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The March of the Lilliputians

Posted by Jim Stergios  August 23, 2010 10:52 AM

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In 1993, a governor and some legislative giants assembled a reform based on high standards, accountability for students and teachers, and charter schools. We spent $90-plus billion doing it but it worked, as we topped the national assessments, and reached the level of best "countries" on international math and science tests.

Massachusetts' reputation for success in education has grown over the last decade together with our students' academic achievement scores. For an average size state, we grew to the point where we were head and shoulders above other states — to the point where we outsized other states in the union. We were no longer in a national competition; we competed internationally. After a several year slumber, states with itty bitty education reputations (howdy West Virginia!) are now growing, and we are willfully, woefully shrinking. As Jonathan Swift noted in Gulliver's Travels:

I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir; for, as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground, and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner...

States with minor education reputations like Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, as well as DC trade organizations like the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), Achieve, Inc., and others lead this band of new Lilliputians.

In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downward as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hand, and a quiver at his back. In the mean time I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first.

And as we slept (was it the half pint of brandy Gulliver chugged before he left the ship?), we now find ourselves tied down, restricted by the half-foot-high education munchkins.

What a change in destiny in four short years. Supine Massachusetts falls for the facile argument that we, the Bay State, should learn from the same curriculum as kids in Mississippi (another educational giant) and West Virginia. How's such a change possible and yet it's the basic propulsive logic behind national standards. That's Lilliputian Big Ideas at work — small-minded theory cooked up by a bunch of people who have no proven record of excellence. And we follow.

It's a world shorn of history, individual and community differences, and basic principles (remember the ol' "laboratories of democracy" argument for federalism?).

Perhaps after attaining national leadership in education, we got sleepy. Perhaps we got dizzy with self-congratulation, which made us susceptible to airy and aspirational platitudes, rather than focusing on real academic weaknesses within the state. I think we got tired of making hard decisions and saying "no" to special interests. We could not face up to the hard work of addressing the high end problem (we have too few students who are "advanced" in their academic work) and the low end problem (the achievement gaps). So we fell asleep.

Our educational Lilliputians have never answered even these most basic questions about their national standards la-la-land.

  • What if we can only get national standards by killing off the high-quality state standards?
  • What if we lose our competitive edge as a state?
  • What if the process was corrupt and "extra-governmental" rather than respectful of principles and even laboratories of democracy federalism?
  • What if we end up with bad ideas driven from hundreds of miles away, such as the skills view of standards and assessments? What if there is no way to remove the yoke once it is around our necks?

And don't hold your breath. The Lilliputians are too busy knotting down Gulliver to answer these questions. I recently blogged on how some state officials are advancing the "21st-century skills" agenda advocated across the country by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This is something the Patrick Administration wanted early (also see here) — and they will do whatever it takes to get there, even using a provision of a recently passed economic development law. Not only does the soft skills agenda not benefit kids' academic achievement, but it also has in some states led to a return of the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

A year-plus ago, Robert Pondiscio of Core Knowledge noted that some in Congress were trying to give quasi-governmental status to P21, so it could push its agenda.

Common Core’s Lynne Munson has an eyebrow-raising post today on a piece of federal legislation that would give extraordinary quasi-governmental power to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Munson reports that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will put forth a “21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act.” The bill would create “an incentive fund for states to sign on to P21 and give tax breaks to corporations who support P21 at the state level.” As Munson notes the bill would make P21 the gatekeeper of hundreds of millions in federal taxdollars.

That's not fundamentally different from what happened with the national standards, where the CCSSO and the NGA, two quasi-governmental trade organizations, worked with non-profits and the Gates Foundation to fund, advocate and more or less act as judge and jury for the national standards.

The Lilliputians won with the July vote of the Massachusetts Board of Education, which led to the Bay State's adoption of the national standards and turned our nation-leading state standards to a dead letter document. Many among our friends in DC have noted that they don't think the new national standards will be captured by the P21 fad.

But while a state of affairs devoutly to be wished for, that's nonsense. It has already been reported by Stephen Sawchuck in EdWeek that

A group convened by the Council of Chief State School Officers recently released a draft of professional teaching standards that outline what practices, essential knowledge, and dispositions teachers should embody to help students succeed...

The authors also wove interdisciplinary themes of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and technology use—sometimes called the 21st-century skills—throughout the standards.

And, in a very interesting turn of events, once again brought to light by CommonCore's Lynne Munson, we find that P21 is now going to be subsumed under the CCSSO. How quaint to elevate an advocate of unproven and untested soft skills to a partnership in implementing the national agenda, at the very time that work has begun on how to assess student progress. That, after all, was always the game that most interested P21.

This is strange. P21 is being subsumed into CCSSO. There’s nothing to be read about this on either CCSSO’s or P21's websites. But according to Fritzwire the two organizations have formed a “strategic management relationship” that will commence December 1. The relationship sounds pretty one-way, though, with CCSSO providing “financial and resources management services as well as hous[ing] P21 employees” and CCSSO getting nothing in return. This all comes at a time when P21 continues to look for an executive director (Ken Kay will depart sometime this fall). It is difficult to believe, in light of the largess represented on P21's star-studded board of tech foundations, that they have fallen on hard times. But stranger things have happened.

Many of the Great and Good who supported Massachusetts' adoption of national standards have told me not to worry: The 21st century skills agenda and the national standards agendas were so different.

I guess the best medicine, as Swift used to say, is Dr. Merryman — laughter. But if it is laughter, what comes to mind is Swift's Strephon and Chloe, which frames very well how this fiasco has turned out:

But ere you sell yourself to laughter, Consider well what may come after; For fine ideas vanish fast, While all the gross and filthy last.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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