, have gotten tied up in trying to convince middle-class parents that their schools actually suck, and see parents as irrational for resisting such enlightenment (insert Duncan mom quote here).

But there’s another possibility. It’s that these parents are being reasonable when they worry that the reform agenda, whatever its merits when it comes to schools steeped in dysfunction, does more harm than good for their kids. Reformers have tended to dismiss this possibility, while seeking to convince middle-class parents that their schools are much worse than they may realize. 

Hess is offering a smoother formulation of Merryl Tisch's clumsy compromise offer that "better schools" could be exempt from test-bombing. This will be a tricky argument to pull off-- how to tell higher-income schools, "No, we won't use the same ugly blunt tools on you that we'll use on the poor schools," when the argument for poor schools has always been, "We'll use the same instruments on you that we use on the rich kids."

Hess offers three concrete proposals. Make testing more transparent, top to bottom. Broaden the "vision of excellence" beyond simple math and English. Drop the redistribution of teachers planning for creating excellence everywhere.

Meh. Transparency is great, but unlikely. Hess does always seem to have disliked the narrowing of curriculum that testing has driven. Nobody anywhere has anything remotely like a real plan for redistributing "good" teachers, so objecting to that is a freebie.

But Hess's real Big Idea here is to bridge the gap between poor and middle class parents so that they are not fighting each other, and to listen to what they want and try to get it to them.

Damn, but I admire Hess's precision of argument and language. Here's what he says:

Maybe the solution is not to berate these parents, but to ask what they want for their children, find ways to help make that happen and seek opportunities to promote reform that benefits a broad coalition of low-income and middle-class families. 

This is not the blunt, bald-faced call for school choice (and charters) that Pondiscio made; it's an artful and careful laying of the foundation for the same argument.

That would make sense. The market forces wing of the reformsters is most enamored of choice (and charter) in schools. It has already pretty much abandoned Common Core-- they don't need it and in fact it now becomes an argument in favor of charters ("Get your kids away from that stupid Common Core"). Now, if they're willing, they can ju-jitsu the opt-out momentum straight into an argument for a market-driven choice (and charter) system. I don't think there's any real splintering happening at all.

The market wing will always like some sort of instrument for generating data, because they believe that free-market choices have to be based on some sort of data. But the reformster market wing (schools would be better with free-market profit-judged competition) is not the same as the reformster elite betters wing (the Lessers should shut up and let their Betters tell them what they need) and it's a mistake to confuse the two. The opt out movement will continue to confound and annoy the elites because, to them, it's a bunch of the Lessers acting up and misbehaving. But if the marketeers can set that aside, they can use the opt out movement to their advantage. I'm pretty sure Hess can see that; now he's just got to clue in his allies without tipping off the rest of us.


  1. I really can't stand Hess's writing. To me he doesn't seem like a clever writer or a logical thinker at all. It just seems like a bunch of disconnected gobbledegook. I can't even follow his train of thought. You're more perceptive than I am if you're right that he's trying to send signals to other reformers about how to get the middle class on board with charters. It's hard to tell who his audience is since he soooo annoyingly pretends to be impartial. Even knowing he's a charter guy I would never see it amongst all the smoke and mirrors of non-sense. It seems too subtle even for other reformers to see.

    I mean, he starts out saying that reformers think that middle class parents are stupid to think (1) their schools are good, (2) standardized tests don't help teachers teach, and (3) it's not a good idea to use test results to evaluate teachers. He concedes that maybe they're right to think dozens of hours of testing and narrowing the curriculum isn't good.

    He says these parents are "not convinced" test results will be used to benefit their kids because they're afraid their "good" teachers will be taken away and given to the "low-income" schools. I have never heard of any parent saying that and I don't think it's at the top of their minds. What about them thinking the tests don't help teachers teach? Are they right about that or not? And are they right or not about their schools being good? Apparently this is immaterial.

    Hess says that reformers need to ask these parents what they want for their kids and find what they have in common with low-income parents. He doesn't mention asking low-income parents what they want for their children, so how is one to find the commonalities? But without asking any parents anything, he has the solutions:

    First, state officials should be more "transparent" about "whether and how" tests can improve education for all. So what's the answer? Can tests improve education for all, and how? Do state officials know the answer but they're not being "transparent" because it's a deep, dark secret? His second solution, if I try to use logical inference, sounds like it's to have standardized tests in everything, including the arts. His third solution is, instead of redistributing the good teachers, who evidently only exist in middle class schools, we should recruit more good teachers who want to teacher in "other environs". According to the context, I would logically interpret "other environs" as meaning "middle class schools". But given who he is, does that mean charters? Then he says, "We can recruit both the missionaries and those who just want to teach calculus." Because of course we can't teach calculus in low-income schools?

    I guess the only reason for writing the article must be so that reformers can cleverly read between the lines and fill in the gaps and grasp the code that they're supposed to recruit middle class parents to opt in to charters to have less testing and a more rounded curriculum. And all the rest of the words are just gobbledegook. To me, any normal person reading this would just think that none of it makes any sense at all.

  2. Seriously, they're comparing the cost of a desk to the cost of a test? How long does the desk last? The test? How much money do we spend on test prep? Desk prep? Sheesh.

  3. The opting out of standardized tests in New York is a completely parent organized and initiated phenomenon. The union leadership had nothing to do with it. On February 5, Rick Hess moderated a panel at the American Enterprise Institute called "Is the 'new' education philanthropy good for schools? Examining foundation-funded school reform". The video is four hours long, but quite a revelation about the thinking of this right-wing think tank. I posted an article with comments and highlights of the panel on my blog at

    1. Thanks for the link. The Reckhow/Tompkins-Stange paper is quite eye-opening.

  4. Psst... Hey "middle class" parents, don't worry. "Reform" is only for "other" parents' children.