Friday, September 24, 2010

Alphabet Soup

A recent report raises a fundamental education policy question that requires more than simply refuting the report's premise.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- a self-proclaimed "free market, limited government" non-profit, which is really just a spout of Republican policy ideas -- recently released its 16th annual Report Card on American Education. First of all, the LAST thing education needs is another report card. But I have to give it to my friends at SmartALECk which has been nothing less than persistent (in the true conservative spirit), having apparently kept this up for 16 years. Second, I note that ALEC's Board of Directors is populated almost entirely by Republican office holders. Third, I note that the report's foreward was written by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican. It is no mystery for whom ALEC is shilling.

That said, the ALEC Report Card grades states based on two criteria: (1) Education Performance Rank and (2) Education Reform Grade. Specifically, a state's Education Performance Rank "measures the overall 2009 scores for low-income children (non-ELL and/or non-IEP) and their gains/losses on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams from 2003 to 2009." A state's "Education Reform Grade" is based on the following reform criteria (few of which are central to educational outcomes, but which are all weighted equally): state academic standards, change in state proficiency standards, private school choice, charter school laws, mandatory intra- and inter-district open enrollment, online learning policies and programs, homeschooling regulation levels, alternative teacher certification, identifying high-quality teachers, retaining effective teachers, and removing ineffective teachers.

The state of Vermont provides a case in point about what is flawed about ALEC's methodology and typifies a troubling dynamic in some of today's education policy and reform conversations. ALEC ranks the Green Mountain state #1 with respect to its educational performance, but gives it the lowest grade of any state - a 'D' - on education reform. I guess the question for me is what is the fundamental purpose of the American education system: To warm the cockles of would-be reformers' hearts by adopting their pet reforms? Or to achieve educational outcomes and accelerate student learning? Assuming you don't have trouble answering that question, what does this example say about broader education policies and reform conversations? Well, it reminds me that too often we seem more interested in the means rather than in the ends. And that's a big problem.

At the federal level, the Obama Administration is onto something with its "tight on ends, loose of means" mantra. Arne Duncan's Education Department has attempted to use that catchphrase to articulate a stronger federal role over education policy while reassuring educators and policymakers that it won't make policies too prescriptive if the desired results are achieved. In a sense, it is not entirely unlike No Child Left Behind's accountability system which more or less allowed schools to keep on keeping on as long as they didn't run afoul of adequate yearly progress requirements. As Fordham's Gadfly recently noted, the future of federal education policy is very much in doubt, dependent on the outcomes of November's elections, control of one or both houses of Congress, and whether the Know Nothing Tea Party forces seize control of the GOP agenda.

But prescriptive-ness is sometimes an invisible line. The Race to the Top program probably went too far down the path of requiring certain reforms that don't have much of an evidential basis, aren't ready to be fully implemented, or aren't scalable. In addition, as Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca (my high school principal at Essex High School in Vermont!) has noted, some of these faddish and sensible-in-certain-context reforms don't make sense or cannot be successfully implemented in a small, rural state such as Vermont. One also could ask whether RTTT scoring insufficiently weighted "improving student outcomes" -- which accounted for only 25 of the application's 500 total points (a mere 5 percent) -- in favor of promises of future reform. Again, is it about educational outcomes for students? Or it is about reform for reform's sake?

Back to the SmartALECk report: It would seem to me that ALEC is right in one sense. There *is* an argument for reducing federal regulation, and in education the answer is to leave well enough alone when a state such as Vermont is achieving great results. Now, we can argue over how those results should appropriately be measured, but that would be a more important conversation than talking about a metric such as 'reform' that is focused on pet approaches to privatizing education, firing teachers and enabling home schooling that likely have little bearing on student outcomes and that have little basis in research.

It is hypocritical of an organization like ALEC, committed to loosening regulations and limited government, to offer up such a prescriptive laundry list of reforms that states must enact to receive an 'A.' By ALEC's own outcome metric, Vermont is doing the best job of any state in the country in achieving equitable educational outcomes for low-income students. (Arguably, that is as much if not more due to Vermont's social safety net and universal health care as anything its schools are doing.) Accordingly, SmartALECk should let those results speak for themselves and save its ABCs and Ds to fill many bowls of alphabet soup during the coming winter.