The wrong remedies

This past week No Child Left Behind turned 11 years old and Michelle Rhee made big news with a “report card” that judged states on how well they implemented policy of which she approves. Here is a look at what connects them, by Jeff Bryant, a marketing and communications consultant for nonprofits. He is a marketing and creative strategist with nearly 30 years of experience – the past 20 on his own – as a freelance writer, consultant, and search engine marketing provider. He’s written extensively about public education policy. This appeared on the Campaign for America’s Future website.

By Jeff Bryant

It’s altogether fitting that this week’s marking of the 11th anniversary of the No Child Left Behind legislation coincided with yet another groundbreaking, revolutionary, radical advocacy piece for “fixing” America’s “broken” public school system.

NCLB is now a policy held in such contempt by state governments that the vast majority of them have asked for a dodge, and the Obama administration has been much obliged to grant them waivers.

This week’s reformy treatise, from a non-government source, was in the form of a State Policy Report Card, issued by StudentsFirst, the organization created and run by Michelle Rhee, ex-chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools.

Although NCLB was a piece of legislation and the StudentsFirst report card is an advocacy piece, the nature of the thinking behind them is identical – that prescriptions from on high are necessary to alleviate the perceived and real shortfalls of our nation’s schools, policymakers and “experts” in Washington D.C. know “what works,” and incentives (getting an A) and punishments (getting an F) are the best ways to enforce “improvement.”

But what’s most striking about the StudentsFirst piece is its how little it has to do with the “child” at all – or much to do with any of the activities we normally associate with schooling for that matter.

Sure, the report’s introduction, penned by Rhee, maintains that “putting the needs of children first” is the goal, but that very subject – “the needs of children” and the nature of those children most in need – is never explicitly addressed anywhere in the report card.

The report card talks a lot about “teacher effectiveness in the classroom” but never considers the nature of the “classroom” where teachers are made to work – whether those classrooms are safe, adequately maintained and supplied, whether there are reasonable numbers of students to attend to, whether there is a guaranteed and viable curriculum in place, or whether there are accommodations made for those students’ with differing readiness levels and interests.

And although, the document talks a lot about the “Teaching Profession,” there’s virtually no attention paid to what good teaching is or what good teachers actually do and how government leaders can support that work or get out of the way.

To be fair, the executive summary of the report card flat out states, “The report card does not assess student achievement, school quality, or teacher performance.” And instead of taking into account the multiple factors that affect teaching and learning, the report merely “assigns an overall A–F letter grade to each state based on how well that state’s policies align with the StudentsFirst policy agenda.”

In other words, do what we like and get an A; do otherwise and we grade accordingly. Give StudentsFirst some credit for being honest here.

Like many of the other technocratic education ideas that have been foisted on the nation’s schools, StudentsFirst justifies a means for “improvement” with lots of empty rhetoric about “what works” for “children” and “closing the achievement gap.” And like other reformist tracts, the language is saturated with a weird mix of business-speak with the crusader rhetoric of civil rights.

What truly sets the StudentsFirst piece apart from the rest of the reformist creed is the utter capitulation to, as school finance researcher Bruce Baker puts it, “political preferences.”

The StudentsFirst report wields a rating system – which, by the way, awarded three-quarters of states Ds or Fs, and no state higher than a B minus – that is completely disembodied from any anecdotal or quantitative evidence, including results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “the nation’s report card.”

As Baker explains, “Students First [sic] gave good grades to states like Louisiana and Florida, and crummy grades to states like New Jersey or Massachusetts,” but “states like Louisiana have notoriously among the worst school systems – lowest test scores – in the nation – whereas states like New Jersey and Massachusetts have pretty darn good test scores and well respected school systems.”

“Others have argued,” Baker continues, “that states like Louisiana and Florida in particular – while being low performers – have posted impressive gains on NAEP over the past 20 years (most of which predates adoption of these new RheeFormy policies) . . . But, Massachussetts and New Jersey – RheeFormy losers actually posted gains on NAEP similar to those of Louisiana and Florida!”

Baker concludes, “Students First has their policy preferences – and they’re certainly entitled to that. They’ve built their entire rating system on their idea of what’s good policy. They’ve not tried to justify their policy preferences in any research basis on effectiveness or efficiency of these policy preferences, nor could they. There simply is no research basis to support the vast majority of their preferences.”

There are those, most notably Slate’s Matt Yglesias, who found “a lot to like” in the StudentFirst diatribe. “The best thing about it,” said Yglesias, who is a business and economics correspondent, is that, “it’s a report card assessing the state of education policy in different places, not outcomes. That lets you throw down some important markets.” (emphasis his)

This belief that getting the education policy right and all else will follow is the enduring heart of the reform movement. Any sort of research and practice that may already point to worthy inputs to schools – say, for instance, the societal conditions we subject children to, the quality of learning environment in our schools, or what we’re willing to spend on education – are poo-poohed as a stale status quo mentality in need of “disruption.”

But NCLB did, after all, throw down some pretty definitive “markets” in the form of Adequate Yearly Progress. And where did that get us?

No, if we’re going to ask an economist to help sort out education, a better advisor would be Paul Krugman who observed this week that the “big fail” in economic policy has not been due to a dearth of well-known remedies but, rather, a continuous emphasis on the wrong ones.

He wrote, “Standard economics offered good answers, but political leaders – and all too many economists – chose to forget or ignore what they should have known.”

For education, what leaders “should have known,” for the past decade or more, is that neglecting the inputs into the education system – what our society is willing to invest in terms of money, materials, personnel, and training – while pursuing unproven policies based on “markets” and “metrics” is a getting us nowhere.

What we have with the StudentsFirst report card is the ultimate road map to nowhere, more “reform” for reform’s sake, which stakes out more hoops and hurdles for schools, engineered by “belief tank” operatives, justified by some spreadsheet calculations that look “objective,” and wrapped-up in a slick PR campaign.

Not to emphasize too strongly the parallels of economic and education policy-making these days, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders  observed this week that “the great debate” over the nation’s financial state “is all about ideology” and has “little to do” with financial issues.” While partisans war over invented “crises” like “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings,” little to nothing is being done about the real financial conditions of people’s lives as many more of them continue to slide toward the brink.

The same can be said for education. Ideological advocates like StudentsFirst continue to ratchet up pressures on beleaguered teachers and call for stressed-out communities to be subjected to more education hucksters selling a “choice,” while the real conditions of school children and families – the things that make up the daily work of schools, like curriculum, instruction, and assessment – are completely ignored.

“We know where the Republicans are coming from,” Sanders concludes. “What about the Democrats?” Good question.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 11, 2013