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October 22, 2014 standard

Back in August, Dropout Nation explained how Oklahoma could have avoided losing its No Child waiver if it had simply moved quickly on validating the curricula standards to which it reverted after voting in May to ditch implementation of Common Core. As you may remember, conservative reformers who support Common Core such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli were particularly annoyed that the Obama Administration dared to hold the Sooner State accountable for not fulfilling the promise of having college- and career-ready curricula standards in place as a condition of the waiver.  They were also needlessly worried that the move would allow opponents of Common Core to portray implementation of the standards as a federal initiative.

Yet as I noted, Oklahoma could have easily kept its waiver if not for its own incompetence. More importantly, the state would likely regain the No Child waiver once the old standards, Priority Academic Student Skills, were labeled college- and-career ready. Which is what is starting to happen. Last week, the Sooner State’s higher education board validated PASS standards as college- and career-ready. Outgoing Supt. Janet Barresi announced it is submitting its No Child waiver proposal — essentially a rehash of its old plan with the PASS standards in place — and hopes for federal approval by year-end in order to avoid having to deal with telling districts and schools whether their schools are in need of improvement under No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision.

Yet the question remains: Should Oklahoma get a new No Child waiver? Your editor would argue no just on the principle that Obama Administration’s entire gambit has been a bungled exercise in policymaking that has weakened systemic reform and    . But that alone isn’t enough, especially since the administration has gone ahead and renewed waivers for six other states in the past two months. Particularly in the case of Oklahoma, the state shouldn’t get another waiver because it has proven that is incapable of actually fulfilling any of its promises.

This reality was made clear two years ago when the Obama Administration’s panel reviewing No Child waiver proposals raised numerous questions about Oklahoma’s plan. They were concerned that the A-to-F grading system it was planning to implement because Sooner State officials left several elements of the plan — including how much graduation rates would make up in the underlying calculation — were still “to be determined”, and didn’t include a student achievement growth model that would reward or hold schools and districts accountable for their work with kids in their care. In fact, the lack of a fully-developed grading program was so glaring that reviewers couldn’t determine if it would pass muster. [Let’s note the fact that A-to-F grading has proven so far to be not ready for prime time.]

Peer reviewers were also concerned that Oklahoma’s Annual Measurable Objectives only included data from kids enrolled during the first 10 days of a school year, leaving out crucial data on kids who may start attending afterward. Meanwhile the state’s plan for identifying so-called Focus schools, or those with wide achievement gaps, was criticized for obscuring data on achievement gaps for subgroups who are minorities in otherwise homogeneous schools. Essentially districts and schools can do poorly by, say, American Indian kids (who make up 17 percent of the Sooner State’s student population) and still not be held accountable for how they fail to work with the most-vulnerable of children.

As I noted back in August, many of these concerns expressed by peer reviewers have come to pass. As Bellwether Education’s Anne Hyslop noted last year in a study for the New America Foundation on the No Child waivers, 54 percent of Oklahoma schools previously identified under the law as needs improvement were allowed to escape scrutiny under the new accountability system developed under the waiver. Eighty-five schools likely serving 32,448 kids (or 4.8 percent of the state’s student population) were likely performing poorly, but went unidentified.

Meanwhile the failure of Sooner State leaders to quickly validate the old PASS standards as college- and career-ready is just one example of its ineptitude in handling education governance. Last month, preparations for a series of high school tests scheduled for December were delayed when McGraw-Hill’s CTB division withdrew from administering them. The snafu was caused by the state board of education’s decision to not approve a contract with the firm, a move driven by earlier ire over McGraw-Hill’s earlier mishandling of other assessments. [State officials approved a new vendor last week.] On one side, you can blame the state board for waiting way too late to kibosh the contract; the board should also take responsibility for not adequately telling Barresi to select any vendor other than McGraw-Hill. Yet blame must also be heaped upon Barresi and her staff for insisting on choosing a vendor who was already viewed negatively for its failures on handling state testing, and thus, wasn’t likely to get another contract approval.

Given Oklahoma’s record as of late, no one should reasonably expect its officials to properly execute any No Child waiver proposal. When you consider that the plan it had successfully submitted (and will put before the Obama Administration again) hardly merited approval in the first place, there is no way that the administration should grant that waiver. Especially when you consider the yawning achievement gaps between white and minority children.

Between 2003 and 2013, the gap in average scale scores in math between white fourth-graders and their Native schoolmates decreased by a mere two points (from 10 points to eight points), according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the gap between white fourth-graders and their black and Latino peers  increased by one point (from 25 points to 26 points between white and blacks, and from 15 to 16 between white and Latino kids). While Oklahoma has done better than the nation in narrowing the gap for Native students (the nation’s achievement gap actually increased by three points, from 20 points to 23), it hasn’t done nearly as the rest of the country in improving education for black and Latino kids. Under the circumstances, allowing Oklahoma to return to using A-to-F grading and other approaches that ignore achievement gaps only condemns poor and minority kids to low expectations and even worse educational malpractice.

The Obama Administration would certainly benefit politically from granting Oklahoma a new New Child waiver. After all, it could (but not likely will) calm down criticism from Republicans, movement conservatives, and conservative-oriented Common Core foes about the entire waiver gambit being federal overreach. But it shouldn’t. Oklahoma’s plan, shoddy as it was (and will be) won’t be fulfilled to any satisfaction. And Sooner State children would be better off with the state being under No Child’s far-superior accountability rules.

October 9, 2014 standard

Based on all the complaints from Washington State politicians and conservative Beltway school reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reported by Motoko Rich last Sunday in New York Times, you would think that the Obama Administration’s leveled a great injustice by not renewing the waiver given to it two years ago to ignore the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, as an update of a study by Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor shows, moving back under No Child will help spur reforms that will help children in the Evergreen State succeed. If anything, the Obama Administration should abandon its counterproductive gambit altogether and embrace the strong approach to accountability at the heart of the federal law.

From where Washington State politicians and Petrilli sit, the Obama Administration’s decision is “punishing schools and educators” because the state will now have to fall back on No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision, as well as the aspirational provision that states must ensure that all kids are proficient in reading, math, and science. This, along with No Child’s provision that states must make sure all kids are proficient in their core subjects by 2014, would lead more schools being labeled for under-performing than they supposedly should be. Meanwhile Petrilli and others believe that the Obama Administration is acting arbitrarily in violation of federal law. From where they sit, the administration cannot require states to fulfill promises they made as part of seeking the waivers.

Rich’s report (as well as the views of politicians and others cited in the piece) has garnered much-deserved criticism from Anne Hyslop of Bellwether Education for offering a misleading perspective on how No Child’s accountability provisions actually work in practice. This includes the fact that the 100 percent proficiency provision isn’t actually so (thanks to safe harbor provisions and other legalisms in place, it is actually 92 percent), as well as the fact that the school highlighted in the piece, Evergreen Elementary in the Seattle suburbs, wasn’t identified as being in need of improvement in 2012-2013 because of better performance. So I won’t spend time on this.

But Evergreen State politicians, along with Petrilli and other Beltway reform wonks, ignore a few inconvenient facts.

For one, they ignore the key reason why the Obama Administration declined to renew Washington State’s waiver: The state’s failure to meet its promise to replace its shoddy observation-based evaluations with more-objective data-based performance management tools using test score growth data. After all, implementing those new evaluations was a key condition of attaining the waiver in the first place. Because state legislators, at the behest of the National Education Association’s affiliate there, refused to pass a law back in February allowing the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As in the case of Oklahoma (whose own failures in getting its No Child waiver renewed was discussed on these pages in August), Washington State had ample opportunity to muster the political will needed to change the law in order to fulfill its promise under the waiver. So it deserves no sympathy for failing to do so.

There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration is rightfully holding Washington State accountable as it is supposed to. Sure, as your editor has long explained ad nauseam, the No Child waiver gambit is a grand misadventure that is damaging efforts at advancing systemic reform. At the same time, the administration is correct in holding Washington State accountable for not meeting the condition of its waiver. What is the point of the entire exercise if the federal government will let states off the hook? Just as importantly, and contrary to assertions by the Petrilli crowd, the Obama Administration is legally correct in doing so. The No Child waiver gambit is legally questionable because the administration is allowing states to ignore whole sections of federal law. But the administration is allowed to hold states responsible for how they spend federal subsidies. This includes any promises states made as part of attaining waivers.

In any case, Washington State’s return to AYP should be welcomed and not disdained. Why? Because it has been proven that No Child’s accountability provision is critical to spurring reforms that help children succeed.

Washington State would have kept its No Child waiver if state legislators voted to change state law needed to fulfill its promise of overhauling teacher evaluations. Photo courtesy of Washington State Wire.

This was made clear this week in Ahn’s and Vigdor’s study on the impact of AYP on improving student achievement in North Carolina, a new version of research developed last year for the American Enterprise Institute on the impact of No Child’s accountability measures. Freed from the efforts of AEI’s education czar, Rick Hess, to spin the results in support of his opposition to accountability and focusing on achievement gaps, Ahn and Vidgor point out that AYP has “beneficial” effects on student achievement. By shining harsh light on the low performance of schools as well as prescribing consequences for continued failure, No Child’s accountability approach forced districts to focus on improving student achievement, especially for poor and minority children they have long ignored.

In the case of North Carolina, for example, the mere threat of No Child’s sanctions alone led to many schools that were identified as failing for the first time to take on the kind of reforms needed to improve student achievement. It also worked for schools failing AYP for the first time; on average, a Tar Heel State school failing AYP improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. Even better, the failure of a school to achieve AYP led families to transfer their kids to better-performing schools under No Child’s school choice provision allowing them to escape, which led to improvements in their math achievement.

The benefits are even better when perpetually failing schools are forced to take corrective action under No Child accountability. A poor-performing North Carolina school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation. An under-performing Tar Heel State school forced to restructure after six consecutive years of laggard performance improved did improve student achievement in math by six percent of a standard deviation.

No Child accountability was particularly helpful for poor and minority kids. Ahn and Vigdor found that a student in a school that missed AYP saw math achievement improve by four percent of a standard deviation; a student in a school missing AYP for five consecutive years improved math achievement by nearly 10 percent of a standard deviation. For poor and minority kids, AYP has proven to be a critical tool in helping them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success. None of this is shocking. As Dropout Nation has noted, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that accountability (along with other reforms) have led to declines in illiteracy and innumeracy among poor and minority kids (including a 10 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013).

The benefits of AYP are also reaped by high-performing kids, according to Ahn and Vigdor, countering arguments by Petrilli and others that No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps led to high-performing students being shortchanged. Children in the top percentile of student achievement in schools missing AYP saw small gains in math and reading achievement. This corresponds with Dropout Nation‘s analysis of NAEP data, which shows that average reading and math scores for top-performing students improved between 2002 and 2011 (versus almost no change between 1998 and 2002, before No Child was implemented), while the percentage of students reaching such levels increased since its passage (including a four percentage point increase in the number of students reaching such levels in reading between 2002 and 2013).

Though Ahn and Vigdor concede that North Carolina’s implementation of AYP — including merit bonuses to teachers who increased student test score growth — may have ameliorated any possible “adverse impacts” on either top-performing or struggling students, they conclude that high-performing kids can benefit from accountability. If anything, No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps — and helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality teaching and curricula — benefits all children. And contrary to what Petrilli and others have argued, curricula and learning, especially in music and arts, hasn’t been narrowed either (something, by the way, that has been proven by both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research founder Robert Morrison).

Former President George W. Bush, along with congressional leaders such as George Miller, Ted Kennedy, and John Boehner, got it right with No Child 11 years ago. Obama should have built upon the law, not try to eviscerate it.

This isn’t to say that AYP is perfect or even an unqualified success. The fact that No Child allows a school to fail for six consecutive years before triggering an overhaul has never been a good idea; failure mills should be forced to restructure within at least three years instead. There’s also the fact that AYP focuses solely on schools and not on the laggard traditional districts whose failures are the reason why they are under-performing in the first place; forcing districts to overhaul their operations is as critical to helping kids succeed as restructuring and shutting down schools. The fact that AYP doesn’t focus on low educational achievement for young men of all backgrounds, the most-persistent symptom of the nation’s education crisis, has allowed districts to continue practices such as overlabeling of young men as special ed cases that toss more futures into the abyss.

No Child’s school choice option could have been more powerful than it has been. In fact, the school transfer option has often failed to work effectively in many districts because families weren’t fully informed of their options until June, when they are on their way to summer vacation and cannot exercise any choice. The fact that the school choice option was limited to just schools operated by the district (which may often be just as bad as the failure mills kids were leaving) instead of a wide array of charters and parochial schools outside of it has also blunted its usefulness.

Yet by holding states and districts accountable for — and forcing focus on — helping poor and minority kids they long ignored — No Child’s AYP provision has spurred reforms that have helped more kids get onto the path to lifelong success. This, in turn, points out a reality that neither the Obama Administration nor Beltway wonks such as Petrilli fail to admit: That No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958.

For the first time in the history of American public education, federal education policy set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics, and finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. It also made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children, as well as focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Without No Child, there would be no Common Core, no overhaul of teacher evaluations (or focus on revamping how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers), or no expansion of school choice options. Even the most-sensible reforms touted by the Obama Administration — especially Race to the Top — wouldn’t have happened without No Child in place.

Which is what makes the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit so disappointing. By dismissing the lessons gleaned from No Child’s success — and ditching the accountability tool that worked so well — the administration has weakened systemic reform on the ground. The ditching of AYP (along with allowing states to replace the 100 percent proficiency provision with Plessy v. Ferguson-like targets) has allowed states and districts to go back to subjecting poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This is particularly true in states such as Indiana and Florida that have implemented A-to-F grading systems that essentially allow schools proclaim they are high-performing even when they have wide achievement gaps.

By allowing states to ignore AYP, the Obama Administration also took away valuable information on performance that is critical for shedding harsh light on school and district performance that is key to accountability. The effort has turned federal education policy into an incoherent mess, fueling opposition to a strong federal role in supporting reform. It has even weakened the advancement of the second wave of reforms — most-notably implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — critical to helping kids gain the academic proficiency needed to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

But in not renewing No Child waivers for Washington (as well as for Oklahoma), the Obama Administration has an opportunity to set things right. More states are up for waiver renewal — and many of them are struggling to meet the promises they made in order to be allowed to ignore federal law. As Dropout Nation has constantly pointed out, the administration shouldn’t have granted waivers to most of these states in the first place. Of course, the gambit shouldn’t have been undertaken either. The administration should decline to renew all of them save for those who have actually fulfilled their promises. [That the Obama Administration moved today to renew waivers for Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah is a sign that it wants to continue on this disastrous path.*]

The Obama Administration could then take these last two years of its existence to advance reforms through the No Child framework, as it should have done in the first place. This includes issuing a new round of waivers that keep AYP in place, and at the same time, adjust it to address its shortcomings as well as take advantage of what has been learned about accountability over the past decade.

Certainly this will be displeasing to many. But it is clear that returning to AYP will help more children than continuing a waiver gambit that has become a present obstacle to systemic reforms the administration and the movement support.

Featured photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

*Updated to include this afternoon’s decision by the Obama Administration.

September 16, 2014 standard

These days, Bobby Jindal is grasping at every straw he can to help his all-but-dead campaign for the Republican presidential nomination gain traction. From demanding today at a Heritage Foundation event that House and Senate Republicans ditch the Affordable Care Act and implement an alternate healthcare plan, to floating a quixotic plan to end the nation’s dependence on oil on Monday, to his continuing desperate effort to halt execution of Common Core reading and math standards he once strongly supported, the once-respectable Louisiana governor is doing all he can to win over movement conservatives and moderate Republicans needed to gain the nod.

Yet you won’t find Jindal talking much about addressing the long-term defined-benefit pension and unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs that are now burdening the balance sheets of every state government. For good reason. Jindal has done almost nothing to address the Bayou State’s massive pension deficits. Two years ago, the Pew Center on the States reported that the Bayou State’s collection of pensions were only 56 percent funded. Because of the state’s fiscal fecklessness — along with the high costs of the deals it made with local governments and public-sector unions — the state was faced with paying down $51 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, along with another $10 billion in unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs (for which Jindal and his predecessors have put away no money to cover). Moody’s Investors Service determined last year that the state’s pension shortfalls, when accurately determined, were 30 percent greater than revenue. Even with such high-profile spankings, Jindal, along with his colleagues in state government, have still done nothing to address the problem.

To see how badly Jindal has handled the Bayou State’s long-term fiscal woes, just look at the latest comprehensive annual financial report for the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, the defined-benefit pension for teachers and other school employees.

The pension officially reports an underfunding of $$11,.3 billion for 2012-2013. Based on the official numbers, the insolvency is 72 percent higher than the $6.6 billion it reported in 2007-2008, the year Jindal took office. Just on these numbers alone, it is clear that Jindal, along with his colleagues in the state legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, have done little to reverse the pension’s tenuous status as a going concern.

But as with most state pensions, TRSL is understating the level of its insolvency. For one, thanks to the pension’s smoothing efforts (which allow it to recognize gains and losses over a five year period), only a fifth of its losses were recognized and counted against liabilities. More importantly, TRSL assumes an overly inflated rate of investment growth of eight percent. This in spite of its own admission that it has only achieved a five-year return rate of just 4.8 percent on its investments, which, by the way, is lower than the 5.2 percent five-year return rate Wilshire Associates says has been experienced by the financial markets. The pension admits that its assets (on an actuarial basis) decreased by 5.4 percent between 2008 and 2013, even as its benefit payouts increased by 30 percent (from $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion) in that time.

To get to the true level of TRSL’s insolvency, Dropout Nation uses a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return. [Moody’s bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Based on those numbers, TRSL’s true insolvency is likely $15.4 billion, or 36 percent higher than officially reported. If Louisiana state government was forced to make up the shortfall over 17 years, taxpayers would have to contribute an additional $905 million a year, or 92 percent more than the $984 million paid into the pension last year. This, in turn, would have meant that the state would have had to carve out an additional three percent of its $29.7 billion budget just to shore up the pension.

For Louisiana, addressing TRSL’s insolvency is especially critical because more Baby Boomers in the teaching ranks are heading into retirement. Each year, 1,602 Bayou State teachers covered by TRSL have retired every year between 2004 and 2013, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. Each retiree, on average, collects an annual annuity of $24,358. [Four-point-eight percent of them, or 2,899 retired teachers and school leaders, are collecting annual annuities of $54,000 a year or more.] So TRSL can easily expect to pay out at least an additional $39 million a year — and even that is an understatement: The pension paid out $92 million in new annuities last year thanks to the retirement of 3,095 teachers and other school workers.

Certainly Jindal, who only holds one seat on TRSL’s 17-member board through the state department of administration, can’t take all the responsibility for its woeful condition. After all, the Bayou State legislature holds two seats on the pension’s board (as well as exercise ultimate control over its finances through appropriations and budgeting), while State Treasurer John Kennedy also sits on the board. They, along with Supt. John White, who sits on the board (as well as predecessors including former state education boss Paul Pastorek), must join the governor in taking responsibility for its virtual insolvency.

Yet Jindal can’t be let off the hook. As seen in his effort to halt Common Core implementation, as well as with his more-laudable efforts to expand the Bayou State’s school voucher program, Jindal has been more than willing to aggressively take on issues, especially if it also helps his ambitions of higher elected office. The fact that Jindal has done little more than sign into law House Bill 61, which would have put new state’s higher ed employees into a cash-balance pension plan before it was struck down by the state supreme court, shows how little Jindal cares about addressing the very fiscal issues that, along with education, can make the difference between Louisiana emerging as a leading state and it continuing its woeful position as the worst in everything that matters.

Jindal still has a little time left in office to take on pension reform in a meaningful way. One solution must start with increasing the contributions paid by current workers into the pension. Teachers contribute just 25 cents out of every dollar contributed into TRSL in 2013; this is eight cents lower than the contribution level in 2008. Increasing teacher contributions to at least 37 cents of every dollar put into the pension — the level of contribution made by teachers a decade ago — would at least be a good start.

But it won’t be enough because increasing contribution levels alone doesn’t reduce the growth in unfunded liabilities that comes with additional retirements. This will only come if Louisiana takes an even bigger step: Moving existing and new teachers out of TRSL and putting them into a hybrid plan that features a defined-contribution element into which they can save as much as they choose for retirement. Certainly Jindal will have to work hard to rally the two-thirds support in the legislature needed for passing such a plan. But he could work with his likely successor as governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, to make it a reality.

For Louisiana, school districts, and ultimately, taxpayers and children, this move would immediately slow the growth in TRSL’s liabilities. It is also beneficial for younger teachers. Given that half of them are likely to leave the profession within their first five years, moving to a portable hybrid retirement plan would actually allow them to reap the full rewards of their work.

The Bayou State faces a pension crisis nearly as daunting as its educational woes. But if Jindal is serious about leaving office with some kind of a legacy worth having, especially in light of how his counterproductive battle to halt Common Core implementation has ruined him politically, he should tackle it with vigor.

August 28, 2014 standard

Your editor could opine about some of the amazing aspects of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal move yesterday to file a federal suit in his ambition-driven jihad against Common Core reading and math standards. Start with the fact that Jindal, along with other movement conservative Common Core foes such as FreedomWorks and the Pioneer Institute (which harrumphed about the suit in a press release) are demanding the kind of judicial activism they often oppose. In fact, FreedomWorks complained that last week’s ruling by a state court judge against Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation (a clear violation of state law) was such even when it wasn’t so.

There’s also the fact that Jindal’s suit rails against the Obama Administration’s support for states voluntarily implementing Common Core when he championed that very help for the Bayou State’s reform efforts four years ago. Jindal’s flip-flop was laid out in great detail last week by Louisiana Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez in his ruling against Jindal’s executive order attempting to halt the standards, as well as by your editor back in June. It is hard for Jindal to square his proclamation that he is against any federal support for systemic reform against declarations five years ago that Louisiana was in “great position” to win federal Race to the Top funding.

But none of this is surprising. As Dropout Nation has pointed out since June,, the Louisiana governor’s effort to kibosh Common Core implementation, both within his state and now on a national level, is driven less by either ideology and principle than by a desire to bolster support for his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination among movement conservatives. None of this has worked out in Jindal’s favor at the polls. But in filing this latest suit (along with earlier, unsuccessful litigation at the state level), Jindal believes he can still get a heads-up against other Republican aspirants by saying that he was the only one who took legal action against Common Core implementation. But what do Common Core foes get out of this? For them, Jindal’s 29 pages of fury and fantasy allows them to further their incredible narrative of implementation as some sort of federal coercion.

But in the process, both Jindal and his fellow-travelers against Common Core have ensured themselves of embarrassment on a national stage in the one place they can’t win the day: Courts of law where facts count.

But let’s get to the gist of Jindal’s suit. In it, Jindal and his allies are asking a federal district court judge to invalidate the rules governing Race to the Top because the entire effort supposedly violates federal law — including the General Education Provisions Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the law authorizing the creation of the Department of Education itself. How? Because in Jindal’s mind, Race to the Top has put the Obama Administration in the position of controlling Louisiana’s curricula and that of other states. How? By awarding funding to those states who voluntarily implemented Common Core along with other reforms such as eliminating caps on charter school growth.

That Race to the Top also included a round that funded the work of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia developing Common Core-aligned tests makes the federal coercion even stronger than one would realize. How? According to Jindal’s attorneys, the fact that PARCC and Smarter Balanced detail their work on developing the tests means that it is explicitly developing curricular materials. Since the Obama Administration granted Race to the Top money for that purpose, this means that it is directly controlling curricula in violation of federal law.

As mentioned, Jindal’s argument isn’t a new one. Pioneer has argued that line since 2012, when it recruited former Bush Administration lawyers Kent Talbert and Robert Eitel (along with Stanford University’s resident anti-Common Core activist, Bill Evers) to pull out a report questioning the legality of federal support for Common Core implementation. More importantly, Jindal’s narrative is based on that of Pioneer and its fellow Common Core foes, most-notably Neal McCluskey of the libertarian Cato Institute, all of whom view any federal support for the standards as coercion.

Yet Jindal (along with his allies) leaves out a few inconvenient facts — and not just that he led Louisiana’s successful effort to gain $17.5 million in Race to the Top (including Common Core implementation) before he decided he was against it.

There’s the fact that Race to the Top is a voluntary effort under which states can win federal funding so long as they implement a set of reforms they have chosen on their own. The fact that a mere 18 states ended up receiving Race to the Top funding (out of 50) since 2010 and that most of those states only garnered funding for teacher evaluation, school data system, and charter school expansion efforts (and not simply for Common Core implementation) makes lie of Jindal’s coercion argument (and that of his fellow Common Core allies). Because no aspect of Race to the Top involved the Obama Administration actually blessing any curricula — and since states could refuse to either implement Common Core or develop their own form of college and career-ready standards as part of their grant proposal — Jindal can’t prove that the administration’s actions violate GEPA or any federal statute. [That the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which governs Race to the Top, likely supersedes any other education laws on the books, is also a consideration that Jindal has ignored.]

If anything, the federal government has proven far too willing to accommodate states that haven’t fully met their promises. New York, for example, hasn’t returned any of its $696 million in Race to the Top funding even though it still hasn’t fully implemented the teacher evaluation system at the heart of its successful grant request. Only Hawaii was considered at high risk of losing its $75 million grant — and even the Aloha State has managed to keep its funding in spite of struggles on implementing its promised teacher evaluation system. Put simply, the Obama Administration could easily prove in court that it hasn’t engaged in any coercion, much less any control over state policymaking.

Then there’s the fact that Jindal fails to admit that states were on the path to developing Common Core’s long before the Obama Administration came into the picture. Starting in 2004, Achieve Inc., through its American Diploma Project, worked with 35 states (including Louisiana) to help them develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. By 2008, a year before the formal development of Common Core, Achieve released Benchmarking for Success, a report which laid out much of the framework for how Common Core’s standards would be crafted as well as offered guidance to states in revamping standards on their own.

A year later, the work on developing common standards came to fruition when governors and chief state school officers through their two policymaking groups — the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers — began developing what are now Common Core reading and math standards. The two groups gleaned the lessons from Achieve’s efforts, along with the lessons gleaned from earlier standards development efforts by reform-minded governors and standards-and-accountability activists. Especially given Jindal’s role in Louisiana’s successful move to approve Common Core (including passage of his school reform package in 2012 that makes implementation of the standards one of its centerpieces), Jindal can’t prove coercion.

Meanwhile the argument that the Obama Administration is coercing states into implementing Common Core is laughable. In fact, they actually requested federal support for the effort. More importantly, federal support for reforms at the state level is nothing new or illegal. From the passage of the Morrill Land Grant in 1863 to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, administrations Republican and Democrat have encouraged systemic reforms such as providing comprehensive college-preparatory curricula.

The Reagan Administration’s release of A Nation at Risk in 1983 led to the launch of some 25o commissions and panels working on developing curricula standards and other matters. A decade later, the Clinton Administration’s passage of Goals 2000 as well as the reauthorization of the Improving America’s Schools Act, the immediate predecessor of the No Child Left Behind Act, furthered reforms already beginning in states. Then came No Child in 2001, which gave reform-minded governors the tools they needed to advance reforms and overcome opposition from traditionalists within their states. No Child also supported what would be the coming together of states on developing common curricula.

This federal support for state-level reforms extends to the development of standardized testing regimes such as those provided by PARCC and Smarter Balanced. It was the passage of the National Defense Education Act that led to the first wave of standardized testing regimes. Four decades later, the Improving America’s Schools Act and then No Child, would support state level testing efforts. For Jindal and Common Core foes to prove that the Obama Administration acted illegally, they would have to argue against what can only be called settled law.

Simply put, Jindal has no case. Even worse for Common Core foes, the Obama Administration, along with supporters of the standards, could make mincemeat of their entire argument. The facts fail to support the narrative conjured up out of thin air by Common Core foes. Luckily for most of Jindal’s fellow-travelers against the standards, they don’t work in institutions of higher education; as is, particularly for once-sensible reformers, their fanciful federal coercion narrative, along with their willingness to associate with demagogues such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, radio talk show host Glenn Beck, and pundit Michelle Malkin, hasn’t covered themselves in any glory.

[Let’s also note that the case can be made that the federal government hasn’t done enough to hold states accountable for meeting their promises under Race to the Top. This need for accountability, by the way, would also make it hard for Oklahoma to sue the Obama Administration over its move today to end its No Child waiver; the state voluntarily implemented Common Core a year before applying for a waiver, and had promised to have college-and-career ready standards of some kind in place in exchange for being allowed to ignore federal law. Your editor will elaborate more on that tomorrow.]

If anything, Jindal’s lawsuit will end up backfiring on Common Core foes by allowing supporters of the standards to jujitsu their fanciful narrative on the national legal stage.

Meanwhile Jindal’s lawsuit also gives Common Core supporters a new opportunity to make some key points. The first? That the Obama Administration’s support for Common Core is no different than what earlier presidents — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — have done for other state-level reform efforts: Provide much-needed (and as Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute would likely note, much-desired) cover for reform-minded governors and school leaders to undertake critical efforts opposed by traditionalists entrenched in American public education’s super-clusters of failure.

The second: That Common Core implementation is a key step in addressing the reality that far too many kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, are not getting the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society. Given that the federal government is charged under the U.S. Constitution and by laws such as No Child with defending the civil rights of black, Latino, Asian, and poor white children, the case can be made that not enough is being done by the Obama Administration to support implementation.

And finally, by so fervently opposing Common Core implementation, especially with conspiracy-theorizing that is intellectually senseless, the motley crew of movement conservatives, hardcore progressive traditionalists, and even once-sensible reformers have essentially revealed themselves to be far more concerned with comforting their ideologies (and in the case of traditionalists and some school choice activists, their financial interests) than with building brighter futures for kids. Especially in light of the data on how few of our most-vulnerable kids are being provided college-preparatory learning from the moment they enter school, opposing Common Core implementation is morally indefensible. Common Core foes cannot claim to be concerned about the futures of children when the consequences of their opposition harm them the most.

By the time Jindal’s lawsuit gets tossed out of court, the governor will have destroyed what’s left of his future political prospects as well as ruined what was once a respectable legacy on the school reform front. But for Common Core foes, the damage may be even worse than that. The good news for supporters of the standards is that once again their opponents are their own worse enemy.


August 21, 2014 standard

Opponents of Common Core reading and math standards have spent the past couple of days crowing about survey results from polls conducted by Education Next and Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Organization. But your editor isn’t all that concerned about those results. For one, as great leaders such as Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan have always known, doing the right thing is never popular. This is especially true with implementing Common Core, which disturbs many of those opposed to the standards because they don’t believe that all children (especially those from poor and minority households) deserve high-quality education. More importantly, the success of the standards will ultimately be seen in their execution in classrooms and throughout American public education. And finally, given that opinion polls are only as good as the questions are asked (as well as how they are asked), who really knows whether either Education Next or PDK/Gallup’s results fully reflect public sentiment.

But your editor does care about data on how many of our children are getting the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula they need for success in adulthood. Which is why yesterday’s report from ACT on the readiness of high school graduates for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education is disturbing. Once again, we have been reminded that far too few of our children are getting the knowledge they need for lifelong success. And that should be far more disturbing to Common Core foes than their ideological, political, and personal opposition to the standards.

The fact that just 11 percent of black high school grads taking the ACT scored at college-ready levels — the lowest percentage for every racial subgroup taking the exam — in three or more categories is absolutely shocking. The numbers are even worse when you break down each category. Black children trailed in every category, with just 17 percent of them scoring at college-ready levels on the English portion of the exam, a mere 14 percent scoring at such levels on the math exam, and a rock-bottom 10 percent on the science component of ACT’s annual test.

This means that far too many black high school graduates didn’t get the college-preparatory learning they needed to be ready for either ACT or for success in college. Which, in turn, means that they will likely struggle mightily in higher education, ending up in remedial education courses that will lead them out of the door of colleges and into poverty.

But the news isn’t any better for the rest of our children. Just 18 percent of American Indian high school grads scored at college-ready levels in three or more categories on ACT; only 17 percent of Native students performed at college ready levels in science while a mere 20 percent scored at such levels in math. Only 23 percent — or one in four — Latino high school grads were able to score at college-ready levels; just 21 percent of them performed at college-ready levels in science while only 29 percent demonstrated their college-readiness in mathematics.

As for white high school grads? The news isn’t all that good. Sure, 49 percent of them scored at college-ready levels in three or more subjects. But that means that one out of every two of them didn’t get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they needed. Just 52 percent of white high school grads scored at college-preparatory levels in math, while only 46 percent scored at such levels in science. And only 54 percent of white high school grads scored at college-ready levels in the reading portion of the ACT exam. Given that math and science mastery are the key gateways into the high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in this increasingly knowledge-based economy, this means many white children — along with black, Native, and Latino kids — are being locked out of middle-class futures. And that doesn’t bode well for either the nation or the communities in which they live and will likely stay.

It isn’t as if many of these high school graduates were just a question or two away from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmark. One out of every two high school grads missed the mark in math and science by three or more points; two out of every five missed the mark in reading by that much. Put in perspective, only one out of every 7 high school grads taking ACT missed the college-readiness mark by less than two points in reading and science, while one in 10 missed the goal by that much in math.

Meanwhile ACT’s trend data on college readiness should also give everyone pause. Between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of high school grads who demonstrated higher ed readiness in three or more categories tested barely budged for all groups. Black and Latino high school grads showed only sluggish growth, with percentages increasing respectively, by one percent and two percent between 2010 and 2014. The percentage of white high schoolers demonstrating college-readiness increased by a mere one percent in that same period. Even for Asian high schoolers, who have the highest performance levels on ACT, the percentage demonstrating college-readiness barely budget at 57 percent.

What about states that aren’t implementing or halted use of Common Core? In North Carolina, which halted implementation last month, just 30 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while a mere 33 percent scored at such levels on the math portion of the exam, and only 23 percent of Tar Heel State graduates scored at college-ready levels on the science portion; all high school grads in the state take ACT. In Missouri (where 76 percent of students take ACT), one out of every two high school grads scored at college-ready levels on ACT’s reading component, while only 45 percent and 42 percent of grads scored at college-ready levels on the math and science portions of the exam. [Given what we know about how few students in the Show Me State are being provided college-preparatory learning, the results aren’t shocking.] And in South Carolina, which rolled back Common Core in June, (and where 58 percent of grads took ACT), only 41 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of the test, while just 39 percent and 33 percent of grads scored at such levels on the math and science components.

Meanwhile in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation has been defeated, the need for the standards can be easily seen in the scores for high school grads in that state. Just 37 percent of Bayou State grads scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while only 31 percent and 29 percent of grads reached such levels on the math and science portions. The need for comprehensive college-preparatory curricula standards is crystal clear for both the states that have halted Common Core implementation and those where politicians are fighting to roll them back.

Let’s be clear: As shocking as the ACT results are, they aren’t surprising. Just 37 percent of high school grads scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a one percent decline from levels in 2009. Just 16 percent of black high school graduates, along with 24 percent of Latino schoolmates, and 26 percent of Native peers scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, barely budging from levels four years earlier; white and Asian high school grads did little better, with 47 percent of each group scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels, little changed (for white kids) and a two percentage point decline (for Asians) in that time.

Young men of all backgrounds, in particular, are struggling mightily in college-and-career readiness. Only 33 percent of young men graduating high school in 2013 scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading, unchanged from levels in 2009. As a result, young men graduating high school trail their female peers by nine percentage points in 2013; while the gap shrunk by two percentage points between 2009 and 2013, that’s only because of a decline in the percentage of young women high school grads scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels. The problems are particularly acute for young black men. Just 13 percent of young black men graduating high schoool read at Proficient and Advanced levels, trailing their female schoolmates by five percentage points. But the gaps for young white men are even larger; the percentage of them scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels was 11 percentage points lower than that for their female peers.

The reforms spurred by the No Child Left Behind in 2001 have reduced the percentage of high school grads who are functionally illiterate. But the demands of the knowledge-based economy means that the greater focus must be on providing kids with college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching) they need to be successful in a world in which what they do with their minds is more-important than what they do with their hands. Yet until the implementation of Common Core, few kids were being provided this learning.

Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to NAEP’s 2009 high school transcript study. A quarter of all grads taking NAEP were subjected to curriculum that didn’t even include algebra or any kind of rigor. The importance of comprehensive college-preparatory curricula can be seen in this year’s ACT results: One out of every two high school grads who took what ACT defines as a core curriculum (including three years of math and science), scored at college-readiness levels on the reading and math portions of the exam.

This is a problem that begins long before kids reach high school. As Dropout Nation noted last year, just one out of every five eighth-graders in seven states that mandate all kids take Algebra 1 actually did so. Even worse, most students haven’t been getting the literacy and math curricula and instruction they need to take on college-preparatory work once they enter high school. Thanks in part to the gatekeeping of gifted-and-talented programs and the overlabeling of kids, especially young black men as special ed cases — all of which are legacies of the racialist policies of American public education’s past — many kids are kept from getting the learning they need and deserve. This is especially true for kids from poor and minority backgrounds As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation determined in a 2007 study,  3.4 million children from low-income households were among the top-performers in their schools, yet were unlikely to get the college-prep curricula necessary to continue their success into high school and beyond.

What is clear from the ACT results, as well as from other data, is this simple reality: We cannot continue providing our children with substandard curricula and standards unfit for them to build better lives in adulthood. Patricia Levesque is correct when she argued yesterday that we cannot continue to perpetuate the failures of American public education on another generation. This is why implementing Common Core, along with other reforms, is critical to helping all kids succeed. And why those opposed to implementing the standards should hold their heads low in shame for their immoral denial of high-quality education for children better-deserving than the worst they get.

Featured photo courtesy of Chloe Crane Leroux.


August 19, 2014 standard

The good news for reformers, and ultimately, for the children of Louisiana, is that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards has been kiboshed by a state court judge. But reformers, especially Common Core supporters, must keep in mind that there is hard work ahead to make the promise of the standards a reality for all kids, especially those in the Bayou State long stuck with the worst American public education offers.

Earlier this evening, Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez handed down a preliminary injunction in Navis Hill v. Jindal, preventing the governor from enforcing the executive order issued in June ending Common Core implementation. Writing that Jindal provided no evidence for justifying his move, Hernandez also determined that the governor offered no basis for his claim that Supt. John White and other state education officials illegally contracted with the PARCC consortium to implement tests aligned with the test. Hernandez then noted that Jindal’s move was causing havoc within the Bayou State’s districts, charter schools, and private schools because of the consequences for kids, families, and teachers (the last of which gain bonuses based on performance improvements measured by the exams).

Most importantly, Hernandez noted that Jindal didn’t have any constitutional authority to even interfere with Common Core implementation because the state legislature (at Jindal’s behest) has authorized the state education department to proceed. In the process, Hernandez also laid out Jindal’s flip-flopping on Common Core, showing how he supported implementing the standards before he decided to oppose them. Wrote Hernandez: “The Louisiana Constitution is clear… [the state legislature and education department] supervise and control the public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

For Jindal, who has already declared that he would appeal Hernandez’s ruling, this is the latest loss he has suffered in his anti-Common Core tirade. Earlier this year, state legislators refused to go along with his effort to halt implementation of the standards, only offering a compromise measure that would allow the Bayou State to amend aspects of the standards it desired. [Jindal rejected that measure.] Last week, his amended motion in Navis Hill asking for the court to cancel the state’s memorandum with PARCC was tossed out of court. Then on Monday, a suit filed against White and the state board of education by a group of legislators allied with Jindal on opposing the standards was also thrown out of court.

In the process, Jindal has destroyed what was until recently a strong legacy on advancing systemic reform during his seven years in office. He also ended up losing allies among reformers and school choice activists, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options (who helped back the Navis Hill suit). By engaging in his political jihad — which has included attempting to destroy the career and reputation of White and state board president Chas Roemer — Jindal has exposed for national display his longstanding penchant of being petty and vindictive in dealing with opponents and otherwise allies. And reformers at the national level are angry with Jindal because his antics have wounded efforts to overhaul how states govern public education (especially in Arizona and Indiana), weakening arguments for placing control of policymaking into gubernatorial hands.

Meanwhile Jindal hasn’t even succeeded in his goal of boosting his likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination: The Bayou State governor is attracting support from only two percent of Republicans and one percent of independents in this month’s McClatchy-Marist University Poll, trailing 10 other likely candidates, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (both Common Core supporters) and Common Core foes such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his colleague in Wisconsin, Scott Walker (who is facing a tough re-election bid).

As your editor noted last month, Jindal’s gambit hasn’t won over movement conservatives otherwise uninterested in education because they know that Jindal has flip-flopped his position on Common Core, and thus, see him as just another cheap-suit politician, Meanwhile Jindal has gained no ground with moderate Republicans and independents, who just don’t see him as a compelling representative of the party. And the antics of late are concerning to those movement conservatives who are already complaining about what they consider to be acts of executive overreach by President Barack Obama; Jindal’s behavior rightfully makes him unsuited for the presidency in their minds.

All in all, Jindal’s future political prospects are likely done. This isn’t to say that Jindal won’t continue his vindictive ways. School choice activists should expect the governor to do nothing on their behalf next year when it comes to the budget for the state’s voucher program. This means they must continue building the already-strong support for expanding choice and continuing the program, including reaching out to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee and Jindal’s probable successor in the governor’s office.

Jindal’s defeat is good news for Bayou State children — and for those working hard to address its longstanding failure to provide all kids with high-quality education. The challenges are definitely tremendous: Thirty-two percent of Bayou State eighth-graders read Below Basic, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 10 percentage points greater than the national average; only 24 percent of eighth-graders in the state read at Proficient and Advanced levels (read: have been successfully prepared for success in higher education and career), trailing the national average by 12 percentage points. The average Bayou State eighth-grader is a grade level behind his peer nationwide.

But implementing Common Core successfully will be no easy task. There’s Jindal, who will stand in the way of successful implementation (if he cannot stop the effort altogether) by using his budgetary authority. Reformers and Common Core supporters will have to hold his feet to the fire, using every tactic available to keep the dollars flowing and put Jindal into the corner where he belongs.

Beyond Jindal, Common Core supporters must work closely with districts, charter schools, and teachers to ensure that implementation is a success. This starts with ensuring that curricula (including materials used in classrooms) are aligned with the standards. As seen in other states, this can be tricky, especially if teachers use inappropriate or even explicitly political texts in ways that can lead to Common Core foes claiming that the standards are a tool for political indoctrination. Presenting successful approaches used by high-quality teachers in other states in using original texts in their work is key. The move this week by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch, which reviews curricula and other materials, will also help. [That it took so long for Common Core supporters to address this issue is shameful, by the way, and is one reason why opponents have garnered support.]

Another key move lies with setting high test proficiency cut scores on the PARCC tests. This is important for two reasons. The first? Setting high expectations is key to reaping the promise of implementing Common Core and, ultimately, helping our children get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they deserve. Secondly, high cut scores are necessary because families, communities, and policymakers must know the truth about how well school operators and those who work within them are providing our Bayou State kids with high-quality education. Working with White on communicating these expectations and realities to the public — especially to suburban districts which have long-perpetuated the myth that they are providing high-quality education to the kids they serve — is crucial.

Common Core supporters and reformers have scored an important victory against halting Common Core implementation, both in Louisiana and in the nation as a whole. In the process, they have all but mortally wounded a shameless, immoral politician and helped all children get opportunities for high-quality education. Now it is time to get to the hard work of implementation so the promise for kids becomes reality.

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images.