Friday, July 5, 2019

CAP & Fordham Shoot The Moon

When the Moonshot For Kids competition first crossed my screen, I took a moment to consider it as a topic for commentary, then moved on. But then this tweet popped up today:

Well, now.

There's a lot to unpack here.

First of all, the partnership. The Center for American Progress is theoretically a left-tilted thinky tank, a place where many Clinton staffers were parked in stasis awaiting the ascension of Hillary to the White House. But they have been relentless in their advocacy for corporate ed reform, to the point that I literally ran out of ways to title blog posts some variation of  "CAP tries pushing Common Core and Testing again" (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples).

So while it may seem odd to the casual observer to see CAP teaming up with Fordham, which is a notably right-tilted thinky tank, the two organizations, despite any apparent political tilts, are full-on fans of corporate ed reform. Their partnership here is just a reminder that when it comes to education, some progressives are just free market conservatives in sheep's clothing.

But this idea.

What's education's version of the self-driving car?

Do you mean something that's promoted relentlessly but is still far off in the future? Or do you mean a program that faces major obstacles that tech-cheerleaders just sort of gloss over?

Perhaps you meant a tech-based solution that strips all participants of power and agency and gives it instead to a bunch of programmers? Or did you mean a new tech initiative that promises to make a bunch of people rich?

Or do you mean something that can fail with really catastrophic results?

It's a holiday weekend, so maybe that tweet comes from some CAP intern who just didn't think things through. But "self-driving car" is an analogy that I would pick were I trying to argue against most ed reform ideas. Except-- no, there it is in Mike Petrilli's pitch.

They should have stuck with the moon shot analogy. But let's look past the wrapping, the overall idea of search for "the rationale, potential, and possible design of a sizable new investment in basic and applied research and development that leads to innovation on behalf of America’s children" and see if the actual goals are worthwhile.

They're looking for an idea that would help achieve one of the following goals:

* Cut in half the number of fourth graders reading “below basic”
* Double the number of eighth graders who can write an effective persuasive essay
* Shrink by 30 percent the average time a student spends in English-language-learner status
* Double the amount of high-quality feedback the average middle schooler receives on their academic work
* Ensure that every student receives high-quality college and career advising by ninth grade
* Double the number of students from low-income families and students of color who graduate from high school with remediation-free scores on the SAT, ACT, or similar exams
* Double the number of young women who major in STEM fields

Cut number of below basic fourth graders? Many states have already figured this one out-- just give third graders a test that they must pass to get into fourth grade. Then your fourth grade classes are only populated with pre-proven reading test takers. Boom-- mission accomplished.

Double eighth graders who can write an effective persuasive essay? Also easy. Just dumb down your definition of "effective persuasive essay," (which you'll have to do anyway in order to assess on your standardized writing test) until it's just a paint-by-numbers template, then teach and drill the template. You won't teach anyone to write, but you'll get those test scores up.

Magically make ELL students learn English faster. Sure. Or I suppose we could change the criteria for ELL status.

Double high quality feedback? Well, again, we need a helpful definition of "high quality feedback." At any rate, this one is easy peasy-- smaller class sizes, more work time for teachers during the day. Or did you want a solution that wouldn't cost schools money?

High quality college and career advising by ninth grade. Again, those words. "High quality." Again, an easy solution-- hire more counselors (of course, you'll have to find a deep pool of people who can cope with the challenge of talking to a young person about college and career-- "Chris, please put down the blocks so we can talk about how you can best be useful to employers in the future.")

Raise SAT and ACT scores for non-white non-wealthy kids. I suppose discussing why we should just scrap these tests entirely is not the direction these corporate types want to go.

Double the number of women who major in STEM. That seems pointless unless we somehow address the fact that women are driven out of STEM employment in huge numbers.

These goals are all about changing numbers; they are an open invitation to apply Goodhart's or Campbell's Laws, in which focus on a measurement leads to that measurement being rendered useless. This is about coming up with ways to make better numbers. Yes, one way to improve numbers can be (though not always) to improve the underlying reality those numbers are supposed to represent. But those techniques are hard to scale, expensive and not easy to devise. There are always simpler methods.

If you want a piece of this action, the group is open to submissions of 500 words until the end of the month. But remember-- this is not about coming up with a self-driving car. It's about coming up with a marketing package that makes it look like a self-driving car has been perfected. It's about doing a good job of using modern CGI to fake your presence on the moon without all the hard work, expense and challenge of actually getting a rocket up there.


  1. A thing that education reform has taught me:

    1. Politicians don't talk much about education, because

    2. They will hire DC-insiders to make policy.

  2. Peter
    You have the perfect forum here to run your own "Marshot!"
    We're looking for an idea that can divide the number of edu-meddlers by infinity.

  3. I love insistence on defining terms; what does this actually mean?

    It can't be policy, no, it has to be "...development ideas that will unleash innovation..." WTF does that mean?

    What a stupid idea for a simple, quick fix for complex issues. Obviously the only way to achieve pretty much all of these goals is a smaller teacher/student ratio for more one-on-one attention.