It’s Not the Courts, Stupid–or not the courts alone or primarily

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court declined to hear appeals-court decisions that ruled against plaintiffs in two cases: the Vergara case that tried to argue that state law and common practice that protected teachers in various ways violated the state’s constitutional promises to children, and the Campaign for Quality Education case that was the latest round in court battles over school funding. In each case, the lower appeals-court decision had in essence set fairly high bars for those wishing to sue the state of California to change broad swaths of education policy and practice. In essence, the collection of rulings says, it is not enough for education to be worse than what you think; before the courts will act, there needs to be much more solid evidence chaining together decisions of the legislature and violations of children’s rights under the California state constitution.

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Broken field defenses

Jack Schneider has a defense of American public schooling up at The Atlantic this week, and while it has an historian’s argument, it feels much like the claims of David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis, published 20 years ago, in the middle of the Bill Clinton era and most of a decade before No Child Left Behind. What Berliner and Biddle got right — as Schneider gets right this week — is that the declension story that many school critics have told over the past 50-60 years is wrong. There was not a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools at the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Its modern corollary is also wrong — the idea that “the modern curriculum is a relic of the past” is wildly ahistorical (see Audrey Watters and me on that point, in separate posts).

Schneider is also correct that schools do change, in curriculum and structure. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out in Tinkering toward Utopia (also a 20-year-old book), the cycles of reform rhetoric obscure long-term institutional trends that are important and largely outside the focus of hype. Pop quiz: what was the modal size of American high schools in the late 1950s? How about today? Hint: they’re not the same.

Where I disagree with Schneider — and Berliner and Biddle — is the conclusion he draws from pointing out how wrong the declension myth is. There are two ways in which the “rising tide of mediocrity” claim could be wrong. One is that public schools are not mediocre. The other is that public schools have significant weaknesses, but that they are longstanding and not traits that sprang up overnight. That is where I stand. There is an important historical argument to be made that “disruption” is a poor universal model for education reform. But its converse is not correct, either; desegregation was as disruptive when done properly as anything else.

Thinking out loud: voluntarism in schools and historical perspective

This post is largely to think out loud about historical perspectives, and more specifically a topic I have not (yet) tried to put in historical perspective: volunteers in school. This is not probably a post that will provide great insight, and it certainly does not show great wisdom on my part: as you will see below, the scribblings I did before starting this post are rather stream-of-consciousness that I an repeating here to be complete.

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The American Estates as a thought experiment

Now that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has dropped out of the race, it may be a little clearer that money by itself does not win campaigns. Today, that brought me back to a topic an ASU doctoral student and I had written about last year, on power and education policy. As I noted earlier last fall, the column Amanda Potterton and I wrote on Arne Duncan’s legacy did not answer the question, “What is the proper relationship between civil society and regulatory/administrative bodies?” That had been simmering in the back of my head a few weeks later when Stanley Hubbard complained that Donald Trump was not wholly controlled or owned by the billionaire donor class. As Hubbard opined to The Hill reporters,

This idea of “I don’t need to have any funding, I’ll fund myself,” that scares the hell out of me… That’s like a dictator. I think that any politician should have to answer to their constituents. … I don’t think it’s healthy to have somebody who doesn’t answer to anybody.

Never mind that someone who becomes president does have a constituency, the American voting public. This quotation is a Kinsley gaffe, when someone accidentally says the truth in public: Hubbard sees his ilk as a separate constituency to which Republican candidates must kowtow. In effect, Hubbard and some other super-wealthy political donors see the American political system as akin to the French ancient regime, with separate and equally-powerful political classes. In pre-Revolutionary France, you had the estates of the nobility, clergy, and then everyone else, where the nobility and clergy could outvote the vast majority of French citizens and control public policy.

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Fordham Institute’s accountability design competition: A healthier mess

I will be in Washington early next week participating in the Fordham Institute’s design competition for state accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. I will be one of ten submitters making (very short!) presentations late afternoon Tuesday, February 2 (3:30-5:30 EST). The complete list of design sketches is available now (whether or not the submitters are presenting next week), and mine is also copied at the end of this blog entry.

A few notes about my entry:

  1. This is an exercise to squeeze what I could into the structure of ESSA. It copies some ideas from recommendations at the end of Accountability Frankenstein (2007), but it is not a statement of my policy preferences. It is an “art of the possible” design (or sketch, more likely).
  2. It uses various transformations of scale scores, proficiency percentages, and the like. There are other entries who make (probably more publicly-palatable) use of transformations, in contrast with those who assert transparency of calculation as a high-minded goal in state accountability systems. I will probably say more about this next week, but I just want to note the clear contrast along this dimension. More generally, my sketch has a deliberate jury-rigged construction; that is a feature, not a bug. There is at least one point where I see another way to tinker with something, less than three weeks after my submission. I’ll certainly think of another one within a few hours.
  3. And yet, at the same time, it also tries to make use of some well-researched assessments in areas that ESSA requires (English language proficiency) and in one of the critical areas that ESSA leaves to states (the general category, “other indicators of student success or school quality”).
  4. Finally, I am quite sure that my use of a grand jury system to make judgments about equal opportunity is unique. I am not sure anyone will like it, because this idea of trusting citizen judgment on critical matters of what constitutes equal educational opportunity is … well, we will see what people think of that on Tuesday.

And now, my proposal… (where I have identified typographical errors, you will see copyediting notes as appropriate)

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