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April 9, 2014 standard

Last year, Dropout Nation had cast a skeptical eye on the Broad Foundation’s selection of four districts — Houston, San Diego Unified, Corona-Norco Unified in California’s Orange County, and Cumberland County, N.C. — as nominees for its annual Broad Prize. From where your editor sat, neither of the districts lived up to the Broad Prize’s goal of highlighted what high-performing urban districts should be nor did they go beyond achieving first-generation reform aims of improving graduation rates and basic literacy.

This skepticism was proved correct when it was revealed this past December when data from the most-recent National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that Houston, which won the Broad Prize, saw a five percentage point increase in the number of functionally illiterate fourth-graders as measured by the federal test of student achievement, as well as excluded 34 percent of fourth-graders in special ed and 30 percent of eighth-graders in special ed ghettos from the exam.

So your editor couldn’t help but be a little pleased today when Broad Foundation announced that Gwinnett County, Ga., and Orange County, Fla., were the finalists for this years’ edition of the award. Not necessarily because both districts epitomize what school operators should be doing in an age when children must attain college-preparatory learning in order to succeed in the economy and society — more on that later — but because Broad acknowledged that it had to do better in weeding out districts doing better by kids from those who are just achieving average results. Yet the data on the two districts selected shows that Broad Foundation may need to raise the bar even higher.

By acknowledging that most of the urban districts considered for the Broad Prize were merely making “incremental” progress instead of aggressively improving student achievement of children — especially those from poor and minority households — in their care, Broad Foundation has sent a message to reformers that they can no longer simply give pats on the back for merely making the grade. The fact that the committee in charge of awarding the prize selected just two finalists (instead of five as it did the last go round) also shows that Broad Foundation is attempting to both raise the bar for success and be more-discriminating in which districts it will pick. Particularly for districts such as Houston which have rested on the laurels of early success in achieving the basic goals of improving student achievement, this should be a wake-up call to them to step up and do better by children.

This isn’t to say that Broad Foundation still doesn’t have some work to do. On one end, it may be time to rethink who sits on the committees involved in selecting finalists and winners of the award. Some on the review committee, for example, have been involved in selecting finalists for four or more years; a few, such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, are retreads. Bringing in some fresh eyes, including Parent Power activists such as Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, Kenneth Campbell of Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, would help; so would bringing in other researchers, policy wonks, and even reporters and filmmakers who haven’t previously been involved with the award. Certainly your editor can understand how hard it is to put together a jury to review award data. But it can be done. At the same time, additional data points may also be needed to further weed out which districts should be considered for the award. Suspension and expulsion data on districts considered for the award, for example, could be helpful in determining the true commitment to providing high-quality education to all children.

Ultimately, words are only as good as the actions taken. In the case of the latest Broad Prize selections, both Gwinnett (which had won the Broad Prize four years ago) and Orange have shown some progress, but little else in the way of success, in key areas of preparing kids for success in higher education and beyond.

Both Gwinnett and Orange are doing well in providing high schoolers with advanced math courses they need to prepare for college. The percentage of Gwinnett’s black high school students taking Algebra II increased from 10 percent to 17 percent between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, while the percentage of Latino and American Indian high schoolers taking Algebra II increased, respectively, from nine percent and 13 percent to 15 percent and 25 percent in the same period. [The percentage of white and Asian-Pacific Islander high school students taking Algebra II increased, respectively, from seven percent and six percent to 13 percent and 10 percent.] Meanwhile in Orange County, the percentage of black, Latino, and Native students taking Algebra II increased from, respectively, 16 percent, 16 percent, and 22 percent, to 25 percent, 23 percent, and 31 percent. The percentage of white students taking Algebra II increased from 21 percent to 25 percent, while the percentage of Asian students taking Algebra II declined slightly from 24 percent to 23 percent in that same period.

But it isn’t all roses. Neither are doing as well as needed in providing kids with other forms of advanced math, including statistics, geometry, and trigonometry. In fact, both Gwinnett and Orange have seen declines in the percentage of high schoolers taking such courses, which are critical for high-skilled blue- and white-collar work. The percentage of Gwinnett’s black students taking advanced math declined from 16 percent to seven percent in the same period, while only 23 percent Orange’s black children taking advanced math in 2011-2012, the same as it was in 2006-2007.

Gwinnett is clearly doing better than Orange in providing its high schoolers with Advanced Placement courses that are key to helping kids prepare for success in higher education. Between 2006-07 and 2011-2012, the percentage of Gwinnett’s black high schoolers taking Advanced Placement courses increased from three percent to 20 percent, while the percentage of Latino peer taking such courses increased from three percent to 22 percent,; the percentage of American Indian children taking AP increased from zero to 37 percent in that same period. At the same time, more white and Asian kids took AP as well, increasing from eight percent and 10 percent, respectively, to 35 percent and 53 percent. Orange County’s gains in AP participation weren’t nearly as dramatic. The percentage of black kids taking AP increased from just 12 percent to 14 percent between 2006-2007, while the percentage of Latino kids taking the college prep courses increased from 15 percent to 19 percent. The percentage of white, Asian, and Native students taking AP declined, from, respectively, 39 percent, 56 percent, and 35 percent, to 36 percent, 48 percent, and 34 percent, in the same period.

And while both Gwinnett and Orange have increased the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1, the critical course for preparing kids for success with other forms of college-preparatory math, both are still not doing enough to help all middle-schoolers get such learning. Such data does not seem to be considered in selecting candidate districts or finalists for Broad Prize consideration. The percentage of Gwinnett’s Native seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 increased from five percent to 27 percent between 2006-2007 and 2011-2012. But the percentage of black and Latino middle-schoolers taking introductory algebra increased from just, respectively four percent and four percent, to six percent and nine percent in the same period. [The percentage of white and Asian middle school students taking Algebra 1 increased, respectively, from 11 percent and 17 percent, to 15 percent and 23 percent.] Orange’s students fared little better. A mere 11 percent of black middle schoolers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012 versus nine percent in 2006-2007, while a mere 14 percent of Latino middle school students, and 35 percent of Asian peers took introductory algebra in 2011-2012, versus 12 percent and 29 percent five years earlier. [The percentage of white middle schoolers taking Algebra 1 remained unchanged at 23 percent.]

This isn’t to say that neither district isn’t showing progress. You also cannot expect districts that have struggled mightily in past years to provide poor and minority kids with high-quality education to do so overnight. So let’s give Gwinnett and Orange credit for achieving results. Whether or not either district deserves to be a Broad Prize winner? This is an open question — and it offers an opportunity for the selection committee choosing between the finalists to send a message demanding all school operators (and American public education, in general) to push harder in transforming education for all kids.

April 4, 2014 standard

By the time this weekend is over, Richard Iannuzzi will likely no longer be president of New York State United Teachers, the largest state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers which has garnered accolades from hardcore progressive traditionalists and conservatives for its opposition to the Empire State’s implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. And Michael Mulgrew, the boss of the AFT’s Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, will have succeeded in his goals of ousting his chief rival for influence over education politics in New York State, in helping the local reassert its control over NYSUT, in helping national AFT President Randi Weingarten end the embarrassment of Iannuzzi successfully leading a partly-successful battle to kibbosh full implementation of Common Core (which the national union cagily supports), and, ultimately, in building support for his long-term goal of succeeding Weingarten as national AFT president.

But no matter what happens this weekend, the winner of the battle to control NYSUT will have to deal with an affiliate whose financial troubles will continue to undermine its goals of defending traditionalist policies, and the reminder to teachers — as a result of Iannuzzi’s ouster — that the AFT is only interested in listening to them when it suits its interests.

Why is Iannuzzi at risk of losing his place as one of the nation’s most-influential teachers’ union bosses? This is especially curious in light of the fact that Iannuzzi’s bellicose, occasionally Karen Lewis-like style has helped NYSUT occasionally beat back school reformers at the state level, and thwart the efforts of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has emerged as one of the nation’s strongest reform-minded governors. Last month, NYSUT won a partial victory against implementation of Common Core when it convinced the Empire State’s Democratic and Republican legislators to write a provision into the 2014-2015 budget barring student test score data from tests aligned with the standards from being included in student grades. This move, in turn, will likely force Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King to bar the use of the same data from being used in teacher evaluations, handing NYSUT (as well as the Big Apple and national AFT) another win.

But since this past January, Iannuzzi has been the proverbial dead man walking. His fate was sealed in January, when Karen Magee, a boss of a local in Harrison, N.Y.,  announced that she would challenge his bid for another term as affiliate president, and effectively gained the backing of Iannuzzi’s second-in-command, Andrew Pallotta, a former UFT apparatchik and Mulgrew ally. It was confirmed later that month when Mulgrew announced that the Big Apple local, along with those in Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers, and Syracuse, would back Iannuzzi’s ouster. While Iannuzzi retains the backing of 300 AFT locals within NYSUT, they only hold 24 percent of the seats on the affiliate’s governing assembly. The UFT, along with its allies, hold 56 percent of the seats on the assembly, and thus, have won the day.

The fact that Iannuzzi is heading to defeat this Saturday is just another reminder that there are few matters more interesting in American public education than intramural squabbling inside a teachers’ union. After all, the battles and the power grabs expose all the talk of union solidarity as just that. And this is especially true when it comes to the AFT, whose leadership — especially Weingarten — always claims to listen to (and represent) all teachers.

For seven decades, the union has been controlled at the national level by the Progressive faction and at the Big Apple level by Unity; Weingarten and Mulgrew control both coalitions. Both Progressive and Unity are ruthless when it comes to ensuring their hegemony over AFT politics — and beating back dissidents to their party line. For Unity, this includes allowing retired teachers — many of whom are loyal to Unity, and ultimately, Progressive — to cast votes in union elections, often at the expense (and to the ire) of younger, more reform-minded teachers (who now make up the majority of the rank-and-file), and traditionalist-minded Baby Boomers still working in classrooms.

Progressive’s and Unity’s control of AFT used to extend to NYSUT, the union’s largest state affiliate. In fact, the UFT controls one-third of the seats on NYSUT’s governing board, while Iannuzzi himself was a protege of Thomas Hobart, a Shanker ally who ran the affiliate for four decades. But over the past eight years, NYSUT has escaped from under Progressive’s and Unity’s thumb. Thanks in part to a 2006 merger with an affiliate of the National Education Association (a move that brought NYSUT back into the fold of the AFT’s counterpart and rival), and the retirement of longtime UFT honcho Alan Lubin as executive vice president of NYSUT and overlord of the union’s political action committee, the state affiliate has embraced a somewhat hardcore traditionalist agenda (as well as confrontational approach) that at times runs counter to that of the national union and the Big Apple local. Let’s be clear: Iannnuzzi isn’t the second coming of Lewis, who is the proverbial bull in the china closet. But within an AFT that has embraced a co-opt reformers approach to preserving its declining influence, Iannuzzi is more than willing to spar with the opposition.

More importantly, NYSUT has been willing to throw its political weight around, opposing state legislators and politicians that don’t support its agenda. This includes going toe to toe with Cuomo, who has been among the nation’s strongest reform-minded governors. Four years ago, it refused to back Cuomo’s successful maiden campaign for governor. This year, it was threatening to not back the governor’s re-election campaign — and in the process, make sure that one of its allies, the Empire State affiliate of the AFL-CIO, would also not give its backing. [This is why Iannuzzi fumed last January over a move by Pallotta to spend $10,000 in union funds for a table at a Cuomo fundraiser.] Cuomo doesn’t exactly need NYSUT’s or AFL-CIO’s backing; he is an overwhelming favorite to win re-election. But losing the backing of the biggest players in state Democratic politics would have been particularly embarrassing for Cuomo, who is likely looking to follow up on his gubernatorial campaign with a run for the Democratic presidential nomination (and a fierce battle with Hillary Clinton) in the next two years.

None of this is to the liking of Mulgrew or Weingarten, his longtime sponsor. For the ever-ambitious Mulgrew, Iannuzzi is a competitor for influence over education policy, both at the state level and within the national union. The fact that Iannuzzi has seized control of NYSUT’s political action committee from Mulgrew ally Pallotta (and therefore, has weakened UFT’s control over state education politics) is not to Mulgrew’s liking. More importantly, Iannuzzi’s aggressive stance against systemic reform also fuels complaints from dissident Baby Boomers within both the Big Apple and national AFT that Mulgrew (along with Weingarten) is far too willing to give in to reformers on rolling back the traditional teacher compensation deals and other arrangements the union has long fought to gain and preserve.

Meanwhile NYSUT’s agenda — especially against Common Core implementation — undercuts Weingarten’s efforts at triangulating the school reform movement at the national level; it’s hard for her to declare that the AFT some reforms (while otherwise preserving the status quo) when the union’s largest affiliate loudly opposes all of them. As it is, Weingarten has had to figure out how to deal with Iannuzzi’s colleague, Lewis, who has become the darling of hardcore traditionalists for her efforts to roll back the reforms undertaken by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and successor Rahm Emanuel. Damage control against Iannuzzi has push back against Common Core is one reason why Weingarten is attending NYSUT’s pow-wow this weekend.

But in ousting Iannuzzi, Mulgrew and his ally, Magee (along with Weingarten) will end up with two big messes on their hands.

The first is financial. As Dropout Nation reported this past December, NYSUT is in a state of virtual insolvency. Thanks to the affiliate’s fiscal fecklessness, NYSUT has just $102 million in assets against $336 million in liabilities. Between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, the affiliate’s pension and retired staff liabilities increased by 61 percent (from $190 million to $305 million). Considering that economic realities will mean that there will be fewer teachers being added to payrolls — and therefore, no new dollars for NYSUT coffers — the affiliate will have to raise dues even higher just to pay down its liabilities and at the same time, spend heavily on political campaigning. Some help may end up coming from the national AFT, which subsidized NYSUT to the tune of $12.1 million last fiscal year (as well as from the NEA); but the national union itself is struggling financially and must also concern itself with stemming declining national influence. Considering how poorly NYSUT has managed its finances — and the likelihood that Magee will be less successful than Iannuzzi in beating back reform efforts at the state level — rank-and-file members would be right to wonder if handing more of their hard-earned cash to the union is worth it.

The second is political. The fact that the AFT’s governing faction has ousted a moderately dissident voice within its ranks proves once again that the union only “listens” to teachers when it suits its own agenda. or both sides, the AFT at both the local and national levels hardly represents an organization that “listens” to teachers. This has always been clear. For younger teachers, the AFT has always proven to be more-interested in preserving seniority-based privileges (including quality-blind Last In-First Out layoff rules that protect longtime veterans at the expense of younger teachers in the ranks) than addressing their concerns about elevating the profession. As for traditionalist-minded Baby Boomers? The fact that AFT’s affiliates such as that in New York City structure voting rules to ensure that retirees are better-represented than they are is particularly grating.

This is no small thing. AFT membership isn’t voluntary; even those teachers who don’t want to join the union are still  forced to pay dues in the form of so-called agency fees. And when the union that proclaims to listen teachers does anything but, then it is time for teachers of all philosophies to move away from the AFT (as well as the NEA) and embrace a different form of professional representation.

April 2, 2014 standard

Certainly it isn’t a surprise that Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray failed yesterday to win the city’s Democratic nomination, and ultimately, lost his bid for a second term. As your editor wrote two years ago in The American Spectator, Chocolate City residents were tired of the scandal over his successful mayoral bid against predecessor Adrian Fenty — including allegations that onetime power-broker Jeffrey Thompson recruited straw donors so they could funnel $653,000 in campaign dollars to Gray and other candidates. Thompson’s statement last month during a court hearing that Gray allegedly asked him to lead this “shadow campaign” against Fenty, along with other new allegations of impropriety, rightfully stoked concerns among D.C. residents that city government was once again being mired in the culture of bureaucratic ineptitude, graft and chicanery, and race-baiting that typified city politics during the mayoralty of the notorious Marion Barry. And ultimately, the allegations aided Muriel Bowser, a Fenty protégé (and successor to the former mayor’s old city council seat), in her effort to end Gray’s re-election bid.

But Gray’s defeat isn’t likely fretting school reformers within the District. Why? Because of their efforts, it is more than likely that Bowser and her opponent for the city’s top office, David Catania, are more than likely to stay the course on the reforms that Fenty began and Gray continued. This likelihood, along with Gray’s transformation from teachers’ union ally to reform-minded mayor, offers lessons for all reformers on the importance of building and sustaining their efforts.

Whatever Gray’s other flaws, one can easily give him credit for staying the course on systemic reform. It wasn’t clear that he would. After all, Gray’s successful run for mayor four years ago was supported in part by the American Federation of Teachers and its D.C. affiliate, which spent $1 million on his behalf. For the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union and its boss, Randi Weingarten, defeating Fenty (and, in the process, ending the tenure of his school czar — and Weingarten foe — Michelle Rhee) was an important stand for defending the traditional practices the union held so dear. This fact, along with Gray’s own disdain for Rhee, made many reformers fear that Gray would dismantle the efforts his predecessor undertook — including successfully forcing the AFT to to accept a new contract that allows for the use of student test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance, and firing laggard teachers.

But as it turned out, Gray has proven to be as reliable as Fenty on the reform front. Upon taking office, Gray stunned the union (and school reformers) when he chose Rhee’s low-key protégé, Kaya Henderson, to take her place. While Henderson has eschewed Rhee’s high-profile approach to running the district, she has proven to be as hard-charging as Rhee in overhauling the district. Gray further dismayed the AFT two years ago when a mayoral commission recommended that the city replace shutter some of its traditional district schools with charters; Gray effectively embraced this advice last year when he allowed charters to lease space in 16 buildings formerly occupied by traditional district schools that the city was shutting down.By the time Gray embarked on his third year in office, he had all but distanced himself from traditionalist AFT rhetoric. Effectively declaring that he was pushing to expand school choice, Gray launched an effort to develop a unified enrollment Web site that allows families to choose between traditional district and charter schools.

This isn’t to say that Gray always followed the reform line to the letter. The mayor deserved scorn for his move two years ago to move half of the 2,204 kids in special education from availing themselves of court-mandated school choice into its traditional schools, especially in light of the district’s struggles to improve teaching and curricula for those kids. Charter school operators, who were among Gray’s earliest supporters, continue to be miffed at the mayor for not fulfilling his campaign promise to make sure the District provided equal funding to both charters and the traditional district. But for the most part, Gray has proven to be Fenty’s equal when it comes to advancing and sustaining D.C. Public School’s overhaul.

Muriel Bowser, who defeated Gray for the Democratic nomination for D.C. mayor, is likely to follow in his path (and that of mentor and Gray predecessor, Adrian Fenty) on school reform. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

This didn’t please the AFT or its local. By 2012, then-AFT local president Nathan Saunders criticized Gray and Henderson for outlining a five-year plan that “only amounts to half” of what the union thinks the city should do. It also didn’t work out well for Saunders, whose own successful election to the top AFT local job was built upon his commitment to getting the city to go the union’s way; by the end of last year, Saunders was ousted by Elizabeth Davis, who like Saunders before her, promised to oppose reform. But like Saunders, Davis has found that Gray isn’t an ally of the union and its interest in restoring the status quo ante.

The fact that Gray has become the reformer no one expected him to be raises the question: Why? After all, Gray’s support for reform didn’t help him win re-election. In fact, one can say that Gray’s decision to turn his back on the AFT may have actually damaged his ties to the city’s Ancien Regime of which the union has long been a player, while, at the same time, didn’t win Gray any support among more reform-minded residents who backed Fenty wholeheartedly the last time around.

One reason why lies with the fact that Gray had no choice. The very overhaul efforts Gray opposed during his campaign have been one of the reasons why D.C.’s population has increased by 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, after five decades of decline. Particularly for black and white middle class households, the possibility that they have a chance to send their kids to a high-performing school has made the District a more attractive place to live. This was clear during the Democratic primary (and de facto mayoral election) battle between Gray and predecessor Fenty four years ago. If not for the widespread support for then-chancellor Rhee, along with fears that Gray would let D.C. Public Schools slide into decrepitude, Gray would have beaten Fenty in a landslide.

There is also the fact that Gray, as predecessors Fenty and Anthony Williams, long ago realized during their tenures, that overhauling public education is as critical as the presence of the federal government to revitalizing and growing the District’s economic and social fortunes. This is a lesson mayors in other cities, along with county chief executives such as Rushern Baker of Prince George’s County, Md.), have learned. Certainly education isn’t the only issue a mayor must address. As Gray, like Fenty, has learned the hard way, mayors can only succeed in continuing reform efforts for the long haul if they master keep crime low, attend to quality of life issues, efficiently managing city government, artfully divide or placate opponents, and remain relatively free of corruption allegations. But mayors can’t ultimately improve quality of life without ridding their cities of the failure mills in their midst.

Meanwhile there is the fact that reformers were key players in Gray’s successful mayoral campaign four years ago. Sure, most reformers backed Fenty. But Gray could count on support from charter school operators, who were miffed with Fenty for not pushing for equalizing funding between their schools and the traditional district. This fact, along with the support Gray garnered by longtime D.C. reformers such as Lisa Raymond (who served on the District’s board of education) and Atlantic Monthly co-owner Katherine Bradley (who co-chaired Gray’s transition committee) meant that the mayor could not ignore break with Fenty’s efforts without endangering his tenure.

The lessons Gray learned are ones that both Bowser (who is now likely to become D.C.’s next mayor) and Catania have also gleaned. While Bowser criticized Gray for not increasing the number of middle schools serving D.C.’s communities, her allegiance to Fenty (and support for the reform agenda Gray has continued) likely means that she will keep the reform effort in place as is. Catania, who serves on the city council as chair of its education oversight committee, is slightly more critical. But many of the reforms he has proposed (including forcing failing traditional district schools to either be overhauled, turned into a so-called “innovation school” free from the city’s contract with the AFT, or handed over to a charter school operator) differ little from those Gray has advanced.

Both Bowser and Catania understand that any Bill de Blasio-like move to turn back reform won’t serve them well at the polls. This fact, along with Gray’s transformation from AFT ally to reform-minded mayor, offers some important lessons from reformers in the rest of the nation.

The first? That they must continually build the case for systemic reform. This includes demonstrating the connections between the need to overhaul education and the quality-of-life concerns voters find to be more-pressing. Considering that mayoral control of schools is a new feature of city government in places such as D.C., it is easy for voters to pay more mind to matters such as crime than to the quality of schools.

Secondly: That they must constantly inform politicians, especially city council members, about why they must make school reform a key part of their platforms. After all, city councils are key players in shaping public policy, and thus critical to shaping education decisions, especially in mayoral control districts. The fact that D.C.’s last two mayors (and likely, its third) previously served on the council, also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to local legislators.

And finally, reformers must also build networks of support within their communities. As reformers in D.C. have understood well — and as their counterparts in New York City are learning painfully every day — it isn’t enough to hope that their favored politician retains office; reform must be sustainable regardless of who sits inside a city hall. Strong support for reform within communities, especially in the grassroots among families, is critical to long-term success.

The good news for reformers in D.C. is that their efforts to build brighter futures for the District’s children will continue regardless of who becomes mayor. As with Fenty’s loss four years ago, Gray’s defeat won’t mean that D.C.’s traditional district schools will slide back into utter ineptitude.

Featured photo courtesy of Washington City Paper

January 24, 2014 standard

One of the problems for opponents of the Common Core reading and math standards, especially movement conservatives and some conservative reformers such as Stanford’s Williamson Evers and Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, is that they have debased their arguments with so much in the way of what can best be called conspiracy-theorizing. From the attempts by Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute to embrace Susan Ohanian-like arguments that Common Core is an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to usurp democracy, to arguments by the Eagle Forum that the standards are somehow an effort by progressives to indoctrinate children in schools, the conspiracy-theorizing (and the unwillingness of more-sensible, if still wrongheaded, Common Core foes such as Evers, Stergios, and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute, to distance themselves from such statements) effectively taken away attention from whatever legitimate concerns they may have.

So Common Core foes were clearly pleased when Washington Post columnist and movement conservative icon George Will jumped into the battle over the standards last week with a piece supporting their side. They were even more happy when a Common Core skeptic, Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, validated their perspective by declaring that Will’s piece epitomizes the”principled opposition” to the standards that supporters of them supposedly ignore and caricature.

But most of Will’s arguments against Common Core fail to stand up upon close scrutiny of the facts; in fact, Will engages in some of the same conspiracy-theorizing that has made it difficult for even the most-objective observer to take the arguments of opponents of the standards seriously. As for Smarick? In ignoring the flaws in Will’s arguments — and in failing to admit that many Common Core foes have only themselves to blame for their most-serious arguments being taken seriously by supporters of the standards — Smarick fails to do the proper job of holding his allies responsible for making smart arguments that advance their cause.

Arguing that Common Core is “designed to advance… the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity”, Will contends that supporters of the standards — including conservative reformers such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and your editor — are doing all they can to keep the “nature and purpose” as “cloudy as possible for as long as possible”. How? By supposedly slyly arguing that the standards are voluntary and warily talking about the Obama Administration’s role in supporting implementation of them by 45 states and the District of Columbia. From where Will sits, Common Core’s effort to push what he calls “conformity”, along with the tests aligned with them, will do little more than “take a toll on parental empowerment”, lead to “the politicization of learning”, and “extinguish federalism’s creativity” by supposedly restricting “innovative governors” from undertaking their own systemic reform efforts.

Smarick cheers on Will’s piece, declaring that Common Core supporters cannot call his arguments “black-helicopter” thinking, both because “his conservatism is rooted in time-tested principles” and because of Will’s “deeply learned” background. From where Smarick sits, Will is speaking for those politicians and suburban families whose opposition to the standards spring in part from how the Obama Administration has bungle implementation of ObamaCare and has continued the growth of domestic surveillance that began with predecessor George W. Bush after the massacres at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 12 years ago. Smarick then complains that Common Core supporters, especially centrist and liberal Democrats, are often too dismissive of the arguments offered up by Common Core foes, engaging in the same kind of “superciliousness” that liberal intellectuals would reserve for discussing the policies of Dwight David Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

As a once-avid reader of Will’s columns and the proud owner of six of Will’s most-famous books, including Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and at Home (all of them read when I was in high school and college), your editor is likely far-more familiar with Will’s thinking than Smarick can ever proclaim. But I while I respect Will’s thinking, I don’t do so without reservation. And particularly, when it comes to Common Core, Will’s arguments against the standards just don’t hold up.

Will’s complaint that Common Core is some form of effort to advance “progressive education” is pure conspiracy-theorizing. More importantly, Will’s statement ignores what is actually required in the standards themselves. Asking children to read and analyze the great works of fiction and nonfiction, including Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, and Winston Churchill’s Blood, Tears, Soil, and Sweat speech, is by no means some “progressive” plot.

The fact that Common Core also requires children to build up their numeracy from the moment they enter kindergarten — which both mathematicians and researchers as David Geary at the University of Missouri point out is key to mastering algebra and other forms of math needed in adulthood — also makes Will’s contention rather suspect. The fact that Common Core itself is opposed by many hard-core progressives such as the aforementioned Ohanian, Education Week columnist Anthony Cody, and once-respectable education historian (and former conservative) Diane Ravitch also belies Will’s contention.

If anything, what Common Core does is nothing more than what all high-quality curricula and standards do: provide all kids with the well-rounded education (based on a common and, yes, uniform, set of knowledge) needed to choose their own paths (and succeed) once they reach adulthood. This includes understanding the ideas, philosophies and abstractions that are the building blocks of the world in which they live. An adult with strong literacy and math skills (including algebra), for example, can understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about fiscal policy. A plumber who has read The Canterbury Tales can also move up socially, converse with executives, play his part as a leader in his community, and even pave a path for his children to continue along into the middle class.

Meanwhile, in arguing that Common Core supporters are being dishonest about the voluntary nature of the standards, Will conveniently ignores the history of how the standards originated in the first place. Starting in 2004, Achieve Inc. started working with a group of innovative states through its American Diploma Project to help them develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. That work would become more extensive when state governments 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. Common Core was well on its way to becoming a reality by the time the Obama Administration supported the implementation of Common Core through its Race to the Top initiative and its less-sensible gambit to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act. Considering that NGA and CCSSO developed the standards, states hardly needed the Obama Administration to purchase their “obedience”.

Will also fails to admit that Common Core essentially builds upon the innovations on the curricula standards front undertaken by states such as Massachusetts and Indiana  (the latter of which was a key player in the American Diploma Project). Common Core, in turn, builds upon the lessons gleaned from earlier efforts by reform-minded governors and standards and accountability activists within the school reform movement to craft curricula standards at the state level. One of the lessons learned was that it is difficult for reform-minded governors to develop college preparatory standards in part because it meant facing opposition from traditionalists opposed to being accountable for providing kids with high-quality education.This fact is one reason why just two states had eighth-grade math standards that match that of the top seven nations in mathematics, according to the American Institutes for Research. Another lesson: That it makes little sense for states to craft curricula standards on their own when it is pretty clear what children need to know in order to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Meanwhile Will’s argument that Common Core interferes with systemic reform efforts at the state level doesn’t square with what has been actually happening on the ground in the five years since states began developing and implementing the standards. From the launch and expansion of school choice programs in more than 13 states, to the development of online learning efforts (including the launch of virtual charter schools in states such as Pennsylvania), to the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states, reform-minded governors and school leaders have been doing plenty of work. And save for dealing with opposition to Common Core from their respective political bases, those politicians haven’t found the standards to be an interference to their efforts.

[The fact that some of these reform efforts, including the elimination of caps on the growth of charter schools, took place thanks to the encouragement of the Obama Administration through Race to the Top and other initiatives, is also a reminder that the federal government can play a powerful and much-needed role, both in building upon efforts undertaken by reform-minded governors and school leaders who have managed to overcome opposition to their efforts,  as well as in providing cover to those state leaders who face even fiercer opposition on the ground. This role is neither new nor improper. And as seen with the Reagan Administration's publication of A Nation at Risk three decades ago, and welfare reform in the 1990s, it is one that movement conservatives have embraced.]

As learned as Will may be, his arguments against Common Core shows that he doesn’t know much about the nation’s education crisis, the low-quality curricula and standards that are at the heart of it, or the consequences of low-quality education for both the children of conservatives who read his columns as well as for those from poor and minority backgrounds. Even worse, Will merely trots out the same tired arguments offered up by other Common Core foes over the past few years.  None of this is shocking. As with most public intellectuals among movement conservatives, Will is focused more on foreign policy and the expansive role of the federal government in civil society than on education.

Smarick, on the other hand, is a movement conservative and a school reformer. In fact, he does a far better job than Will in articulating why many movement conservatives oppose Common Core. But in unquestioningly championing Will’s column and the arguments in it, Smarick fails to actually defend the kind of principled and factual arguments he proclaims Common Core foes are offering. Smarick should have used his piece as an opportunity to both support Will’s more-defensible arguments against the standards — sparse as they are — and call him out for trotting out arguments that don’t match up to the facts. If Common Core foes want to be taken seriously, then they need to continuously offer serious arguments and distance themselves from conspiracy-theorizing.

Meanwhile Smarick’s insinuation that many Common Core supporters do little more than caricature foes and skeptics of the standards is pure excuse-making. So long as Common Core foes and skeptics continue to tolerate conspiracy theories as well as fail to offer solutions that address how to deal with the low-quality curricula standards and other underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis, they will always find themselves on the rhetorical defensive. This isn’t to say that Common Core supporters should belittle the arguments of opponents and skeptics. But opponents of the standards need to do what William F. Buckley, Jr., did in 1950s when he began advancing the conservative movement: Get the rhetorical house in order by clearing out those arguments that shouldn’t be made.

As an admirer of both Will and Smarick, I wish they could have done a better job by Common Core foes and skeptics, even if I oppose their arguments. Neither have done so.

January 21, 2014 standard

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel,. I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual — the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

Martin Luther King, in 1959, presciently understanding why integration as school reform doesn’t work. This is why reformers must focus on providing all kids in every neighborhood with high-quality school options, not on integration.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

King, in his I Have a Dream speech, issuing a challenge to every reformer to be antagonists for our children and transform American public education for them. This is the subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast.