Monday, October 10, 2011

Heritage analyst: Oklahoma should resist federal overreach, embrace school choice

[The following is the testimony of Lindsey M. Burke before the Common Education Committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives on October 6, 2011.]

Madam Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for having me here to testify today. My name is Lindsey M. Burke. I am Senior Policy Analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

No one denies that American education has room for improvement. American children ranked 32nd in mathematics among the mostly wealthy countries that participated in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, falling below students in the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Iceland, Estonia, and Slovenia.

In all, just 33 percent of U.S. eighth graders are proficient in math. Moreover, a mere 17 percent of Hispanic students in America are proficient in math along with just 12 percent of African-American students.

While U.S. math achievement is troubling, reading scores aren’t much better. The United States ranked 17th on the PISA, falling behind countries such as Belgium and Estonia. Today, just 30 percent of U.S. students score proficient in reading. And when we examine U.S. subgroups, the outcomes become even more troubling.

Just 13 percent of African-American students scored proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the nation’s report card, in 2009; just 16 percent of Hispanic students can read proficiently, according to the test. And on international comparisons such as the PISA, black and Hispanic 10th graders in America score closer to their peers in Mexico than they score to the average for all their classmates in the United States.

Beyond international comparisons, right here at home, there is ample evidence that American K-12 education is in a state of crisis. Since the 1970s, academic achievement has remained relatively flat. Math achievement for 13-year-old children has increased only nominally, and reading achievement has been completely flat for the past 40 years.

Not only has academic achievement remained flat, but academic attainment – that is, graduation rates – have also been stagnant. Graduation rates today hover around 73 percent, essentially unchanged since the 1970s. Sadly, in many of our nation’s largest cities, less than half of all students graduate high school.

And there are other signs that America’s education system is failing to meet the needs of millions of students: one-third of students need remedial coursework when they enter college, and the achievement gap between white and minority students, and between low- and upper-income students, persists. And, according to the new Global Report Card developed by University of Arkansas researchers, "achievement in many of our affluent suburban public school districts barely keeps pace with that of the average student in a developed country."

These failures have persisted despite significant growth in the federal role in education over the same time period. What began with President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the idea of compensatory education by spending taxpayer dollars through federal education programs, quickly morphed into Washington becoming involved in systemic education reform. Instead of targeted federal dollars to low-income districts in an effort to improve outcomes for poor children, federal policymakers began creating education programs designed to dictate school policy. President Jimmy Carter’s creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979 resulted in the first cabinet-level agency overseeing education, further entrenching Washington into the nation’s education system.

In the years to follow and throughout the 1990s, numerous niche programs were created, greatly increasing the size and scope of Johnson’s original Elementary and Secondary Education Act. President George W. Bush’s tenure included the eighth reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, which in 2001, was renamed the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the years, Johnson’s original ESEA grew from a mere 30 page, $1 billion bill to the 600-page, $25 billion law that it is today. And over that same time, the federal role in education grew to such an extent that virtually no aspect of school policy is off-limits to Washington today.

Like so many prior administrations, President Obama believes that he can improve educational outcomes from Washington. The Obama administration believes that a ninth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is warranted – even though eight previous reauthorizations largely failed to improve outcomes. The administration also believes that national standards and tests should be included in attempts to reform education.

While many experts now examine the federal track record on education and conclude that decentralization – not further federal control – is more likely to improve outcomes, the Obama administration has not concluded that the federal role in education has failed. Instead of supporting states as laboratories of reform, the administration has coerced states into the standardization of content, pushing a one-size-fits-all approach to standards and tests. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2009, as the national standards push was intensifying, that "The idea of having 50 states designing their own standards is crazy."

American education is in a state of crisis: stagnant graduation rates, persistent achievement gaps, low levels of academic achievement, and mediocrity on the international stage. The Obama administration believes that national education standards and tests are the way to improve outcomes. But nationalizing the content taught in local schools tramples state educational autonomy, creates a one-size-fits-all approach to education, and will likely lead to the standardization of mediocrity, not high quality standards of excellence.

History of the standards push

The push for national standards and tests is not new. The federal government took an unprecedented leap into education policy in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the education component of Johnson’s War on Poverty. While the idea at the time was compensatory education, that is, providing additional federal resources through federal programs to improve outcomes for poor children, by the end of the 1980s, "education policymakers began to look beyond equity arguments to standards-based reform, also known a systemic reform."

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush provided grants to several organizations to develop common education standards. The grants came on the heels of a report by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a panel of policymakers and education experts, which called for national standards. The standards that were subsequently developed in U.S. History, English Language Arts, and mathematics came under scrutiny for the poor quality of the content. The U.S. Senate voted 99-1 in opposition to the history standards, the Department of Education cancelled its contract with the organizations crafting the English standards, and the math standards were widely criticized for promoting "fuzzy math."

President Bill Clinton signed Goals 2000 into law in 1994, marking the seventh reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Further entangling Washington into the nation’s classrooms, Goals 2000 included broad goals as standards framework, and required states to develop standards in reading and English Language Arts.

While Goals 2000 required states to develop math and English standards, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the eighth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, was the first federal foray into testing. Building off of Goals 2000, NCLB now also required states to set standards in science as well as math and English, and began requiring states to test students in math and reading yearly in grades three through eight and once again in high school. And, for the first time, NCLB set a ticking clock on states: by 2014, all students would have to be proficient in math and reading, as measured by Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

While No Child Left Behind significantly expanded the federal role in education by putting Washington in charge of setting student proficiency deadlines and by mandating the frequency with which states test students, current efforts by the Obama administration far exceed existing federal overreach, and aim to get Washington into the game of defining the content of what students are taught in local schools.

To accomplish this goal, the administration has spent billions of dollars and provided incentives for states to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in earnest in the spring of 2009 with an announcement by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that they would be supporting the development of Common Core standards and assessments. While the effort was supposed to be voluntary – states could choose to adopt the Common Core State Standards in math and English Language Arts to replace their existing state standards – the Obama administration quickly became involved with the effort, creating question marks about the voluntary nature of the national standards push.

National standards timeline

I think it’s important to walk through the timeline of the national standards movement as it relates to the Obama administration’s education policy, to demonstrate that the Common Core State Standards Initiative and the federal government have become entangled both financially and programmatically.

On February 17, 2009 President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the “stimulus,” into law, gifting an unprecedented $98 billion in additional dollars to the U.S. Department of Education. The Race to the Top program was carved out of the new stimulus funds, and invited states to compete for $4.35 billion. Applications for RTT funding asked states to describe how they would transform their standards and assessments to “college and career-ready” standards that were common to a significant number of states. The only “common” option available at the time was the Common Core State Standards Initiative, creating an implicit endorsement (both rhetorically and financially) of the Common Core push, and further laying the groundwork for national standards and tests. Moreover, Race to the Top required states to join one of two testing consortia crafting assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative. $350 million of Race to the Top was earmarked for the funding of national assessments.

On February 26, 2009 the Council of Chief State School Officers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Vice President Joe Biden for a briefing on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which included a discussion of standards and assessments.

On May 29, 2009, in a speech in May to the National Press Club a few months later, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was clear about the Obama administration's goals for the country. "We want common, career-ready internationally benchmarked standards," Duncan told the audience.

On November 4, 2009, President Obama delivered a speech to students at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin. During his remarks, the president outlined the coming Race to the Top program stating:
“In the coming weeks, states will be able to compete for what we’re calling a Race to the Top award. We’re putting over $4 billion on the table - $4 billion with a ‘b’ – one of the largest federal investments that the federal government has ever made in education reform.”

He went on to say:

"...And I have to tell you, this was not an easy thing to get through Congress. This is not normally how federal dollars work."

"...I want to commend the leadership of the governors and school chiefs who've joined together to get this done. And because of these efforts, there will be a set of common standards that any state can adopt...and I urge all states to do so..."

By December 2009 Conservatives in Congress began voicing concerns that the Obama administration's support for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) stated:

"The only common, multi-state academic standards I am aware of are those being developed through the Common Core Initiative. Therefore, it stands to reason that any state wishing to receive funding through the Race to the Top program will be mandated to adopt the Common Core -- and to test its students based on those standards.

"In other words, the Common Core is being transformed from a voluntary, state-based initiative to a set of federal academic standards with corresponding federal tests."

On February 3, 2010, leaders of the Common Core State Standards Initiative announced that states that have adopted the Common Core standards must use the standards word for word. National Governor's Association program director David Wakelyn stated: "You can't pick and choose what you want. This is not cafeteria-style standards." Council of Chief State School Officer deputy executive director stated that "adoption means adoption." Education Week reported that "...NGA and CCSSO officials said that states must approve the entire common-standards document verbatim."

In February 2010 Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of governors that access to the nearly $15 billion in Title I funding for low-income school districts could also be tied to the adoption of common “college and career-ready” standards.

On March 13, 2010 Obama administration releases its “Blueprint” to reform No Child Left Behind. The Blueprint suggested renaming the Title I program for low-income children to the “College-and-Career-Ready Students program,” and states:

“Following the lead of the nation’s governors, we’re calling on all states to develop and adopt standards in English language arts and mathematics that build toward college- and career-readiness by the time students graduate from high school. States may choose to upgrade their existing standards or work together with other states to develop and adopt common, state-developed standards.”

There was now clear evidence that common standards will be supported in a significant way by Washington, with the inclusion of a requirement for all states to have college-and-career ready standards to receive funding from Title I, the largest pot of money provided under No Child Left Behind.

And most recently, just last month in September 2011 The Obama administration announced that it would offer No Child Left Behind waivers to states that agreed to conditions stipulated by the Department of Education. The first condition to which states must agree in order to receive a waiver is to adopt national standards and tests. The waiver application of the Department of Education’s website states:

“Over the past few years, Governors and Chief State School Officers have developed and adopted rigorous academic content standards to prepare all students for success in college and careers in the 21st century…to receive this flexibility, an SEA must demonstrate that it has college-and career-ready standards in at least reading/language arts and mathematics…”

After the conditions-based waivers were announced by the Obama administration, Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to Secretary Duncan expressing his concern about the waivers and their requirement for states to adopt national standards and tests. Sen. Rubio stated that he is concerned with the waivers requirement that states “adopt a federally-approved ‘college and career ready” curriculum: either the national Common Core curriculum standards, or another federally-approved equivalent.” He went on to say:

“I am also concerned that the U.S. Department of Education has created, through its contractors, national curriculum materials to support these Common Core standards. Such activities are unacceptable; they violate three existing laws: NCLB [No Child Left Behind], the Department of Education Organization Act, and the General Education Provisions Act. All three laws prohibit the federal government from creating or prescribing national curriculum.”

There has been clear support, both rhetorically and financially, from the Obama administration for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Attaching federal funding to the effort and creating federal requirements for adoption to qualify for federal funding, has transformed the initiative to a federal push for national standards and tests that will define what every child in America must learn in school.

Common Core Adoption: An Unwise Choice for Oklahoma

Adopting national standards and tests would be unwise for Oklahoma for many reasons. Content matter experts, particularly math experts, have expressed concern about the rigor of the standards.

Members of the Common Core mathematics advisory panel said of the original draft standards that they would “encourage the same kind of bureaucratic enforcement of state standards that has already damaged math education.” The head of the mathematics advisory panel also noted the rushed timeline for the standards, and stated that “a normal timetable for standards adoption would go through multiple iterations, with pilot testing.” The rushed timeline is perhaps the reason that holes in the mathematics standards have come to light.

Ze’ev Wurman, a former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education and a member of the Committee that crafted the California math standards in 1997, notes that the common core standards require only Algebra I and segments of Algebra II and Geometry, despite the fact that most four-year colleges and universities require at least three years of math in high school: a minimum of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. In a December 2009 article, Wurman and former Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy Bill Evers wrote: “In other words, students who graduate from high school having taken only math coursework addressing those standards…will be inadmissible to any four-year college around the country.”

Mr. Wurman also points out specific problems with the skills measured by the mathematics standards. Wurman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2009:

“They [the mathematics standards] offer more than 100 examples of the mathematics skills expected of students. Here is one: If everyone in the world went swimming in Lake Michigan, what would happen to the water level? Would Chicago be flooded?

Wurman writes that this is:

“An interesting but mostly non-mathematical problem. The math skills measured are estimation and division at the fifth-grade level, but how accurate is measuring even those low-level math skills when the answer depends mostly on non-mathematical knowledge: the Earth’s population; Lake Michigan’s surface area; Chicago’s elevation above the water level; or whether the water will spill over to Lake Huron before flooding Chicago. Out of the 105 examples, almost two-thirds have flaws of one type of another, making them inappropriate as reliable measures of math knowledge. This is deeply troubling, given these standards may shortly be imposed on the whole nation.”

There is also little if any empirical evidence supporting a move toward national standards and tests. Finding extremely limited existing evidence on the efficacy of national standards, in 2009 the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution conducted their own analysis of the relationship between student math achievement at the state level and the rigor of state content standards. Brookings researchers found no statistically significant association between the quality of content standards and student academic achievement. They concluded:

"The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and the high hopes attached to it."

In a subsequent study, Brookings researchers concluded that "...the creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in and of itself."

Proponents of national standards also frequently argue that nation’s that outperform the United States on international tests of student achievement have national standards. While many of the countries that outperform the United States on international tests have national standards, so do many of the countries that do not outperform the U.S. Countries including Belgium, Australia, and Canada have education systems that are decentralized, yet often outperform the United States on international tests of student achievement. And indeed, the best way the United States can improve the quality of standards is to decentralize the process of setting standards and assessments. According to education researcher Dr. Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas:

“When we have choice and competition among different sets of standards, curricula and assessments, they tend to improve in quality to better suit student needs and result in better outcomes.”

Concerns have also been raised about the subsequent process of maintaining and updating the standards, which has yet to be determined. National standards are likely to become rigid standards that are difficult to change and adapt, due partly to questions of ownership. Who will ultimately “own” the standards? Who will update them? Who will maintain them? Professor Greene, in testimony before the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee last month, warned:

“Once we set national standards, curriculum, and assessments, they are nearly impossible to change. If we discover a mistake, or wish to try a new or possibly better approach, we can’t switch. We are stuck with whatever national choices we make for a long time. And if we make a mistake we will impose it on the entire country.”

While some states certainly have low-quality standards, some states, such as Massachusetts, have exceptional standards that are internationally competitive. While there is variation in state standards, the rigor and content of national standards will face pressure to scale down toward the mean among states, undercutting states with high quality standards. Therefore, centralized standard-setting will likely result in the standardization of mediocrity, rather than establishing standards of excellence.

Another argument that proponents of national standards and tests often offer is that such standards will ensure parents can understand how their children are performing relative to other children across the country. Before assuming national standards will provide parents with useful information about their child’s performance, we should consider what types of information parents need about their child’s school success. Parents need two critical pieces of information to determine whether their child is excelling in school: (1) Parents need to know whether their child is mastering content appropriate to their grade level, and (2) Parents need to know that when their child has mastered fourth grade content, for instance, that they’re on pace with other fourth graders across the country.

To provide information about content mastery, states currently conduct criterion-referenced tests, which measure a student’s mastery of the content outlined by the state standards. To provide information about how rigorous the content is compared to other states across the country, many states also conduct norm-referenced tests, which measure achievement compared to other students nationally.

Moreover, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s “report card,” acts as an external audit of state standards, providing a common gauge for quality.

Meaningful information about student achievement already exists. No Child Left Behind required every state to issue report cards to grade school systems. What has been missing in some instances is transparency about that data. But inadequate access to information does not justify a national standards and testing regime. States should focus instead on supplying clear information to parents about school performance.

If not national standards, how does Oklahoma improve outcomes?
  • Strengthen state-based accountability systems by strengthening state standards and tests;
  • Provide school performance information to parents and taxpayers by publishing state standards and cut-scores in a manner that is accessible to parents; and
  • Empower parents to act on school performance data by offering more school choice options.

The problems that need fixing in American education are rooted in a misalignment in the power and incentive structure of public education. Focusing on the adoption of national standards and tests to define what every child in America will learn distracts from fixing the fundamental deficiencies of our education system: a lack of choice for families and the absence of competition to force schools to improve.

Centralizing standards and assessments will not improve educational outcomes. American education has long prided itself on the principal of local control. And for good reason: those closest to the students know them best.

A half-century of ever-increasing federal involvement in education has failed to increase academic achievement. Relinquishing control of Oklahoma’s educational autonomy to distant bureaucrats in Washington by adopting national standards and tests will fail to improve outcomes for children, and will further remove parents from the decision-making process. National standards would strengthen federal control over education while weakening schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers.

Moreover, states are far better at adapting and innovating than the bureaucratic federal government. Ten years ago, we could never have envisioned the technological advancements that have taken place, such as the iPad. And we cannot imagine what will take place ten years from now.

I hope Oklahoma will lead the way in improving its own state standards and pushing back against this unprecedented federal overreach into what is taught in your local classrooms.

Thank you.

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