There Are No Silver Bullets

Dr. Gary Houchens, a member of Kentucky’s State Board of Education and Associate Professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, & Research at Western Kentucky University, wrote a two-part series about what education accountability can and can’t accomplish.

In part 2 he makes a point that I’ve been making for quite some time. When it comes to improving education whether we are talking student achievement outcomes or school improvement there are not silver bullets.

He writes:

Some educators believe very strongly that the achievement gap is a function of poor school funding overall and inequities of funding across districts. I’m skeptical, because per pupil education spending has skyrocketed over the last four decades (only recently leveling off and declining since the 2008 recession), while achievement has remained stubbornly stagnant and achievement gaps have actually worsened a bit.

I must concede that, during that same time period, the entire mission of education changed. In the 1970’s we did not expect schools to educate every child to proficiency, and the economy continued to have a place for low-skilled workers. Now we face the unprecedented challenge of educating every child to high levels, and the economy has no place for the ones we fail. We might very well need more resources to meet our new mission, but I don’t believe for a second that if the state legislature handed educators billions more dollars that we’d know precisely how to use those funds to rapidly accelerate student learning.

Which is not to say we have no ideas; we just lack a consensus on which of those ideas are most appropriate for closing the achievement gap, and no single strategy has promise for rapidly boosting and sustaining high levels of student achievement by itself. I have to admit this applies to some of my own favorite strategies for education improvement, including school choice, redesigning curriculum, and creating mastery-based learning systems that are more responsive to individual student needs.

Because there are no silver bullet strategies, we should not invest in top-down, one-size-fits-all types of education reform. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called states “laboratories of democracy,” I think we can apply that to local school districts as well. Innovation occurs as districts and states discover what works best for their students.

That can only happen if the federal government and even state departments of education get out of the way.

Utah Legislature Calls for Abolishment of U.S. Department of Education

Utah State Representative Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) sponsored a resolution calling for the restoration of the division of governmental responsibilities between the national government and the state (aka Federalism).

HJR 017 passed the Utah House on March 6 with a 60 to 14 vote. On March 9 it passed the Utah Senate on a 20 to 1 vote. It was then enrolled on March 17.

Below is the excerpt of the resolution dealing with education:

WHEREAS, the [federalism] Commission received the following summary of federal overreach: EDUCATION

  • Recognize that education is not a power delegated to the federal government under the Constitution, it is reserved to the states;
  • Abolish the United States Department of Education and block grant administration costs and federal appropriations to the state;
  • Repeal the mandates of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and
  • Relax the overly expansive interpretation of federal regulations, which increase costs and adversely affects education at all levels;

The bill sends a strong message to Congress and the White House that Utah at least is fed up with federal overreach. Hopefully other states will do the same to put pressure on Congress to act.

Evan McMullin: Eliminate Federal Common Core Mandates


Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and chief policy director for the House Republican Caucus, announced his candidacy for President yesterday. His campaign website discusses education:

Local control, expanded opportunity and a return to fundamentals are vital to reforming our failing education system. The markets and economies of the future will require more than one-size-fits-all curricula, and we must expand opportunity for every student by providing more options for the charter and magnet schools which bring out the best in our kids. We should eliminate Federal Common Core mandates that take power out of the hands of teachers.

He also had an interview with National Review where he discussed a return to federalism.

Domestically, McMullin cast himself as an advocate of federalism and of congressional power, pledging to sign, if elected, the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, which would grant Congress more oversight of significant executive-branch regulations. He also said he would respect states’ rights to make political decisions with which he disagreed.

“I’m talking about states having the ability to chart their own course to a greater degree, which may mean Vermont does something absolutely wild that Utah wouldn’t want to do,” he said, adding that neither Trump nor Clinton would challenge the increasing consolidation of executive power.

“What about Donald Trump makes you think he is comfortable giving power to anyone? Hillary? Absolutely not. . . . We have to let the competition of ideas and democracy play out among the states. At the federal level it’s a monopoly of power. . . . There’s no real competition, and that’s part of why we have the problems we have now,” McMullin said.

Feds Bypass States to Get Local Districts to Sign “Future Ready District Pledge”

1024px-US-DeptOfEducation-SealMissouri Education Watchdog first reported today that the U.S. Department of Education has sent out a letter to Superintendents of local school districts explaining their “future ready district pledge.”

You can find the letter here and I also have the text below:

Dear Superintendent,

As one of more than 16,000 superintendents leading school districts across the nation, you are on the forefront of the transformation of public education. Technology now allows for personalized digital learning for every student in the nation so long as leaders have the technological infrastructure and human capacity in place to ensure success.

The Future Ready District Pledge is designed to set out a roadmap to achieve that success and to commit districts to move as quickly as possible towards our shared vision of preparing students for success in college, careers and citizenship. The U.S. Department of Education seeks to encourage and support superintendents who commit to taking a leadership role in this transition with recognition and resources to help facilitate this transition to digital learning.

In June of 2013, the President launched the ConnectED Initiative to provide 99% of students in the nation with access to high-speed Internet connectivity at the classroom level. Coupled with two billion dollars from the federal E-Rate program, increased flexibility in the use of federal funds, and billions of dollars in additional commitments from the private sector, progress towards improving the nation’s physical infrastructure has already been dramatically accelerated.

However, in order for these resources to leverage their maximum impact on student learning, schools and districts must develop the human capacity, digital materials, and device access to use the new bandwidth wisely and effectively. The Future Ready District Pledge establishes a framework for achieving those goals and will be followed by providing district leaders with additional implementation guidance, online resources, and other support they need to transition to effective digital learning and achieve tangible outcomes for the students they serve.

The U.S. Department of Education is calling on superintendents like you who lead district, charter, and private schools to join us in taking the Future Ready District Pledge and working to develop, implement, and share your technology plan with other districts so they can learn from your successes and challenges along the way.

Thank you for all you are already doing to improve the education for our nation’s students. Do not hesitate to reach out to us for support. We stand ready to help you become a Future Ready district.

Richard Culatta
Director, Office of Educational Technology
Office of the Secretary

Seth Andrew
Senior Advisor & Superintendent in Residence
Office of the Secretary

Here is the text of their pledge:

Future Ready District Pledge

I, _______________________, Superintendent of _________________________ do hereby affirm the commitment of this district to work with students, educators, families, and members of our community to become Future Ready by engaging in a wide range of activities such as:

Fostering and Leading a Culture of Digital Learning Within Our Schools.
Future Ready district leadership teams work collaboratively to transform teaching and learning using the power of technology to help drive continuous improvement. We work together to protect student privacy and to teach students to become responsible, engaged, and contributing digital citizens.
Helping Schools and Families Transition to High-speed Connectivity.
Future Ready districts conduct comprehensive diagnostic assessments of the district’s technology infrastructure and develop a sustainable plan to ensure broadband classroom connectivity and wireless access. Future Ready districts work with community partners to leverage local, state, and federal resources to support home Internet access outside of traditional school hours.
Empowering Educators through Professional Learning Opportunities.
Future Ready districts strive to provide everyone with access to personalized learning opportunities and instructional experts that give teachers and leaders the individual support they need, when they need it. Future Ready districts provide tools to help teachers effectively leverage learning data to make better instructional decisions.
Accelerating Progress Toward Universal Access for All Students to Quality Devices.
Future Ready districts work with necessary stakeholders to ensure that all students and educators across the district have regular access to devices for learning. Future Ready districts develop tools to support a robust infrastructure for managing and optimizing safe and effective use of technology, so students have opportunities to be active learners, creating and sharing content, not just consuming it.
Providing Access to Quality Digital Content.
Future Ready districts align, curate, create, and consistently improve digital materials and apps used in the support of learning. Future Ready districts use carefully selected high quality digital content that is aligned to college and career ready standards as an essential part of daily teaching and learning. Teachers are able to share, discover, and adapt openly-licensed materials and teaching plans.
Offering Digital Tools to Help Students And Families #ReachHigher.
Future Ready districts make digital resources available that help access expanded college, career, and citizenship opportunities. Future Ready districts promote ways to leverage technology to expand equity through digital activities such as completion of the FAFSA online, virtual counseling services, college scholarship search tools, and online advising access, all of which help to return America to the nation in the world with the highest college completion rate by 2020.
Mentoring Other Districts and Helping Them Transition to Digital Learning.
Future Ready districts work to design, implement, and share their technology plans. Future Ready districts join regional summits, participate in an online Connected Superintendents’ community of practice, and publish their Future Ready technology plan at a site such as

There are numerous problems with this pledge which Anne Gassel highlights at MEW, but the most troubling aspect to this is the trend of the U.S. Department of Education bypassing states.  They have done it with the District Level Race to the Top program and other federal grants, with the Principal and Teacher Ambassador program, and now this.

Just a reminder… there is no constitutional role in education for the federal government.

Debunking Misconceptions: “The Common Core is State-Led”

I thought that I would start a series on common misconceptions related to the Common Core State Standards.  I don’t know how frequently I’ll come back to this series, but as these misconceptions come up or as I hear them I want to address them.  The first is one that I hear quite frequently and I was told was a misconception repeated in the Iowa House Education Committee meeting the other day when the Common Core was briefly discussed.

The Common Core is not state-led.  To be fair, when I say that I’m not saying that the U.S. Department of Education wrote the Common Core.  I’m not even saying it was their idea.  It wasn’t.  Advocates of the Common Core who say it is state-led typically are saying neither of these things happened.

On that we can agree.

It’s always important to get past lingo and clarify what we mean.  When I say something is “state-led,” I mean it is initiated within state departments of education with the blessing of the state’s governor and then approved by the state legislature and then signed into law by the state’s Governor.

A scenario that could have happened with standards that could legitimately be called “state-led.”  Say members within the say Texas Education Agency said “hey, we really like what Massachusetts is doing with their standards.”  They then go on to study them, talk to experts who are knowledgeable with the process of developing those standards, get parental and teacher input, tweak the standards in a way that makes sense to Texas, send them to the Texas Legislature who then approves them, and then Governor Rick Perry signs it into law.  Some Texas Legislators rub elbows with state legislators from other states saying… “this is what we did in Texas, and then state legislators from Massachusetts said, “hey yes you should look at what we’re doing.”  Then other state legislators go back to their states and initiate that process.  Perhaps this conversation could take place within the National Governor’s Association or Council of Chief State School Officers, but the point is they were standards written at the state level, approved in the legislative process and is then reciprocated by other states in a way that makes sense to them.

That would be a “state-led” initiative and a process I could applaud.  States should look for what works.  Why not look at Massachusetts standards, Indiana’s ELA standards, and say California’s math standards (prior to alignment to the Common Core).  I’m for common sense, and that would be common sense.

That isn’t what happened however.

The process was initiated by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  They then delegated the drafting of the standards to Achieve, Inc. who was created by the NGA.  This process was managed by six state Governors who were chosen by a non-democratic process).  The oversight also included the CEOs of Battelle Memorial Institute, Intel Corporation, Prudential Financial, Achieve, Inc. and State Farm Insurance.

This was all financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Boeing Company, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the GE Foundation, IBM Corporation, Intel Foundation, Nationwide, the Prudential Foundation, the State Farm Insurance Company, Washington Mutual Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewett Foundation.

To top it off the NGA-recognized “reviews” of the standards commissioned by Achieve were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an interest group who were pushing the standards to begin with.  No conflict of interest there!  Since January of 2008 the Gates Foundation has awarded the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers over $35 Million (this is a dated amount, it most certainly has increased by now).

This is what we call state-led?  No, if advocates of the Common Core were honest they would say it is special-interest written and funded.  However it was Federally-pushed getting other states on board.  That’s where Race to the Top grants come in.  Through the 2009 stimulus package $4.35 billion in discretionary money was given to the U.S. Department of Education and in order to qualify for these grants states had to adopt the Common Core.

This is state-led?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan went on to tell states that in order to receive a No Child Left Behind Waiver had to, for starters, adopt the Common Core and then adopt other “reforms” prescribed by the Department.

That’s state-led?

Even Tony Bennett, who was recently ousted as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, bemoaned the standards being “federalized.”

No state has yet adopted these through their state legislature.  That’s state-led?

Under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, education is among the most important policy power not “delegated to the United States” and therefore is “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Historically, U.S. Education policy-making has been a matter of local control, where parents have the most influence.  That was not honored in this process.

So we can all the Common Core a whole plethora of things, but “state-led” can’t honestly be one of them.

Is Education a Massive Failure of Federalism?

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, complained in his op/ed in The Washington Post about the Obama Administration’s use of waivers in circumventing the law.  He wrote:

The Obama administration is increasingly becoming known not for its legislative achievements but for its federal waivers to legislative achievements. It has exempted favored groups from immigration laws, welfare-reform work requirements, even provisions of the Affordable Care Act (more than 1,300 businesses and unions have been given a reprieve from health-care coverage rules).

The boldest use of the waiver power, however, has come on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). More than half of the states have been granted exemptions from the law’s requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. When a law’s provisions are ignored in a majority of cases, it can properly be considered overturned.

I agree with this complaint though I am no fan of No Child Left Behind.  It is unconstitutional, Congress needed to repeal it.  The President just can’t unilaterally ignore it. 

Here is where he lost me:

The only problem: Education is a massive failure of federalism. By the second half of the 20th century, America’s public schools were betraying many of the students in their charge, including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students. In 2000, 5 percent of African American fourth-graders and 7 percent of their Hispanic peers were assessed proficient in math. Some students were left in dropout factories where teachers and administrators routinely blamed parents for their own overwhelmed incompetence. Other students were sabotaged by shoddy educational standards that left much of a generation unequal to global competition.

It is true that highly centralized governmental systems can be arrogant and mediocre. Public education demonstrates that a highly decentralized governmental system can also be arrogant and mediocre, particularly when parents are denied objective information about educational outcomes. (emphasis mine)

Is education really a failure of federalism?  I would argue the opposite.  The quality of education decreased the more states and the federal government got involved.  You can blame public education’s failure on many things, and he’s on the right track in his comment about parents, but federalism isn’t one of them.

And Mitt Romney’s Education Plan Receives a D

By our own Shane Vander Hart

While there are some encouraging aspects to Governor Romney’s plan and I can point to specific improvements over what we currently see in the Obama administration.  The complaint that Obama has expanded federal education bureaucracy, (pg. 13) is countered with slightly less federal bureaucracy.  Given that the principles of federalism are still being ignored, the school choice measures are anemic and there is an over emphasis/reliance on standardized testing I have to give Governor Romney’s K-12 plan a D.  His position on teachers unions, reducing the amount of federal regulations with teacher certification, consolidating teach quality programs from NCLB, and focusing on choice spared this plan from receiving a failing grade.  Governor Romney’s involvement with the common core state standards is uncertain based on his ties with its supporters and his emphasis on standards.  I do hope we see a Romney administration back away from promoting the common core, but at this point I see little that would make me optimistic.

Read the whole thing.

Local Control Doesn’t Have to Be Sacrificed for School Choice

The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education released a white paper this week entitled “Choice and Federalism: Defining the Federal Role in Education.”  I looked forward to reading what this conservative think tank based at Stanford University had to say.  I was disappointed.

While I applaud their ideas as they relate to school choice I was frustrated to see that they dismissed local control.  Right in their forward you see where they are headed as they listed the options for the federal government going forward, as the second option was to: “Devolve power to states and districts, thereby returning to the status quo of the past century.”

Local control does not equate status quo.  Why buy into the notion that only the Federal government can innovate?  They, throughout the paper, advocate greater parental involvement and control. How is that really achieved by a top-down approach?

Then there’s the constitutionality question that isn’t even addressed.  On pg. 1 in the executive summary they write:

The top-down approach aspires to emulate the national standards,accountability, curriculum, and teacher preparation policies dictated by the centralized ministries of education in most developed nations. The arguments for the top-down approach in the United States include the consistency and coherence that can flow from a centrally controlled system, as well as the ability of the Federal government to counteract some of the forces that support the status quo in education at state and local levels. Thus in the top-down model the federal government becomes an agent of reform and a provider of quality standards that serve the nation’s interests better than the haphazard and often self-serving ministrations of fifteen thousand individual school districts and fifty states.

Before that they said that mention in the forward that “sadly, the federal government’s increased role education has led to only small improvements in performance by American students.”  So how exactly have they been an agent of reform?  Through the common core state standards?  States such as California and Massachusetts have seen their standards diminished as a result of adopting the CCSS.  Reform can, and is, happening at the state and local levels.  Why?  Because parents and community leaders have more vested in the education of their kids than some bureaucrat in DC.   They go on:

It is unclear to us how releasing states and school districts from federal accountability and granting them maximum flexibility is anything more than a return to the status quo. It is the regrettable state of the status quo that motivated increased federal involvement in the first place. With a quarter of America’s youth not graduating with a regular high school degree, with those students who remain in school performing at mediocre academic levels compared with students in many of the nations with which we compete, and with the costs of our public education system among the highest in the world, we believe that something is needed other than a return to the happy days of school governance in the last century, (pg. 3).

During our “happy days of school governance” the United States had a world-class educational system.  Some states achieved greater results than others for certain.  That is a result of federalism with the demographics and political/cultural ideology being different at the state and local levels.  With the federal government being involved you still have that, but now you have unfunded mandates being thrown in the mix.  Some schools continue to improve, while others will not.  This has more to do with teaching staff, how entrenched teacher’s unions are in a particular district, and parental involvement.

They acknowledge this:

But local control in the sense of parental and taxpayer influence is undermined in the current system by special interests that control school bureaucracies. The present arrangement of school boards, federal and state regulations, union contracts,teacher licensing, and court orders is frozen in place and thus can resist or distort almost any new initiative. Further, the ability of taxpaying parents of school-aged children to vote with their feet (leave school districts with which they are dissatisfied) is severely constrained for low-income populations that are most likely to find themselves served by low-performing schools. This lack of geographical mobility for large segments of the population undermines the competitive pressure that low-performing schools and school districts would otherwise expect to face in the context of fiscal federalism, (pg. 5-6).

The problem is not local control, but the special interests that control school bureaucracies.  As I have said I agree with their goal – more school choice and parental sovereignty in making that choice.  I also agree that education dollars should follow the student, not dictate where a student must go.  They advocate keeping the layer of special interests by maintaining a federal role in the process.  The Federal government thereby becomes a special interest.  The problem with this is that administrations and goals of each administration will change.  We have seen this with the Bush and Obama administrations.  President George W. Bush while increasing federal involvement (one of his administration’s flaws) was at least friendly to choice.  President Barack Obama on the other hand has advanced it even further without being friendly to choice.   What will happen in the future?

The top down approach will not work in the long-term if our goal is to be an advocate for school choice.  On page 60 they advocate a carrots and sticks approach, but again that approach can be applied differently under a different administration.

What they advocate, and again I agree with their goal of increasing choice for parents, is best done at the state level while working to get the Federal government out of the education business (keeping the education dollars at home).  They have some great ideas, which I believe can be applied at a state by state level.  I also believe this would be easier to accomplish on a state by state basis.  You don’t have to throw local control under the bus to accomplish education reform through school choice.

You can read their white paper below:

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Originally posted at American Principles in Action

ALEC Education Task Force Approves Anti-Common Core Model Legislation

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) met last week in Scottsdale, AZ.  They are an organization whose mission is “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public.”  They have several task forces, one of which is education.

This group is important as model legislation is often developed and discussed and then taken home to the state capitals and placed on legislative agendas.  Though the group’s mission is to advance Jeffersonian principles, in particular federalism, pro-common core state standards advocates like Achieve, Jeb Bush, and The Gates Foundation have gained ground with its members.

The education task force heard argument from Closing the Door to Innovation, a statement that has been signed by 350 prominent education policymakers, researchers, teachers and parents.  As a result the education taskforce approved model legislation (sponsored by American Principles Project, The Goldwater Institute, and the Washington Policy Center) opposing the common core state standards.  The model legislation below will hopefully be introduced in a state legislature near you:

Comprehensive Legislative Package Opposing the Common Core State Standards Initiative:

WHEREAS, high student performance and closing the achievement gap is fundamentally linked to an overall reform of our public education system through a strong system of accountability and transparency built on state standards; and

WHEREAS, the responsibility for the education of each child of this nation primarily lies with parents, supported by locally elected school boards and state governments; and

WHEREAS, in 2009 and 2010, the State was offered the chance to compete for education funding through the “Race to the Top” program created by the U.S. Department of Education (“ED”); and

WHEREAS, the only way to achieve a score in the competition sufficient to qualify for funding was to agree to “participation in a consortium of States that… (i)s working toward jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards…”, and

WHEREAS, the only such “common set of K-12 standards” existent at that time, or since, is known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (“CCSSI”) and was developed without a grant of authority from any state; and

WHEREAS, local election officials, school leaders, teachers, and parents were not included in the discussion, evaluation and preparation of the CCSSI standards that would affect students in the state; and

WHEREAS, citizens had no opportunity to review and comment on the final version of CCSSI standards, and states were not offered an option to modify those standards before their adoption; and

WHEREAS, no empirical evidence indicates that centralized education standards result in higher student achievement; and

WHEREAS, adoption of the CCSSI standards would force several states to lower the rigor and quality of their standards; and

WHEREAS, the National Assessment of Educational Progress national test already exists and allows comparisons of academic achievement to be made across the states, without the necessity of imposing national standards, curricula, or assessments; and

WHEREAS, imposing a set of national standards is likely to lead to the imposition of a national curriculum and national assessment upon the various states, in violation of the General Education Provisions Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and the Department of Education Organization Act and

WHEREAS, claims from the Common Core Initiative that the CCSSI standards will not dictate what teachers teach in the classroom are refuted by language in the standards as written; and

WHEREAS, common standards will lesson the ability for local stakeholders to innovate and continue to make improvement over time; and

WHEREAS, when no less than 22 states face budget shortfalls and Race to the Top funding for states is limited, $350 million for consortia to develop new assessments aligned with the CCSSI standards will not cover the entire cost of overhauling state accountability systems, which includes implementation of standards and testing and associated professional development and curriculum restructuring; and

WHEREAS, special interest groups can manipulate the vulnerability of the centralized decision making that governs common standards and lower the standards’ rigor and quality of over time to suite their priorities;

Option A (Resolution):

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the (legislative body) of the state of (name of state) rejects any policies and procedures that would be incumbent on the state based on Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Option B (Statute):

The State Board of Education may not adopt, and the State Department of Education may not implement, the Common Core State Standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  Any actions taken to adopt or implement the Common Core State Standards as the effective date of this section are void ab initio.  Neither this nor any other statewide education standards may be adopted or implemented without the approval of the Legislature.

Originally posted at Caffeinated Thoughts

Tom Pauken on the Decentralization of Discretionary Spending

Tom Pauken, author of Bringing America Home and chair of the Texas Workforce Commission, discussed the decentralization of discretionary spending during a speech at the Eastside Conservative Club in Altoona, IA.  He mainly discusses education spending.

Texans seem to understand the federalist position in regards to education intuitively.