Why it’s counterproductive to confuse different educational challenges

Over at Jay Greene’s blog a few days ago, Matthew Ladner pondered what he calls an “epic fail” of education policy in Arizona. To put it briefly, the Arizona Board of Regents issued a recent study tracking college careers of students who graduated from high school in 2006, concluding that there was a wide disparity in college outcomes among the state’s high schools. Ladner places the blame firmly on the state’s walking back from the original high school graduation expectations crafted by long-ago state Superintendent Lisa Keegan with Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS:

The state’s accountability system jumped the shark a decade ago.  The initial AIMS test was a rigorous exam that told Arizonans information that they didn’t want to hear, especially those working in the system. This brought on to the biggest dummy down in cut scores in the recorded history of the United States. The testing system devolved into a bad joke- rampant item exposure and drilling to individual test items. Our kids got better and better at taking a dummy downed AIMS exam while our NAEP scores flat-lined and very few students make it through college.

I remember the sequence a little differently: the primary pushback came from parents when their children’s high school graduation was threatened. When the test was crafted in the mid-90s, the original plan was for AIMS to become the graduation test for the high school class of 2001. But when there were problems guaranteeing instructional validity (i.e., making sure all students required to take the test had been taught what the test covered), Keegan proposed a one-year delay, almost 15 years ago to the day. Then in 2000 and 2001, as it was clear that students were failing the exam in well-off communities such as Scottsdale, there was enormous pressure on legislators to modify the implementation of the graduation requirement. Keegan left her position, AIMS was delayed, and the cut-score thresholds were dropped quite a bit in terms of the number of students who were failing. On that last point, Ladner and I agree, but not on the cause. While educators were deeply concerned with what they saw, nothing would have changed without suburban parents who complained to their legislators. I think it’s clear in retrospect this was a classic case of Keegan’s system brought down by a politically-unacceptable failure rate.

The story of Keegan and AIMS is one of the reasons why we need to understand there are three different challenges in education policy. The one Ladner addresses is what I think of as the generational challenge: how do we help our children and grandchildren be wiser and more knowledgeable than we are? That’s the highest and best goal of curriculum standards. For the past 15-20 years, though, education policy has confused that challenge with shorter-term challenges: the equity challenge (how do we make sure children have equitable opportunities in the system that exists?) and the management challenge (how do we make sure schools run competently?).

The “adequate yearly progress” standard of No Child Left Behind is emblematic of that conflation: even if we were to agree with the general premise of the expectations with proficiency rates and scaling to 100% proficiency, it’s a mess as policy. For the purposes of NCLB, it doesn’t matter whether your school is having problems because the principal is incompetent, the school pays insufficient attention to the needs of its weakest students, or because the expectations in general are low. It’s all the same problem with the same consequences. The nonsensical nature of that policy is why NCLB waivers started allowing states to enact differential accountability structures.

There are connections among the three challenges–we now know between the mid-1980s and the turn of the century, after many states increased the minimum number of math and science classes required for high school graduation, the gender gap in math and science classes closed to a surprising degree. The time scale of that change was on the same order as the generational change of the curriculum policy, and that is a reasonable back-up plan for the other challenges, lifting achievement and attainment for all to address some part of equity concerns. Not the best way to address the equity and management challenges for current students, but it’s an item in the toolbox, and if we thought about the Common Core project as a generation-long effort, that would make much more sense.

But long-term projects are hard for politicians to approve, at least in education. Keegan’s original plan in the 1990s failed because she tried to squeeze a solution to the generational challenge into the time scale that politicians use: their time in office. The reasoning Ladner uses (quoted above) essentially uses one or more cohorts of children as fodder for education policy: putting their credentials at risk in hopes of making education better for those who follow. Usually we justify that sort of sacrifice in the context of actual war, and these days, the U.S. military does not draft adults to put their lives on the line. But Keegan did draft Arizona teenagers in her perceived war on low expectations. In the end, suburban parents in Arizona decided they didn’t want their children to risk high school graduation for Keegan’s war.

Think this is a stale story, irrelevant to the present? Yesterday, Arne Duncan told the Council of Chief State School Officers that opposition to the Common Core State Standards was coming from the successors to those suburban parents who fought Lisa Keegan: “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Addendum: The racial and gendered nature of this comment has sparked quite a bit of commentary online, such as P.L. Thomas’s blog entry and Jose Vilson’s. The politics of privilege and education are about 17 layers deep here.

Many (not all!) supporters of Common Core are hoping precisely that new CCSS-derived tests will throw a bucketful of cold water in everyone’s faces about educational quality. That sounds like the same dynamic that tries to treat the generational challenge as something that can and should be solved in a year or three. The general principle is important: don’t expect this year’s high school sophomores to be the levers with which to solve the generational challenge.