A Different Approach to Setting Academic Standards

Photo Credit: J. Sanna (CC-By-2.0)

I just received EdChoice’s report, Rethinking Regulation: Overseeing Performance in a Diversifying Educational Ecosystem written by Michael Q. McShane, in the mail Thursday. McShane is EdChoice‘s director of national research, as well as, an adjunct fellow for educational studies at the American Enterprise Institute and senior fellow with the Show-Me Institute in Missouri. The report was released in May.

He looks at the historical justifications for regulation, examines the regulatory practices, and then lays out a four-step process for reforming K-12 regulation today. He’s primarily focused on what happens at the state, not federal, level.

It was a wonky, but interesting read. I can’t say I agree with all of his conclusions, and I think there need to be deeper changes than what he suggests, but I wanted to highlight what he had to say about academic standards and assessments.

He advocates states draft fewer, simpler standards:

By my count, first graders in Missouri have 112 individual English Language Arts standards they are supposed to meet by the end of the school year. Missouri only requires that schools are in session for 174 days, meaning that there is one ELA standard for every one and a half days of school. As a former English teacher, this seems excessive.

States should have a small set of expectations for schools that are clearly communicated, measured directly and reported simply. Any principal, teacher, or parent should be able to parse the results…

…The simplest way to accomplish this is to cut down the number of standards to just the most important ones. But another could be a shift from defining a set of standards for every single grade to a cumulative set of standards that students should meet by the end of the major transition points in their education (say at fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade). Even if states wanted to keep a coherent set of K-12 standards, perhaps they might require less frequent testing. Prior to No Child Left Behind, taking standardized tests every year was the exception, not the norm, and even high-performing states like Massachusetts only tested in fourth, eighth, and 10th grades, (pg. 9)

This is an interesting observation, and one that states when adopting academic standards should consider. It’s certainly a problem with Common Core. I also like his point about less frequent testing. Even Finland, whose education system has been championed by reformers, does not require the amount of assessment as we see in the United States.

He also recommends that states allow multiple assessments to be used instead of forcing all schools to use one. He writes:

If states still want to test students every year, there are multiple, psychometrically-validated standardized tests that can give teachers, parents and community members valuable and actionable information about how students are performing in school. Whether it is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the TerraNova, the NWEA, or the SAT-10, tens of millions of children have taken these tests. They are nationally norm-referenced so everyone involved can know not just how students are scoring in relation to the students in their state, but to students all around the country.

Schools should be free to use these tests as a tool to measure how well they are educating their students.

It is true that these tests are norm-referenced, and not based on particular state standards that states have drafted with their individual expectations for student knowledge. But the tradeoff in national comparability, ease of administration and freedom for educators to find the assessment they think best reflects what they are doing in their classroom could very well be worth it. If schools really value those standards, they can use the state’s tests. But it is also true that nationally normed tests reflect a broader consensus about what students should know beyond the handpicked groups of stakeholders that form the backbone of the state standard-writing process. Schools should have the option to choose those as well, (pg. 10).

An interesting point and one that runs counter to what we have seen most reformers advocate. 

South Dakota Adopts New Standards, Media Reports Zero Interest From General Public

The South Dakota Board of Education Standards adopted on Monday new standards in the following subjects:

  • Capstone courses
  • Career and technical education (business management & administration; government &
  • public administration; hospitality & tourism; marketing; transportation, distribution &
  • logistics)
  • English language arts
  • Health education
  • Math
  • Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards

You can review the current standards, proposed standards, workgroup information, and submit a comment here. (I have not reviewed the proposed math and ELA standards in comparison to the Common Core yet. Because of reviews and revisions that other states have completed I’m not hopeful for significant change. I would like to be wrong though.)

The South Dakota Joint Legislative Rules Review committee has to approve the changes.

South Dakota state law requires that the South Dakota Board of Education Standards review academic content standards on a cyclical basis. In addition, the board is required to host four public hearings as part of the standards review process. The adoption of the standards came after the conclusion of the fourth public hearing.

An overall lack of public comment during these “public hearings” which is just an open comment time during the board’s regular meetings caused the Watertown Public Opinion to conclude: “School-content standards draws zero interest from general public.”

Was it zero interest or was it that most people who care lack the ability to come to a state school board meeting that is held at 9:00a when most people work?

The board does hold their meetings at various locations. This week’s meeting was held in Pierre, the state capitol, and the last three were held in Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, and Rapid City.

They are still held during the work day, it’s almost like they want to discourage public input. If the board was serious about public input they would hold their public hearings at 7:00p rather than 9:00a. I’m self-employed, but even I have difficulty attending meetings at that time so I can imagine the difficulty for people who punch a clock or who are expected to keep regular office hours.

Also, considering the public outcry over the last few years following the adoption of Common Core both nationally and in South Dakota how can anyone conclude there is not public interest?

Unfortunately, many people may have also concluded that petitioning the South Dakota Board of Education Standards (or any state board of education) is largely a waste of time. I think that is sad, but that skepticism says more about the established educracy than it does the general public.

That said, it’s important for concerned citizens to stay engaged if, for nothing else, to prevent the narrative that we don’t care.

What Are Gubernatorial Candidates Saying About Education?

The tan colored states represent gubernatorial elections in 2018.

There are 36 gubernatorial contests in 2018 with 269 declared candidates. What are they saying about education?

According to Rick Hess and Sofia Gallo at American Enterprise Institute, not so much.

They wrote on Wednesday at Real Clear Policy:

So, during the first half of February, we used the National Governors Association website and Ballotpedia to identify the 269 declared gubernatorial candidates and then visited the websites for each. There were 121 candidates who had no website (a tiny handful) or who offered no information regarding their education positions. For the 148 candidates who had something to say on education — including 63 Republicans and 85 Democrats — we examined their sites to see what topics addressed and what they had to say. What did this exercise reveal?

First, there’s been a marked shift from many of the concerns that predominated 4 or 8 years ago. Candidates devoted little attention to topics like school accountability (mentioned by just nine candidates), teacher evaluation (mentioned by just five), or the Common Core (mentioned by 17). When testing and standards do arise, candidates don’t have many good things to say. For instance, the mentions of academic standards and the Common Core are overwhelmingly negative — with more than 80 percent denouncing them. Similarly, just one candidate makes a positive reference to testing; the other 19 candidates who mention the topic all promise to reduce the number of tests.

Second, the only educational issue that registered support from a majority of candidates was career and technical education (CTE), which received enthusiastic bipartisan backing. More than 60 candidates — including 40 Democrats and 24 Republicans — endorsed expanding CTE.

He also noted that there was little attention paid to school choice either positive or negative. I can vouch for this in Iowa, beyond school spending, CTE was part of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State Address. She also mentioned school choice, but through accessing 529 savings accounts used for parents to save for college, not ESAs or vouchers. She also discussed STEM.

He did note that when gubernatorial candidates talk about CTE they all don’t mean the same thing.

By “career and technical education,” some mean vocational schools while others mean apprenticeships; some are championing more high school programs while others are thinking about community college systems.

Reynolds pointed to a new program called Future Ready Iowa that will implement pre-apprenticeships for high school students.

For the most part, it’s been pretty quiet on the education front on matters of policy (beyond spending which is always an issue). In terms of trying to find candidates who will challenge top-down reform and repeal top-down standards, it is challenging.

As you look for a candidate to support you’ll have to take the initiative to get candidates to talk about standards, assessments, and data privacy. It’s much easier to ask your questions during the primary process than it will be the general election. If there are opportunities to get to meet candidates and ask them questions, be sure to take advantage of it. Of course, talk is cheap, be sure to check out their record if they’ve been in elected office as an incumbent governor or as a legislator.

I plan to highlight those who are speaking out against Common Core and top-down standards here.

Americans for Prosperity Blasts Common Core

I had a brief conversation with Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the Common Core at RightOnline in Las Vegas, but I don’t know if I’m the one who put it on their radar.  The Common Core State Standards was the focus of their August 2012 “Need to Know” newsletter.  I’m just glad they focused on it because it seems like it would be a good fit for them to take on as an issue.

An excerpt:

Common Core’s catch is that the federal government has a long history of mismanaging education, having required states to raise their academic standards at least five times over the last two decades with little success. President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top have all asked states to raise their standards, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has subsequently found no significant improvement in student achievement.  Although Common Core has slight structural differences from these past failures, it nevertheless adopts the same failed strategy of trying to reform education by simply raising academic standards, instead of doing the hard work of going school by school to restructure failing systems. Thus, it is sure to reap the same fruitless results since raising standards in the past has not been proven to raise student achievement.

Be sure to read the whole thing, and perhaps send them an email thanking them for helping to put a spotlight on the issue.