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Students in which states are climbing highest?

Posted by Jim Stergios November 20, 2012 02:04 PM

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A lot of the headlines in the general and specialized media on education have focused the past few years on the seemingly interminable list of federal initiatives, which are more or less attempts by the federal government to define what "real" state reforms are (standards, tests, curricular materials, instructional practice, evaluations). It is ironic to anyone who watches this closely to remember that Secretary Duncan is largely working off of a cheat sheet he developed while superintendent of Chicago -- hardly an experience that has a lot of empirical evidence to back it up. When not leaning on that experience, he has turned to a number of DC-based organizations with equally weak records in improving outcomes for kids (see here for a much deserved skewering of said friends of reform).

The real action has always been at the state and local level. The reasons for that are easy to explain: tradition, federal and state laws, and money (states and localities provide >90% of all K-12 funding). The press and the policy world's focus on DC is not only misinformed, it is misleading. It is why we often hear pronouncements without meaning such as: Charter schools around the country have not performed uniformly well. Yup. Well, how about looking at the state level? State and local policy sets the parameters for charter consistency and performance just as they determine the success and failure of district, vocational-technical, virtual and private school options. Charters in Massachusetts are in many ways distinct from those in a number of states. And ours are highly successful in great part because of getting state policies right in the 1990s.

So, which states have shown the most progress overall (charter, district, and everybody included)? Which states can act as models for other state reformers who are not looking for dictates from the USDOE but rather to other comparable experiences?
There are a handful of states, but generally Massachusetts and Florida rise to the top for significant (and sustained) increases in student performance over time.

Matt Ladner works for the Foundation for Excellence in Education (an organization headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) and he is very bullish on Florida. He shared in a recent blog post entitled Read 'Em and Weep Edureactionaries (not sure who those reactionaries are...) an interesting chart from an important report authored by Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek, which once more shows that there is no correlation between money spent and K-12 academic performance.

Focusing on the 4th Grade Mathematics exam between 1992 and 2009, the authors found that increasing spending does not have a strong relationship with improved student learning.

But Ladner loses me when he starts putting the reforms in Florida on a pedestal at the expense of the reforms in Massachusetts.

Conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket and very wealthy and pale complected students should study MD, DE and MA for clues on how to improve their student outcomes.

If however you live in a state with average or above student diversity, real budgetary constraints on the amount you can spend on K-12 and strong competing demands for any additional revenue you are likely to scrape up, you should study Florida. In fact you should study Florida regardless unless you lack the guts for a good tussle.

He is in fact doing what many analysts do, which is conflate money with reform. Do I believe that money can be helpful in securing reforms? Yep. The fact is that the Massachusetts reforms (as opposed to the money) started in 1993 in reaction to a court case brought by the teachers unions seeking “adequate” funding. And it is a political fact of life that it’s often hard to get constituencies to agree to do hard things unless you provide additional resources.

In the case of Massachusetts, the money has largely gone to salary increases and sizable increases in funding dedicated to paying for the remarkable inflation in the cost of teachers’ health care.

But let's dig into Matt's thesis and start by following the money trail in both states. If Massachusetts increased its per pupil funding at the same rate as FL (1992-2009, NCES), it would have seen increases of 209% rather than the 236% we’ve seen. (The national average is 211% over that period of time.) Instead of increasing from $6,151 to $14,501, MA per pupil expenditures would now stand at $12,850, again according to NCES, or about $1,650 per pupil (see here and here).

That $1,650 per pupil differential in funding between Florida and Massachusetts is altogether due to the fact that Massachusetts increased teacher salaries far more than FL during the 1990 to 2011 period. In just the past 10 years, the average salary for a Massachusetts teacher has gone from $50,880 to $71,752 (+45%) versus $41,640 to $45, 732 (+20%) in Florida, according to the Teacher Portal (an effort by the National Education Association to track salaries and benefits).

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A separate but important expenditure side issue to note is that a recent study demonstrated that increases in health care costs for teachers in MA more than consumed all additional revenues from the state for education from 2000-2007, consuming $300 million more than increases in state funding.

The differential in the cost of health care, where average Massachusetts teacher plans are at least on average a couple of thousand higher, makes the difference in state education spending even less of an issue as it relates to the cost of reform.

There is of course the fact that normalizing (seeking apples to apples comparisons on purchasing power) the expenditure levels also corrects some of the differential, in as much as a Bureau of Economic Analysis report notes the difference in purchasing power between Boston and Miami to be on the order of 12 percent. (For those who may like extra handholding, Boston is the more expensive location!)

In suggesting that the Massachusetts’ reforms are less applicable to most states than those enacted in Florida, Matt is in essence equating money with reform. That is, he is implicitly making the argument that the teacher salary increases and the incredible run-up in teacher health care costs are a big part of the Massachusetts reform agenda. Logically, he is also assigning these increases in salary and health care costs a role in Massachusetts' faster improvement on the Nation’s Report Card, where the Bay State has improved faster than Florida on 4th and 8th grade math, and where Florida has outpaced Massachusetts' rate of improvement on 4th and 8th grade reading.

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I’m all for paying teachers more – in fact especially open to paying starting teachers more. But the fact is with low starting salaries imposed and absence of merit pay opposed by the teachers union because of their insistence on a uniform salary schedule, there is little to no reason to think that higher average salaries have done much during this period to improve the quality of teaching unless you make two pretty indefensible assumptions. One, schools of education have changed in a way that has altered the pipeline of prospective teachers. (Um, not true.) Second, teachers who are paid more are better teachers because of motivational factors. The second statement is not empirically tested and unknown as of yet, but it assumes that teachers who received lower pay before held back on the talents they possess. Observation tells me that such cases are limited in the extreme.

I also hope Matt is not asserting that paying more for health care is related to the quality of teaching.

The reforms in MA — mainly (1) choice through a high-quality charter process, inter-district choice, strengthening vocational-technical schools (which are schools of choice); (2) the development and implementation of high-quality standards; (3) high-quality student testing, made public and attached to an independent school audit system; and (4) teacher tests based on the standards and unlike the various PRAXIS tests given out countrywide in that Massachusetts’ tests are content-driven — are not what has driven up the cost of education in Massachusetts. There has been an increase in teacher quality, and rather than being driven by salary increases, it is due to the unique way we test our teachers. While content-knowledge may not make a great teacher on its own, it sure does keep a lot of unprepared teachers out of the classroom.

The argument that these reforms are the work of “conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket” is more than a tad myopic.

Anyone who has looked at what Florida has accomplished over the past 20 years to improve student performance is impressed by a couple of important reforms such as holding the line on making sure third graders read at grade level before being promoted and the innovative and highly accountable Florida Virtual School, which receives funding only if and when students complete their online courses. The state has also increased choice options beyond what we’ve seen in Massachusetts. And Florida has improved on the Nation’s Report Card.

That said, last I looked (the 2011 NAEP), the Sunshine State is still below the national average on 4th grade math and absolutely dismal (somewhere below 40th in the country) on 8th grade math. Its improvements on 4th grade reading are solid, driving Florida to around 10th place in the country. Florida’s 8th grade reading scores on the NAEP are, again, pretty bad, coming in somewhere around 35th in the country.

Moreover, Florida’s gains on the NAEP have in recent years slowed and in some cases been reversed. The stalling of student performance in Florida has been accompanied by recent increases in funding for K-12 that outpace those in Massachusetts.

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So not only does Massachusetts at least keep pace with Florida in terms of improvement from 1992-2011 on NAEP (with one giant, gaping exception which I will note below), but it is doing it at a different level. Florida started from the bottom and moved to a below average state in terms of performance. The Bay State went from just above average to the top performer in the country — and to being competitive on international tests like the (2007) TIMSS, where we scored in the top six countries in math and science, and tied for number 1 on the 8th grade science test. We are playing in the big leagues.

And we continue to show improvements on NAEP.

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Moving from the bottom to an average performer as Florida has done, while good, is not nearly as hard as going from above average to the top. As they say, the higher the altitude, the tougher the climb. Florida’s slowdown in improvements is, one hopes, temporary.

Now for the big, gaping hole Massachusetts must address – and where it would do well to learn from Florida — improving Hispanic student performance. While the Bay State has outpaced Florida’s impressive rate of improvement among 4th grade Hispanics on reading (comparing the 1998 and 2011 NAEP, MA has gone from 196 to 216, while FL has gone from 203 to 220), we have fallen flat on 8th grade Hispanic reading; from 1998 to 2011, Massachusetts went only from 242 to 248, while Florida improved from 247 to 259. (It is worth noting that from the first year the NAEP disaggregated Hispanic performance, Florida Hispanics have outscored ours.)

I share the data and the thoughts above to make two points: (1) I agree that additional education spending does not correlate with success and (2) I agree that the Florida model has real merit.

But reformers in other states, even ones with a sharp eye on keeping costs down, would do well to look at Massachusetts as much and, frankly, even more than Florida. The blue-state salary increases and health care cost inflation are options the 30 states with Republican governors (25 where the state legislatures are also controlled by Republicans) need not sign up for.

Arguing that these increases in education spending in Massachusetts are what drove the state’s rise in student performance may serve as a nice talking point for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, but it has the unfortunate characteristic of being untrue.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Don't Count Your Chickens Before Elections: Tony Bennett's Defeat in Indiana

Posted by Jim Stergios November 8, 2012 03:48 PM

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In what you might call a “count your chickens before they hatch” moment, even as late as the morning of Super Tuesday (November 6, 2012, 7:16:15AM EST) Virginia Edwards of EdWeek’s “Leadership Forum” sent an email invitation entitled “Save the Date: Road Maps to Common Core Success in March 2013.”

I invite you to attend Road Maps to Common Core Success. This Education Week Leadership Forum is taking place in Indianapolis, IN on March 11, 2013 and in White Plains, NY on March 21, 2013. At this day-long event, you will hear from state and district leaders, education experts in, and other colleagues on their common core implementations, and discover and share new ideas on curricula, teacher training, and assessment.

For those attending in Indianapolis on March 11, you'll meet Dr. Tony Bennett, Indiana state superintendent of public instruction, who will discuss how his state has built the common core into a comprehensive education reform agenda.

That was pretty much par for the course for EdWeek and for Tony Bennett. EdWeek has long been funded by the Gates Foundation and sponsors any number of forums that support the Foundation's priorities. Superintendent Bennett made it his business to talk up Common Core wherever possible, often arguing against facts (Indiana's state standards were superior to the Common Core standards, but he repeatedly posited the opposite.) He was a regular at legislative events, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (a forum for conservative state lawmakers to discuss issues and debate model legislation). Such meetings matter on a national basis because Republicans control the majority of governorships (30 of 50) and state legislative chambers. At ALEC meetings in November 2011 and spring 2012, he provided the defense for national standards and tests.

There's one problem. He lost his re-election bid on Tuesday. At the end of the summer few imagined he might lose. As EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa noted election night

Democrat Glenda Ritz, backed by the state teachers' union, has knocked off a big-time figure in the education policy world, Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett. As of about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the word spread that Bennett began giving his concession speech.

Bennett’s concession speech is here.

Ritz hung the use of national standards and national tests to evaluate teachers around Bennett's neck. Like other commentators, in his reporting, Ujifusa overstates the opposition to the aspects of Governor Mitch Daniels and Bennett’s agenda in favor of choice and charter schools (“This has to be a major blow for charter, school choice, and the general 'education reform' community.”).

The fact is that while Bennett faced an onslaught of angry teachers, the numbers point to anger among his base over his vocal support for and adoption of the national standards and tests. Activists note that it was “the prime issue among his base.”

Bennett's loss was not, as Diane Ravitch is suggesting, a rejection of choice and market forces in education. As Erin Tuttle, one of the key local activist moms in Indiana, argues:

I live in Indiana and am close to the issue. I'll tell you why Bennett lost. It wasn't the idea of choice or free markets, it was the crippling effect of the Common Core straight jacket on these ideas. Bennett's allegiance to ObamaCore is what undid him. Hoosiers like the idea of school choice but only with truly free market forces, not those with nationalized standards and curriculum-shaping federal tests.

And:

Only a difference of curriculums, methods, philosophies, teachers and student achievement make school choice real and Hoosiers know that. Bennett lost because he didn't listen to the people, parents, teachers and legislators alike. He just didn't do the bidding of his people. Other common core federal mandate-supporting politicians should beware.

Here's the electoral evidence. Other Indiana school reform candidates won. As RiShawn Biddle suggests even within Indiana,

One cannot fully surmise Bennett’s defeat as a harbinger of things to come for the school reform movement, both in Indiana and the nation at large. As seen in Indianapolis, where three reform-oriented candidates have gained seats on the board of the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit in spite of the opposition of the NEA affiliate there (and that of failed school leader Eugene White, who has presided over IPS’ continuing decline), reformers can win elections.

From a friend:

At first glance, it looks like the anti-CCSSI vote played a major role in Bennett’s loss. [Bennett’s] vote total lagged Romney and Pence and was only slightly higher than Obama’s:

Romney 1,339,931
Pence 1,207,212
Bennett 1,107,767
Obama 1,079,556

And Ritz got more votes (she received 1,246,201) than Pence and President Obama. This tells me that anti-Common Core conservatives who voted for Romney and Pence not only refused to vote for Bennett but actually voted for Ritz. I have a hard time believing that these (likely GOP) voters were voting against Bennett’s other reforms.

Any elected education official who backs CCSSI in a red state should be extremely concerned about these results.

And he's right. As StateImpact, a collaboration of local public media and NPR notes:

Electorally, Bennett’s share of the vote slipped significantly from 2008 in several key counties where other Republicans (Romney, Pence, Mourdock) won.

See StateImpact's map here and consider this:

  • Losses on home turf. Bennett not only saw his share of the vote in Allen County slip by 7 percentage points — he lost Allen County, the home of Fort Wayne. Pence won this county by 12. Romney won it by 17.
  • 10+ percentage point drops. Despite solid Romney victories in all of these counties, Bennett saw huge drops in: Jay (–10.1 percentage points), Tipton (–11.1), Scott (–11.7), Huntington (–12.3), Rush (–13.0), Adams (–13.2), Montgomery (–17.2) and Wabash (–17.4) counties this election from his 2008 totals.

In a very personal piece, Rick Hess bemoaned Bennett’s loss (“In Indiana, all-world superintendent Tony Bennett lost last night – 53 to 47. I’d like to find an eloquent way to say this but I’m a simple guy: Bennett is a stud.”). Hess gets some of the storyline right, noting that there was

[F]rustration among Tea Party conservatives that Bennett was championing an initiative that they've come to see as an Obama administration initiative (with its own derogatory name, "Obamacore"). One needs only to peruse conservative publications or e-mail blasts to realize how deeply this view has taken hold.

But Rick is wrong on two fronts. In red state Indiana opposition to school choice had little to do with it; nor can you blame Bennett’s loss on the Obama administration's “politiciz[ing] the Common Core and, in so doing,… making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it.”

That reminds me of the scene in the Godfather series where Michael Corleone strolls with Kay after a long absence, courting her, and discussing his father’s “business.” She notes that his is not a business, it is controlled violence and murder, so unlike politics. Michael stops her short, “Now, who’s being naïve, Kay.”

The fact is that Common Core has been politically and financially driven from DC from the beginning. State participation has been window dressing, as have been public comments. How else would states have been convinced to go along with it except for the lure of federal funds, coordinated funds from allied foundations, and the promises of waivers? With the mediocre quality of the national standards and the as-yet undefined national tests and proficiency levels, there was no other way for Common Core advocates to convince states to go along.

The Obama administration did not “surprise” Bennett with this approach. He knew about it from day one, supported it and talked it up around the country. I know, because I and many other others debated him on just these points.

Does Bennett’s defeat portend big challenges for Common Core? I think Tom Vander Ark, a veteran of I can't count how many reform efforts and a big Common Core supporter, is right when he tweets:

Tom Vander Ark ‏@tvanderark RT @educationweek: Blog: Tony Bennett Says #CommonCore in Jeopardy in Indiana http://bit.ly/YYTDLO #edpolicy #bummer

But it goes beyond Indiana. After the (forced) departure of Utah’s school superintendent Larry Shumway, Bennett’s loss is a signal that in most red states Common Core faces a rough road forward.

And, of course, the electoral outcomes in Georgia and Washington state, where charter schools got a huge boost, make clear that the school choice argument can now be won through a referendum--the popular vote. Thanks to union muscle, that was unheard of until recently .

One final consideration. Biddle makes an extremely important point regarding choice as he describes the future of reform in Indiana: While Ritz's victory may make her want to slow down the pace of choice reforms, the fact is that they are bigger than her or Bennett. They have broad popular, legislative and gubernatorial support.

Ritz won’t likely be able to roll back any of Bennett’s efforts. Why? Because there is still the presence of longtime reformers such as former state senator Teresa Lubbers — who now heads the state’s higher education commission, a key player in spurring overhaul of education since the days of her predecessor and partner-in-reform, Stan Jones — Robert Behning (who chairs the state house’s education committee), and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, who sits on the powerful Education Roundtable with other longtime reform advocates. There’s also the presence of former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose Mind Trust is the leading force for centrist Democrat reformers in the Hoosier State, and the efforts of Peterson’s successor, Greg Ballard, in the area of authorizing charters and pushing for IPS’s overhaul. The lesson for reformers is clear: Reformers can weather election defeats if they build strong, diverse, and (contrary to the argument of American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess, and Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson's statement last year that "only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on" reform) bipartisan coalitions.

As Bennett was losing, a pro-choice governor was elected, and super-majorities for choice forces were achieved in the state house of representatives and the state senate:

The 37-13 Republican majority in the chamber was decided Wednesday when Republican incumbent [editorial note: opponent of Common Core and proponent of school choice] Scott Schneider emerged victorious in his north side Indianapolis district, holding off a challenge by Democrat Tim DeLaney.

This is the strength of state-based reform over the stuff that passes for reform coming out of Washington, DC. Solid reform efforts are comprehensive, covering choice, standards, teacher quality, accountability and, yes, funding. They are advanced through real political processes that are public and often involve fights that are resolved in state legislative bodies. They are not built on personalities. The cult of personality reforms touted by Washington insiders are tired. They usually involve some Superman or Superwoman, and they often don’t last past the Super departure. Real reform is hard-won but runs far deeper.

Just look at Massachusetts. The efforts to undo even some of the basic pillars of our reforms have not yet won the day. And that is because they were crafted with Rs and Ds at the table, debated over years, and while people carp and do inflict damage to the integrity of the reforms, they have had a hard time undoing the basic pillars put into place in 1993. That’s because the reform was bigger than any one person.

I like Tony Bennett. But his loss was his own doing. As a friend noted,

For all the positive things [he] did, he also split [the reform movement in his state] by accepting and defending federal control of curriculum standards and testing. If this sends a signal to other Republican officials at the state level that Common Core is dangerous to their support among the base, then some good will come out of this.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Fallout from election 2012 on education

Posted by Jim Stergios November 8, 2012 09:35 AM

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You can summarize the fallout of the elections on schools in three simple outcomes: No change in federal policy, two big state charter expansions got passed--and through ballot initiatives (!), and in a blow to supporters of national standards and tests the state superintendent of schools in Indiana got shown the door.

In more detail, on federal policy:

1. Arne Duncan stays US Secretary of Education.
2. The next four years will look like the last three years. That is, the first Obama administration was split between a Year 1 and Years 2-4. Year 1 was all using the bully pulpit to get state legislatures to revamp charter laws. It was a sea-change on the education landscape, with the dynamics around charter schools likely altered for good. Years 2-4 were all about making states comply with a checklist of what DC insiders consider “real reform” (national standards, curricular guidance, and tests; bureaucratic teacher evaluations; etc.) through grants, the bully pulpit, and waivers not sanctioned by Congress.
3. The accountability bloom is off the rose and likely not a core element of the second Obama administration. As RiShawn Biddle notes:

The administration’s evisceration of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions through its waiver process is doing more to weaken the very reform efforts centrist Democrats embrace than any opposition from traditionalist circles. From the embarrassment of approving Virginia’s abysmally low proficiency targets, which had only required districts to ensure that 57 percent of black students (and 65 percent of Latino peers) were proficient in math by 2016-2017, to revelations that states are being allowed to provide inaccurate and deceptive graduation rates, there is little about the Obama waiver gambit that has proven to beneficial to advancing systemic reform.

After the waivers, the administration will have a tough time turning around and pushing for high proficiency levels in the national tests.
4. Finally, file under "Obvious," but don’t expect an NCLB/ESEA compromise anytime soon.

At the state level there were big changes. Big changes came to Georgia and Washington state where

Two ballot measures concerning charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, spawned fierce battles in Georgia and Washington State.

Georgia’s measure, which passed handily on Tuesday, asked voters to amend the State Constitution to allow for a commission that would approve new schools that had been rejected by local school boards.

In Washington State, a ballot initiative, “the fourth time in 16 years that Washington voters had been asked to approve charter schools” changed the state, which was “one of only nine states that [did] not allow charter schools. The ballot measure would open the door slowly, permitting the approval of 40 schools over five years.”

Getting charter schools adopted through ballot initiatives is a tough slog, and to see both states do it this year just builds on the incredible expansion of choice and charters in the past several years. State after state has advanced this agenda.

Finally, and importantly, there was the electoral defeat of Tony Bennett, state superintendent of schools in Indiana. As noted in my November 5 blog,

The criticism coming from academic experts, Indiana parents, and local media is clearly growing in intensity. To go back to Hoosiers, they all feel that Coach Bennett’s decision to adopt Common Core shortened the free throw line on expectations for the kids in Indiana’s traditional public schools.

... He’s, in essence, lowered the rim for all the kids and parents who have turned to alternatives, whether public charter schools or private school choice. As public schools, charters have had to focus their work on Common Core’s objectives and therefore they are aiming for a much lower academic standard.

As regards school choice, it’s just as bad. Unlike Massachusetts, Indiana has a voucher program. And that voucher program came with the requirement that private, including Catholic, schools had to take state-sanctioned tests. With the transfer over to national standards and tests, private schools now frame their curricula on Common Core and must take the (not yet finished and never field tested!) national tests.

and closed with this:

The clock is winding down on Tuesday. Coach Bennett may eke out a victory and remain as superintendent of public instruction, but the game has changed and no amount of motivational talk is going to make his original game plan work.

A few local news outlets claimed I was overstating the case. The score is in: Bennett lost and he lost because of his support, advocacy and pom-poms for Common Core. After the "forced" retirement of Utah's school superintendent Larry Shumway, I would guess that many state education leaders will study the fallout of the Indiana election very closely.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.


Indiana's air ball on national education standards

Posted by Jim Stergios November 3, 2012 01:31 AM

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Basketball fans will remember the scene from the epic 1986 Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers , where Coach Norman Dale (Hackman) is taking his small-town high school team, Hickory, on the road to the Indiana state championships. As they peer into their opponent’s massive gymnasium, his players grow understandably nervous. Taking out a measuring tape, Coach Dale has them measure the distance to the free throw line and size up the height of the rim, and says: “I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”

I’ve often thought about that scene when interacting with Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, himself a basketball coach, which is clear to anybody who meets him. He talks like a coach, acts like a coach and tries to convince like a coach – less interested in reason, much more in tools like exhortation and motivation. Those are good political skills to have when you’re trying to get stuff done, and as a result Bennett is among the better, more reform-minded state commissioners of education in the country. He has, with Governor Mitch Daniels, gotten some important things done in the Hoosier state like expanding school choice, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and focusing on accountability mechanisms for the Indiana public school system.

Full disclosure: My organization (Pioneer Institute) thinks well enough of Bennett that we featured him, together with Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist and Texas’ Robert Scott, at a Boston event highlighting dynamic state education commissioners from around the country. (Here’s a video of the keynote speeches by Bennett, Gist, and Scott at our event last fall.)

Over the last year, however, as Bennett has been running for reelection as the state’s superintendent of schools, he has been facing increasingly heated opposition from across the state for discarding Indiana’s K-12 state education standards for the qualitatively weaker national “Common Core” standards. (In addition to strong debates here in Massachusetts and Indiana, there are debates underway on the adoption of Common Core in California, New Hampshire, Idaho, Maine, South Carolina, Utah, etc.)

Parents, the press, and commentators across Indiana have questioned the reasoning for changing the Indiana state standards. Let me share a few examples of the public debate. On WIBC 93.1 FM’s Greg Garrison Show, Indiana parent Heather Crossin didn’t mince words, saying that:

…Indiana did have standards that were higher, that, in fact, there are a lot of problems with the Common Core standards…The validation committee for the Common Core for math and English language arts, some of the content experts would not sign off on them. These are people who got on board, to be on the validation committee, because they believed in the idea of national standards, they were not opposed to them, they simply wanted them to be good national standards that would allow us to compete internationally with other countries…

On that same show, Erin Tuttle, another concerned Indiana parent spoke, as well as Emmett McGroarty of The American Principles Project and Jamie Gass from Pioneer. (The full podcast can be heard by clicking here and scrolling down to June 11, 2012.)

Columnist Russ Pulliam of the The Indianapolis Star then argued that:

Republican incumbent Tony Bennett is officially running against Democrat Glenda Ritz, a teacher at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis, for state superintendent of public instruction. Yet he also seems to be running against critics of the national Common Core standards. Critics see the Common Core as part of a federal effort to command a larger role in education, which historically has been the responsibility of state and local government. They also argue that previous Indiana standards were excellent and should not have been tossed aside.

Followed by The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, which recently editorialized that

…arguments are growing among some Indiana residents, who are questioning the state’s enthusiastic embrace of the standards. Rather than basing participation on the Common Core’s political supporters, Hoosiers should view the new academic requirements in terms of how they will affect Indiana students. By that measure, the Common Core and the national test that will support it are a step backward…Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, pushed adoption of the standards in 2010. He defended the Common Core before a skeptical audience at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting last year. In June, he insisted the state hasn’t given up control of its academic standards, but as Election Day looms, his position appears to be shifting. In August he told an angry tea party gathering that the Obama administration nationalized the standards and forced them on the states.

Fabio Augusto Milner, a professor and director of Arizona State University’s Math for STEM Education, offered Indiana lawmakers a comparison of the math standards. “I can unequivocally recommend that Indiana not adopt the (Common Core math standards) if the state wants to require high school graduates to excel by design to a higher level than average,” he testified in January…

…“It is not clear why Indiana’s board of education chose to trade in a silk purse for a sow’s ear – that is to give its secondary English teachers an inferior set of standards to aim for,” testified Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, in remarks to the Senate Education Committee in January.

A local school board candidate, Glenna Jehl, also recently published an op-ed piece in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

When President Obama touts “education reform in 46 states” as one of his accomplishments, most people haven’t yet realized that Obama is referring to the new Common Core State Standards being implemented nationwide, including in Indiana…

Surprisingly, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett helped wheel this Trojan horse into our midst…Unfortunately, they never took time to consider what sort of standards they agreed to adopt; no longer in a Race to the Top and higher standards, we are in a race to mediocrity. We are voluntarily relinquishing Indiana’s superior, acclaimed standards for those that are inferior to our current standards in math and language arts…Are we going to place our children’s futures in the hands of Washington bureaucrats? We need to send ObamaCore back….we must join the four states that have already rejected it. Our next governor and state legislature must understand that Indiana needs to opt out of Common Core. That is the only way states, local school boards, and parents will retain the ability to choose the curriculum and the standards for the education of the students in their community.

An op-ed by Joy Pullmann in The South Bend Tribune:

Bennett was briefly surprised in July when local residents asked him about federal control over what children learn through the Common Core, a set of K-12 lists for what every student should know in math and English and, soon, history, science and the arts…

More of that fury is coming. Indiana parents and teachers are becoming more nervous as Common Core mechanisms fall into place, and ignoring them will create a strong backlash among the very supporters Bennett needs to further his pro-school-choice agenda. Local networks of concerned residents are right now holding meetings on the Common Core throughout Indiana, at an astonishing rate. State representatives and local school board members are showing up….

I've attended several. The energy in the room is electric, in contrast to typical school board meetings. Teachers report reluctance to speak up about the unwieldy standards and corresponding curriculum and teaching requirements, for fear they will lose their jobs. Parents bring examples of needlessly complicated multiplication homework their child's own teachers cannot explain. These are motivated grassroots activists no leader should ignore. Two words for Bennett: Dick Lugar.

Those are tough words -- and highly political words, which matter more in Indiana than in, say, Massachusetts where Commissioner Chester (who holds the equivalent position) is appointed by the state's Board of Education and does not face the voters. And, while I think Bennett will get reelected on Tuesday, I'm not sure he is going to be able to temper the reactions he is getting. Here are a few reasons:

  1. He will no longer have Governor Daniels as a boss. Daniels is at the end of his second term and is prohibited (because of term limits) from running for reelection. The likely winner of the election is Congressman Mike Pence, who has a strong record of not liking Washington mandates. It would be a remarkable about-face if he were to support national standards.
  2. Bennett has put his best game-face on in trying to rally public support for Common Core. He has not used reason. Consider the Fordham Institute's 2010 view of the Indiana standards before Bennett pushed for adoption of the national standards:
The Bottom Line: ELA -- Indiana’s standards are clearer, more thorough, and easier to read than the Common Core standards. Essential content is grouped more logically, so that standards addressing inextricably linked characteristics, such as themes in literary texts, can be found together rather than spread across strands. Indiana also frequently uses standard-specific examples to clarify expectations. Furthermore, Indiana’s standards treat both literary and non-literary texts in systematic detail throughout the document, addressing the specific genres, sub-genres, and characteristics of both text types. (my italics)

The Bottom Line: Math -- With some minor differences, Common Core and Indiana both cover the essential content for a rigorous, K-12 mathematics program. That said, Indiana’s standards are exceptionally clear and well presented. Standards are briefly stated and often further clarified with the use of examples, so they are considerably easier to read and follow than Common Core. In addition, the high school content is organized so that the standards addressing specific topics, such as quadratic functions, are grouped together in a mathematically coherent way. By contrast, the organization of the Common Core is more difficult to navigate, in part because standards on related topics sometimes appear separately rather than together.

(It's no longer 2010 and as has now become routine at Fordham, they have engaged in a wonderful display of gymnastics to justify their reputation-be-damned support of Common Core, including rewriting their views on Indiana's state standards. It's the equivalent of a double back layout, followed by a giant swing and single layout flip with two twists. Basketball players they are not, and Coach Bennett should not attempt that on a basketball court.)

Another baton-holder in the Common Core parade, Achieve, Inc. had this to say to the Indiana Business Roundtable regarding the previous Indiana state standards:

Achieve has completed the final review of the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school. The primary purpose of this review is to ensure that the state’s proposed revised academic standards for K-12 align with the expectations for success in college and career. The following national frameworks served as the “exemplary standards” to which the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics were compared: the Achieve American Diploma Project (ADP) Benchmarks for Mathematics, the National Mathematic Advisory Panel Foundations for Success (NMAP), the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Mathematics Framework 2009, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics…

The Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school present student learning expectations that are intellectually demanding and well aligned with the ADP Benchmarks in mathematics. If Indiana’s students master the state standards, they will likely be well prepared for success in college and in their career…

In conclusion, the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school generally address the essential content at the level of rigor that is consistent with that of national exemplars.

Achieve said that in 2009. But like, Fordham, they don't say that anymore. And in 2009, University of Wisconsin mathematician, Dr. Richard Askey said this about the previous Indiana state standards:

For about two years I have been reviewing the new Indiana Mathematics Standards… The earlier Mathematics Standards were among the best in the United States, and the current draft improves on the previous one, so clearly they are at the top of the Math Standards in the United States. It provides a backbone which, when fleshed out by teachers, will help students learn the mathematics they will need either in college or in more direct preparation for a job.

Contrast the views of Fordham, Achieve and Dr. Laskey to the analysis of Stanford University mathematician, Dr. R. James Milgram, regarding the quality of Common Core's math standards:

The above standards illustrate many serious flaws in the Core Standards. Also among these difficulties are that a large number of the arithmetic and operations, as well as the place value standards are one, two or even more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all the high achieving countries. Consequently, I was not able to certify that the Core Mathematics Standards are benchmarked at the same level as the standards of the high achieving countries in mathematics…Overall, only the very best state mathematics standards, those of California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Minnesota are stronger than these [Common Core] standards…California, and the other states with top standards would almost certainly be better off keeping their current standards.

As I've noted before, the fact is that the Common Core standards (whether in math or English Language Arts) were not internationally benchmarked against the highest standards in the world, they lacked a true research base, and there is no reason to think that such a process could lead to standards close to those achieved in Indiana, Massachusetts or any number of states who took high-quality classroom content as a real objective.

The criticism coming from academic experts, Indiana parents, and local media is clearly growing in intensity. To go back to Hoosiers, they all feel that Coach Bennett’s decision to adopt Common Core shortened the free throw line on expectations for the kids in Indiana’s traditional public schools.

The impacts don’t stop there. He’s, in essence, lowered the rim for all the kids and parents who have turned to alternatives, whether public charter schools or private school choice. As public schools, charters have had to focus their work on Common Core’s objectives and therefore they are aiming for a much lower academic standard.

As regards school choice, it’s just as bad. Unlike Massachusetts, Indiana has a voucher program. And that voucher program came with the requirement that private, including Catholic, schools had to take state-sanctioned tests. With the transfer over to national standards and tests, private schools now frame their curricula on Common Core and must take the (not yet finished and never field tested!) national tests.

The fact is that Coach Dale’s gambit of using the tape measure worked because it was common sense, it was factual, and he was making the point that his players could compete if they set the highest expectations possible. Advocacy for and adoption of inferior quality national standards by Indiana’s Tony Bennett has landed with a thud, seen by the Hoosier State as a big airball for the children of the state.

The clock is winding down on Tuesday. Coach Bennett may eke out a victory and remain as superintendent of public instruction, but the game has changed and no amount of motivational talk is going to make his original game plan work.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

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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