Saturday, August 27, 2016

Repackaging Reformsterism for States

If you've never heard of the National Conference of State Legislatures before, don't worry. Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has thrown some as-yet-unspecified amount of edu-policy power back to the states, I'm sure we'll be getting to know lots of swell state-level groups.

NCLS decided a couple of years back to take a look-see at education, and that has come to fruition in a new report, "No Time To Lose: How To Build a World Class Education System State By State." After eighteen months of meeting and chewing, this report is what has popped out. Let's take a look, shall we?

Off To a Bad Start

The names on the marquee are not necessarily the same old reformsters, but from the very first sentence used to announce the report, the rhetoric is recognizably reformy.

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

You know, I'm the last person to claim that our education system is without blemish or sin, but as soon as someone starts trying to paint state education systems as a dangerous international crisis, I suspect shenanigans (though I do like the turn of phrase in "overwhelmingly underprepared"). The intro then goes on to say that the US education system was "the best educated in the world" a half century ago, and now I know that this report is a baloneyfest.

Damn you, Estonia, our eternal international rival.

When it comes to this sort of thing, you're doing one of two things-- you're either honestly trying to find some answers, or you are dishonestly spinning the information to support the answers you've already chosen. Within the first two sentences, NCSL has signaled that this report is not going to be entirely honest. First, they've tried to scare me, and whenever someone tries to scare you, it means they're trying to herd you in a particular direction. Not the mark of an honest argument. Next, if you're going to try to convince me that our Big Standardized Results have dropped to the pits from an earlier pinnacle, you'd better bring some data to back that up, because everything I've ever seen shows that the US has lagged behind other nations on international tests for as long as those tests have existed (and that the characterization of the lag is not entirely accurate, either).

But the entire genesis of this "study" was a general freakout over PISA results in 2014. The idea was to do some research and talk to all these countries that are so much more awesomer than the US. 

In this intro, NCSL shows that it has just learned tons from the failed reformism of the past decade-plus. No, just kidding. They dispose of the entire history in one sentence, chalking all that failure up to "silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches."

So the buildup is not encouraging.  But the report is only 28 pages. Let's go ahead and take a look. Maybe it performs better on a granular level.

Hey, Who Concocted This Thing, Anyway

A bipartisan group of 28 veteran legislators and legislative staff, along with several partners from the private sector

Yikes. And not to belabor the obvious, but here's one more confabulation about education without an educator at the table (though in fairness, some education experts were "consulted" who almost fit the description of an education expert). Honestly, is there any other policy area-- any at all-- in which experienced professional practitioners in the field are routinely ignored?

Ditto Intro

Here's the executive summary again, same as it was in the promo. The sentence designed to Create a Sense of High Urgency is now a big-fonted pullout quote. BE AFRAID!!

Actual Data ?

Oh, did you think the report was going to provide some data to back up its panic-stricken insistence that the US is in an education death-spiral? You were incorrect. NCSL is just rolling right on with the chicken littling of this alleged crisis with nothing more than scary quotes and vague threats. Did I mention that they worked on this damn thing for eighteen months? The report says that "we can not ignore the fact" that the US is falling behind [insert the rest from above sentence]. But "we cannot ignore the fact" is an ocean away from actually establishing that what you're calling a fact, is, in fact, a fact.

At one point the writers throw in an "according to recent reports" to assert that the US workforce is not as educated as others. Which reports? They don't say. I mean, I suppose they looked at the reports eighteen months ago when they first started and they just kind of forgot what actual report they're talking about.

The report is going to throw some numbers at us in a few pages. But for right now, just breathe in the scent of fear and failure.

What Can States Do Now

But let's just leap ahead, pretending that we actually know we have a crisis on our hands. NCSL offers up a list of handy things that states can do right now.

First, the state can "build an inclusive team" of all sorts of stakeholders-- hey, look! Teachers make the list this time. And here comes some really practical advice about building consensus in this large and diverse group-- just don't bother. Getting an actual 100% consensus is hard, so instead, settle for like 70%. So build an inclusive group, but don't try to include everybody in what the group actually concludes. They think this advice is so good that they include it as another big-fonted pullquote.

Next, study and learn from top performers. Take trips. Steal ideas. As always, "top performers" means "people with high test scores." The report advises

Reconsider much of what you think you know; abandon many ideas to which you have long been committed; and embrace new ideas...

None of this applies to questioning things like judging education performance based on scores from a narrow standardized test, nor does it include questioning whether or not there's any link between getting those test scores and being successful as a country. Not even the asserting that the US is "falling behind" the world. None of those things that we think we know should ever be reconsidered or questioned, ever.

Create a shared statewide vision. Well, presumably the vision only has to be shared by 70% of the people involved.

Benchmark progress. You know that international benchmarking that the Common Core supposed did, but didn't, for any number or reasons including that it's not really possible because hardly anybody in the world thinks that's how you improve an education system.

Get started on one piece. Pick some part of your big vision and implement it, and when you do that successfully, tell everyone how awesome that was and build momentum for doing another piece. Did we skip the part where your vision should be made out of parts that can function independently? Does "do what you can and do it quickly" sound suspiciously like the famous last words of Common Core promoters?

Work through messiness. It will be messy. Just keep plugging. I actually don't disagree with this as a general approach to life.

Invest the time. Not, apparently, the money. Just the time. This will just happen in a lot of different ways in different states, so time.

Oh, Now We've Got Facts

Did we mention the PISA? Look here's a charter that pretty much shows we've been doing poorly on this since it started in 2000. We must do better, because if too many nations surpass us in all-important standardized test taking, we will have no hope of being the best standardized test takers in the world. Are there any other benefits to doing well on the PISA?

NCSL also trots out the PIACC, a test from the PISA people given to adults to test adult competencies. Seriously? How does anybody pay the slightest attention to this. How can such a test measure anything except whether or not the adult population is so compliant that they will actually bother to try on a Big Standardized Test even though they are fully grown adult humans. Honestly, sometimes I think these people have never met actual humans. Anyway, that test says that millennials are terrible.

And what attack of test-based chicken littling would be complete without the NAEP results. I'm not going to bother with these yet again. You can type "NAEP" into that little box at the top left and find what I have to say.

Also, the report asserts, international comparisons are valid. Because....? Um. Because they say so, I guess. Other countries also have poor people and immigrants. Therefore all comparisons between nations are valid.

What Reform Did Wrong

NCSL says we should face facts about what reformsters have done so far in their quest for a "silver bullet." That would be the "piecemeal" thing from before, where states did silly things like "increasing teacher pay without demanding better preparation" and-- insert sound of needle being dragged across surface of vinyl record (yes, that's a thing, you impudent whippersnapper) because exactly where did that happen, again? Which state is famous for having jacked up teacher pay and then getting hit with terrible teachers because of it? In what corner of the country are either parts of that proposition true?

They throw in a couple of true things (e.g. increased early childhood support with doing anything for K-12), but they are so far in the weeds that they also toss this out as an example of Reform Problems That Have Happened:

Using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that all teachers are receiving job-embedded, high-quality, on-going learning 

Not quite. Let me fix that for you:

Using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that tests were valid or reliable or that the instruments for using test scores to score teachers were themselves reliable or valid

Also missing from this section-- an explanation of how "piecemeal" was bad, but the recommended "implement one thing by itself quickly" is a good idea.

What Top Performers Get Right

Now for the portion where we find out what characteristics of these great countries we should emulate.

#1 Students arrive at school ready to learn, and extra support is provided for struggling students. 

Not bad, though I would argue that schools should be student-ready, not the other way around.

#2 World-class teaching profession in world-class instructional, where every student has access to highly effective teacher.

Man, I hate that "access" thing. For instance, at work I don't want a chance to get good pay-- I want good pay. NCSL says we get better teachers by selective recruitment, rigorous training and licensure, thorough induction, a career ladder, professional work environment, good leadership, and high pay. And some of that is worth having (I'm not going to travel all the way down this side track right now), but it's like saying our country would be better with less racism and corruption. Yes, it would. But saying so isn't really a plan, is it.

#3 A good vocational education system

Yes, absolutely. We have had this in my county for almost fifty years. I am always shocked to discover places that don't have it, though of course we're still passing through a period of insisting that everyone should want to go to a four year college.

#4 Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system. 

Ah, yes. A centrally planned system. Maybe we can revisit it every five years. Central planning has always worked out well in the countries that tried it before. Should be a slam dunk this time, too.


Next, we take a look at three of the ten countries that were studied. You might be able to predict the list of ten, but just in case you're new to this game, they are Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Poland, Singapore, Taiwan, Ontario, and Alberta (CA). The three that get special attention are Finland, Singapore and Ontario.

I am not even going to bother reading this part. Because, as it turns out, the United States is not Finland, Singapore or Ontario. For that matter, Montana is not New Hampshire and Iowa is not Alabama. And to pretend that you can adopt parts of another culture piecemeal is the kind of thing that these folks have talked about for so long that they've stopped noticing it's bananas.

Heck, several of those countries do not use alphabetic languages, but logographic instead. Maybe the key to creating world class education is to lose the alphabet. Maybe our learners would do better in a country with single-payer health care. Maybe our learners would do better in a cooler climate.

Don't get me wrong-- there are always things we can learn from other people and places, no matter how different. The notion that the current state of a nation's education system (or any other aspect of that nation's culture) somehow exists in an independent current state that is not deeply tied to the history and past of the country and culture is a puzzling piece of historical illiteracy. The idea that we can just lift an aspect of the culture into our own with no regard for either that country's background nor our own is just bizarre, like thinking we can transplant an oak branch onto a grapevine by just picking a branch off the oak tree and placing in the vine.

Much of these sorts of papers and their suggestions, whether looking at the large picture of educational systems of specifics like uplifting the teaching profession, consist of saying, "Well, we'll just make our culture work differently when it comes to this." Which is no more helpful than telling a person whose only tool is a screwdriver, "Well, just drive those nails in with a hammer."

And About Those Systems, Anyway

This whole paper is soaked in one other long-standing bad reform feature. It focuses entirely on educational systems, and looks at those systems as they serve the state.

That's a two-pronged fail. Systems thinking inevitably ends up valuing the system over the humans operating within it. Students, teachers and parents have to brought into line so that they don't interfere with the smooth operation of the system. Systems and human beings clash (as phone and cable companies, the DMV, and phone menus constantly remind us), and in the education system, we must always come down on the side of the tiny humans in that system. They system must regularly lose, and systems don't take that well.

As that implies, the system certainly can't be primarily there to serve the state by turning out good little meat widgets that improve employment statistics and international standings. The system has to serve the students, first and foremost. And yet in twenty-eight pages, there's nothing that really addresses making sure that a school system meets the needs of students or their families or the communities in which all of those reside.

And by making the education system a servant of the state, the report also slides past the question of what the state's responsibility to the schools should be. How does all this play out in a state like New Jersey, where the legislature does not even give the financial support to schools called for by its own laws?

And (we're almost done, I swear) the whole entire unappealing structure is built on the same old foundation of sand, the notion that there is some meaningful link between the BS Tests and the strength and success of a nation, a link that is often presumed and never proven.

This report is slick and empty (and you may want to flip to the end to see if your favorite legislator was in on it), but after being out for several weeks, it doesn't seem to have made much of a splash, which is just as well. Better if it just sinks away quietly, even if it is eventually followed by more of the same.



  1. OF COURSE Utah's Senator Howard Stephenson was on this panel. He has been trying to destroy public education for 20 years now. Under his "watch" as Senate Education Committee Chair, funding has been cut and charter schools have expanded and strengthened. He's a clear and present danger to Utah schools.