Monday, June 1, 2015

Facing the Truth

Chester Finn, Boss Emeritus at the Fordham Thinky Tank, took to the Fordblog last week to deliver some tough love about Kids These Days and Facing the Truth. In the process, he demonstrates just how much truth we have to ignore on our path to the truth.

Amid way too much talk about testing and the Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to what parents will actually learn about their children’s achievement when results are finally released from the recent round of state assessments (most of which assert that they’re “aligned” with the Common Core).

Finn notes that since the standards became more rigorous (a highly arguable point, but okay) and the tests raised the putative bar (also highly arguable) there has been "vast anxiety" (I prefer "free-floating miasma of dread") about the bad news "that is apt to emerge." Will parents freak out because they can't handle the truth?

There's an assumption embedded there (the news will be bad because, really, your kids suck) and Finn addresses it obliquely by explaining why the news will probably be bad-- CCSS higher standards, new assessments are more rigory, we are moving the goalposts but we have to, new tests always result in a score drop.

Finn is worried that states will soft-pedal the truth (is it soft-pedal as in lazy bike driving, or soft-peddle as in the opposite of a hard sell?). Finn is worried that states will play to "parents’ innate conviction that their kids are fine even if others aren’t." I don't doubt that some parents experience an irrational exuberance when it comes to their kids' abilities, though I also don't doubt that some parents simply know and understand their children better than teachers, schools, or guys at thinky tanks. Should we be Facing the Truth that schools and bureaucrats and policy wonks will never know students well enough to make useful pronouncements about each students abilities, skills, knowledge, and value? Nope-- that is one of the many Hard Truths that we are not interesting in facing today.

But now Finn is going to tell us a story of Why We Have Common Core.

Recall—as if it could possibly have slipped your mind!—that CCSS arose from the awareness that far too many young Americans were leaving school ill-prepared for either college or career, while too few states had set their K–12 expectations anywhere close to college and career readiness.

Oops. There goes another Hard Truth. Because I can recall this particular genesis of Common Core just about as well as I can recall the hot date I went on with Cheryl Crow in my forties. I can recall them equally well because they are equally fictional. It's true that I was not in the back rooms where CCSS was brewed up, but I know that if we, as a nation (or a loosely connected group of independently functioning states that were in no way being coerced by the federal government) had wanted to address that problem, we would have A) collected data that showed such a problem existed and B) convened a group of pre-eminent educational experts to address it. Odds that such a process would have resulted in Common Core? One in a gazzillion.

Finn's story is a sales pitch, not an origin story. The Core was cooked up to meet those needs just as surely as tobacco companies were started by guys who, staring at a blank canvas, said, "What is something we could invent that would help people feel more refreshed and manly?"

But Finn says, no-- we needed CCSS because so many young folks were graduating from high school with passing grades, and yet were so incompetent that American jobs were sent overseas. Because we will now ignore the Hard Truth that India and China were not offering superior workers so much as they were offering unregulated workplaces and worker willing to work for pennies a day.

The central mission of Common Core is to design English and math standards from kindergarten through twelfth grade such that a young person fully meeting those standards will actually be prepared to succeed in college without remediation, or to succeed in a job with good future prospects. 

And yet the Hard Truth is that there is not a speck of data or evidence to support the notion that the Common Core mission was accomplished. But that is also a Hard Truth we are not interested in today. But we are getting closer to that Hard Truth.

Causing parents and other caregivers to instead see things clearly, grasp reality, and understand the implications is no small feat. It must begin with accurate information. But what if reality is fuzzed up and its implications glossed over?

I have a harder question. What if we don't have any accurate information? What if our supposed information is just the result of a single poorly designed test given on a single day that doesn't tell us a damn thing?

Finn is unhappy with the reports being generated by PARCC and SBA, and on this I agree with him-- the reports, which we've looked at before and which he links to here, are vague pablum, no better than checking off one box on "Your child is doing A) great, B) okee-dokie, C) not so hot, or D) awful lot of room for improvement." If the goal is to tell anyone who the student is doing, they have the worst cost-to-information ratio of any instrument ever developed.

But Finn is concerned that these reports fail to tell parents that their children are dumb and not fit for college and their teachers probably suck. They don't use the words "college and career ready" (or "college and career unready") hardly at all.

Admittedly, it’s harder to make college readiness predictions about nine- and eleven-year-olds, and nobody wants to be deterministic. But parents who erroneously suppose that their child’s academic performance, like his BMI, is “about right” deserve a wake-up call much earlier than eighth grade.

The Hard Truth that we're supposed to be consulting is that our children, even our small ones, suck and Kids These Days need to be slapped awake and their parents straightened out toot suite because, dammit, the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket because your third grader isn't scoring high enough on the reading test and you are not properly alarmed about it and will probably even let the kid have supper tonight!

Finn compares the cause for alarm to a child's weight. If the kid is grossly obese, shouldn't responsible adults tell his parents that this is a future health hazard (which sends my brain on a little side track where I imagine Chester Finn at a big box store telling passing parents that their children are too fat and they should do something about it, because I bet that would end well).

There are two (at least) problems with the fat analogy.

The first is that we have scientific and medical reasons to believe that a three-hundred-pound ten year old is in trouble. However, there is not a lick of evidence, scientific or otherwise, to support the notion that a student who scores poorly on the Big Standardized Test will face real problems in the future (in fact, another Hard Truth is that one study found that about 50% of the students who scored a mere "basic" on the NAEP still completed college). He does tie this to an example of a seventh grader who is reading and mathing on a fourth grade level-- but you know what? Hard Truth-- we could spot and diagnose that kid long before anyone started wasting our time with Common Core and PARCC/SBA tests.

The second problem is that-- well, aren't Fordham guys like Finn supposed to be conservatives? When did conservatives start saying, "The government should decide what a person is supposed to be like, tell people when they aren't measuring up to government standards, and use government pressure to try to make them be the way the government says they should be." Does the fat analogy mean that Finn thinks Michelle Obama's food and exercise initiatives didn't go far enough? I grew up around conservatives and live cheek by jowl with conservatives and damned if this stuff doesn't sound nothing like what I understand conservativism to be. Just saying.

And while we are on the subject of Deeply Confused Conservatives-- are these dopey parents who can't or won't face the Hard Truth about their children the same parents that the Fordham thinks should be given a free range of choices about how to best educate their kids? Are these parents dopes when their kids are in public school, but charter schools will make them suddenly wise? Folks like the Fordham crowd seem to have the utmost faith in parental judgment while simultaneously having no faith in it at all. I am curious about how they manage the cognitive dissonance.

Finn's basic complaint is that parents aren't being forced to understand the Hard Truth that BS Tests prove that their children are dopes, and that said parents should be alarmed and upset. The Hard Truth that Finn doesn't face is that the PARCC and SBA provide little-to-no useful information, and that parents are far more likely to turn to trusted teachers and their own intimate knowledge of their own children than to what seems to be an unfair, irrational, untested, unvalidated system.

Yes, some parents have trouble facing some truths about their own children. There can't be a classroom teacher in the country that hasn't seen that in action, and it can be sad. I'm not so sure that it's sadder, however, than a parent who believes that his child is a stupid, useless loser. Finn seems really invested in making that parents hear bad news about their kids; I'm genuinely curious about what he envisions happening next. A parent pulls the small child up into a warm embrace to say, "You know, you're not that great." A parent makes use of a rare peaceful evening at home with a teenager to say, "I wish your test results didn't suck so badly. Would you please suck less?" What exactly is the end game of this enforced parental eye opening?

Okay, I can guess, given the proclivities of the market-based reformster crowd. What happens next is that the parents express shock that Pat is so far off the college and career ready trail and quickly pulls Pat out of that sucky public school to attend a great charter school with super-duper test scores. The market-driven reform crowd wants to see an open education market driven by pure data-- not the fuzzy warm love-addled parental data that come from a lifetime of knowing and loving their flesh and blood intimately, and not even the kind of chirpy happy-talk data that come from teachers who have invested a year in working with that child, but in the cold, hard deeply true data that can only come from an efficient, number-generating standardized test. That's what should drive the market.

Alas, no such data exists. No test can measure everything, or even anything, that matters in a child and in the child's education. No test can measure the deep and wide constellation of capabilities that we barely cover under headings like "character" or "critical thinking."

Folks like Finn try hard to believe that such magical data-finding tests can exist. They are reluctant to face the Hard Truth that they are looking for centaur-operated unicorn farms. The unfortunate truth is that they have dragged the rest of the country on this fruitless hunt with them.


  1. The "Fat" analogy *is* apt because the parents (and kid) (and anyone who sees the kid) can tell that the kid is fat- doing a BMI check isn't going to actually reveal any useful data that people didn't already know (much like the tests).

    1. Fair up to a point -- but BMI is used to pronounce kids that don't look fat to be actually fat. So in that sense, the BMI test is like the standardized tests -- you think your kid is doing OK, and the teachers agree, but give them a standardized test (give a third grader a calculus test), and find out it isn't so....
      Beyond that, actual data suggests that people with higher BMI's (but not extremely high ones, i.e. people who are so obese that it affects their ability to move) are healthier than people with lower BMI's. So, the "cut points" for a BMI table are in the wrong places -- another analogy with test scores. The cut points are set in the wrong places -- and as to those who are super-duper at taking standardized tests (such as our ruler Bill Gates), the cut-point there should be "something is wrong with this person". I don't want to be mean, or judgmental, and for example, in the case of Gates we know what it is (greed and lack of empathy with other human beings) -- but the reality is our great country was built by the middle class who are middle of the road test takers, and our great country is being destroyed by the greed of people like Gates. Re-tooling education in the image wished by Gates, then, is analogous to letting an anorexic person set the menus for the rest of the population -- you get hunger for most people, and eventually an enormous quantity of debilitating heart disease.

  2. Laugh out loud funny. I needed the laugh. Thanks

  3. Can I just say that it scares the Bejeezus out of me (and a lot of Marylanders who have a clue) that this man, along with Andy Smarick, has just been appointed to Maryland's State Board of Education?

    Yeah, I'm planning my exit strategy...from Maryland.

    1. I just hope you don't run out of places to go. : (

  4. I don't often laugh out loud when I'm reading, but I did when I read that Finn said "Admittedly, it’s harder to make college readiness predictions about nine- and eleven-year-olds". Ya think?

    Then I laughed again at your image of Finn "at a big box store telling passing parents that their children are too fat".

    And it is something to wonder at that the "Fordham crowd" has such unwavering, unquestioning faith in magical charter schools.

    But it is a shame that "they have dragged the rest of the country on this fruitless hunt" for "centaur-operated unicorn farms."

  5. I wanted to cry at your response to Checker because he spouts his views with little or no evidence of the predictive validity of the so called tests to measure college and career readiness and yet the money in education follows people like Checker and his friends (Bill Gates most notably), who can keep spouting that the Common Core and its assessments are the way to determine our children's future. Please, let's try to determine a systematic way to make legislatures (mostly big money seekers themselves) listen to your views. What about an ALEC for the truth?

    1. Journalist doing journalism - nice takedown of ALEC in Georgia: