Are PARCC, SBAC, and Common Core State Standards Initiatives the DOE’s SuperPAC?

It’s a surprise to me to find myself writing in agreement with something coming out of the Pioneer Institute, but their “The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers” is the first comprehensive piece of scholarship I’ve found that examines the legal nuance of the RtTT effort and compares it to both the letter and the spirit of federal law. The entire white paper (by Robert S. Eitel and Kent D. Talbert with contributions from Williamson M. Evers) is worth a read.

I realize not everyone has the free time to sit and consume a white paper, so I’ll highlight some salient points:

With only minor exceptions, the General Education Provisions Act (“GEPA”), the Department of Education Organization Act (“DEOA”), and the ESEA, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (“NCLB”), ban federal departments and agencies from directing, supervising, or
controlling elementary and secondary school curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials.

And while RtTT and NCLB waivers don’t explicitly direct, supervise, or control curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials; it’s hard to imagine either isn’t attempting to do so using the levers of financial aid or reprieves from NCLB sanctions.

Eitel, Talbert, and Evers point out:

Thus, rather than permitting state and local authorities to use standards and assessments that uniquely fit a given state as required by the  ESEA, the Race to the Top Assessment Program requires each state in the consortium to use common standards across the respective states of the consortium. The result is that the Race to the Top Assessment Program moves states away from standards and assessments unique to a given state and into a new system of common standards and assessments across the consortia states.

Again, this isn’t the expressed purpose of these moves, but it does appear to be the desired effect.

Regarding the PARCC and SBAC consortia established to draw up RtTT-required assessments, the authors write:

These PARCC and SBAC supplemental funding materials, together with recent actions taken by the Department concerning ESEA waiver
requirements, have placed the agency on a road that will certainly cause it to cross the line of statutory prohibitions against federal direction, supervision or control of curriculum and instructional materials – upsetting the federal system.

…adding…

With conditions that mimic important elements of Race to the Top’s ingredients, the Conditional NCLB Waiver Plan will result in the  Department leveraging the states into a de facto long-term national system of curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials, notwithstanding the absence of legal authority in the ESEA.

The conceit of the argument is that the Department of Ed has implemented these programs and made money available to those who applied. What, specifically, groups like PARCC, SBAC, and CCSSI do with that money after it’s passed on is out of DOE control. If they want to implement a national curriculum, national standards, and national assessments, well bully for them. If each of those pieces happens to be exactly in line with what the DOE would like to see happen but is banned by federal law from doing, all the better.

The result is an education policy SuperPAC that acts in the grey area of the law – aligned with the letter, but in clear opposition of the spirit.

My annotated version of the white paper is here.

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Things I Know 237 of 365: The DoE is circumventing democracy

We have to educate our way to a better economy.

– Sec. Arne Duncan

In the latest round of circumventing the United States Congress, the U.S. Department of Education rolled out a new competition Friday that mirrors the cock fight tactics of Race to the Top.

In competing for a portion of $185 million in funding, states will have to show their colleges’ teacher preparation programs graduate teachers whose students score well on state testing. They’ll also need to tighten up teacher licensing requirements and kill off poor performing teacher preparation programs.

The move is wholly undemocratic and circumvents the checks and balances meant to stabilize the country. The DOE’s anti-policy plays on the needs of states, colleges and universities to find alternative sources of revenue as we double dip into another recession.

The move is akin to educational bum fights.

States and institutions that might otherwise be thoughtful in their adoption of policy will have little choice but to make moves they would otherwise abhor or at least question.

More frustratingly, the competition supposes we have all agreed student scores on state standardized tests are to be the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made just such an argument in her response to the competition:

At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests.

If this is to be the policy of the land, if this is to be the shape of the advent of completely nationalization of the K-12+ education system, then let it be more worthy of the country’s finest ideals.

Let there be debate.

Let it be fierce and thoughtful.

Let there be ideas from all sides presented to live or die on their merit.

Let it be the law of the land and the procedures of creating that law that governs our path.

To do otherwise and sidestep the system, to sidestep democracy, is to abdicate your right to complain or claim shock when those with whom you disagree choose the same path.

Things I Know 190 of 365: At the core what’s common are people

They never really sorted out what the subject of these standards is. It’s rather remarkable.

Tom Hoffman

I recently had to help show how the activities of a teacher training program I work with align to the Common Core (PDF) as well as the National Board (PDF) standards for English language arts.

While I respect the general depth-over breadth approach of the National Board standards, the Common Core standards leave me sad and alone like a jilted prom date.

Still, the task at hand was alignment and align we did.

And everything fit.

Every single activity aligned nicely with at least two Common Core standards without any embellishment. Should Congress hold hearings tomorrow requiring me to defend the connection of each learning activity to the standard of English education to which I claim it moves participants, I would sweat choosing a tie more than I would sweat making my case.

By that measure, the program looks beautiful. It looks perfect. It looks complete.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We know the program requires refinement. We know work is yet to be done. We know that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard if excellence is to be maintained.

It is a standard specific to our mission and vision in serving the specific population of teachers with whom we work.

As forty-three states raced to the top of something or other, they adopted the Common Core. Along the way, they told those they serve those adoptions would improve education for students in their states.

It won’t.

I rarely dole out definitives.

The standards for teaching English language arts are now and always have been helping students to read, write, speak, listen and think.

Such was the case the day before Utah’s August 8, 2010 adoption of the Common Core or North Dakota’s June 20, 2010 adopt. Such will be the case long after the next go round when they adopt standards that are more common and more core.

It will always be the people that matter. A great teacher August 7 in Utah was a great teacher August 9 in Utah. A horrible teacher was much the same.

A child who arrived at school hungry or abused June 19 in North Dakota was likely still hungry or abused June 21.

In the movement to adopt standards;  in the debate (where time was allotted for one); in the funding to print, promote and publish the standards; a point was missed.

The point was people.

Tomorrow, I’ll be working toward a higher standard. No state legislated it. I adopted it.

Things I Know 146 of 365: It’s our sights, not our size, that matters

Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.

Mark Bittman

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, the student population of the ten largest school districts in the United States was 3,939,071.

That same census data put the U.S. population at 307,006,550.

In 2009, ten school districts were responsible for the education of roughly 1.2 percent of the nation’s population.

As Sam Chaltain once said to me, American schools are the only public institutions to directly interact with 90 percent of the population.

America’s public schools are too big to fail.

A recent NPR report on talks currently taking place between the School District of Philadelphia and the City Commission regarding financial support from the city referred to the district as a “perpetually hungry child.”

I can see the comparison. Schools are hungry. They’ve always been hungry.

In dealing with a $629 million shortfall this year, I’d say the district is turning to the commission as a soup kitchen, not a buffet.

What’s clear beyond that admission is difficult to tell.

The $48.6 billion channeled to education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created change, but seemingly thoughtless change. The states and districts rushing to claim money for their coffers were as varied as Augustus Gloop and that starving child my mother always told me was waiting for whatever I didn’t eat at dinner.

If your state or district received any portion of the $48.6 billion, I’m willing to guess few people can point to where it was spent. If they can, I’ll go double or nothing the majority of recipients can’t give you a clear answer of how ARRA improved the lives of the students we serve.

I say lives because improving learning requires more than improving tests and textbooks. School lunch, transportation, socio-emotional counseling and a slew of other supports are all part of the web of public education. To think otherwise is to think too small and miss seeing the whole board.

In a 2009 Leaning Point and Mission Measurement brief on assessing the effectiveness of the stimulus, reported one interviewee saying, “States need to think of this as an inheritance and do something they wouldn’t normally do. They should be thinking about putting in a high-efficiency heating system and not just paying the mortgage.”

While some recipients did just that, others made investments equivalent to hiring a gardener.

The thinking was too small, the guidelines too restrictive.

I used to work at a magnet school that recruited only the lowest achieving students in the district. (No easy sell.)

Each time I would approach my principal with a new and oftentimes strange idea for instruction, he would approve it.

One day, I asked him why.

“We know that doing everything as usual doesn’t work with these kids,” he told me, “So, we need to try new things.”

The country understands half of the advice, but is missing the critical point.

If the encouragement is to buy the educational equivalent of high-efficiency heading systems, the caveat is those systems need to be fueled by the same coal that’s always been coming down the chute.

Nothing in the Education Department’s four assurances required for the receipt of further ARRA funds suggests a holistic or even humanist approach to education. Initially part of the 2007 America Competes Act the four requirements are:

  • Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities;
  • Establishing pre-K-to college and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement;
  • Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and in the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly students who are most in need;
  • Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

The systems built on and fueled by such requirements inspire compliance, not creativity. The classrooms made manifest by such systems inspire the same.

Our primary worry should not be that America’s public schools are too big to fail, but that its students will be too compliant to succeed.