Monday, November 30, 2009

Atlantic Century Report warns of Competitiveness Decline

Yesterday, CNN's outstanding Sunday news magazine, GPS with Fareed Zakariah, referenced a new report on global competitiveness, the Atlantic Century Report. There are many such reports, and so you have to take each such report in context, considering whether the report has any bias and drilling down to determine its methodology. Above all, one must be ultra cautious in sezing on a study or report that seems to vindicate views that you always hold.

This new report sounds an alarm regarding a possible decline in United States competitiveness, especially in the areas of technology, innovation, and the role of advanced science and engineering degrees in maintaining our competitive edge. The port points out that some recent reports have argued that our competitive edge remains strong. But, the authors argue, that there are disturbing signs that in recent years, other nations are catching up with us. The report uses a scoring system to report competitiveness (see at the bottom of this post);

In the last few years a number of studies have assessed countries’ global competitiveness. Many of these have found that the United States is the world leader in international competitiveness. Such rankings have led many observers to claim that calls for concern or questions about the U.S. competitiveness position are unwarranted. For example, the World Economic Forum’s report, The Global Competitiveness Report 2008-20097, ranked the United States first in global competitiveness two years in a row.
Innovation and productivity are supported by a highly educated workforce, so higher education attainment has become an important component of economic success, particularly in higher wage nations that can compete less effectively in lower skilled, routinized work.......

For example, the United States leads Europe in terms of higher education attainment, with EU-15 (the broadened definition of the European Union) levels 77 percent of U.S. levels and EU-10 levels just 57 percent. But the report argues that in the last decade, the trends are in the opposite direction:

When it comes to trends, however, the picture is quite different. The United States ranks last, with almost no increase since 1999. In contrast the share of 25- to 34-year-olds in the EU-15 with a tertiary degree increased by 25 percent, in part because of very strong growth in nations like Ireland and the United Kingdom. In addition, some EU-10 nations increased even faster, including Poland (117 percent).

The report continues:

"Europe and the United States vs. the Rest of the World: Despite the fact that the United States led for many years in higher education attainment, it no longer does. In fact, Russia leads with an over 40 percent higher rate, while Canada, Japan, and South Korea lead the United States by over 30 percent. And all four have attainment rates over 70 percent higher than EU-15 rates. Most developing nations have much lower rates, with rates in Brazil and India below 30 percent of U.S. rates. Europe vs. the United States: Europe lags behind the United States in the number of researchers, with the U.S. researcher intensity over 55 percent higher than the EU-15 and twice as high as the EU-10. The strong science and technology base of the United States economy established after World War II and reenergized with strong IT and biotechnology leadership more recently means that the United States is among the world leaders."

When it comes to trends, most other nations are making faster progress than the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly given its concerted push to be a more technologically-based economy China grew the fastest, with its share of researchers more than doubling. But other lagging nations also experienced rapid growth, with Mexico almost doubling (98 percent); Brazil up two-thirds, and India up 50 percent. A few nations such as South Korea and Singapore that had relatively high levels of researchers in 1999 made rapid progress, increasing by approximately 70 percent. Finally, Japan and Canada both outpaced the EU-15 and the United States.

Here in Minnesota, one manifestation of the competitiveness crisis is the fact that Minnesota's labor force growth is shrinking radically at the same time that the number of older Americans is increasing. From 1970 to 1980, Minnesota's labor force grew by about 450,000 according to the State Demographer and State Economist. (Click on link for slide show with charts). In the following three decades, net labor force growth was between 325,000 and 400,000. But now comes crunch time. But the State demographer and economist estimate that net labor force growth will fall to about 150,000 in the decade 2010-2020, and to about 100,000 in the following decade. During the same period, the population and percentage of the population over age 65 will grow significantly.

From 2006-2011, for example, the number of Minnesota workers turning 62 will jump from about 38,000 to 60,000. The number of people who will be doing productive labor will be falling over the next several decades as compared to the number of senior citizens. (This growth in the elderly is offset somewhat by the lower number of children). But still, the rising number of elderly will be a significant challenge will have more people to support than prior generations. To make this work, it is absolutely critical then that we invest in education that allows you, and your children to be productive.

In a prior post, I argued that our failure to maintain a strong education infrastructure endagers our competitiveness as a nation.

One manifestation of the crisis in education may be illustrated by thinking back to what has happened to the cost of going to college. Back in 1957, tuition at the University of Minnesota for the whole year, 1957, was $111. By the time I graduated from high school in 1963, tuition for the full year had rise to $255. If you take that inflation adjusted $255 into today's dollars, the tuition would be only $1744. It's actually over $10,000. The cost of attending Minnesota's major public university, which was founded to provide a quality college education to average citizens, has grown by over 5 times, in terms of constant dollars. We are making it vastly more difficult for this generation of young people to attend college than for my generation. How did this happen.

By the time that I graduated from college, one year tuition was $294. When I enrolled in Georgetown Law school, tuition at U of M had risen to about $504. The tuition at my private university law school was about $2600. I could work my way through law school on summer jobs. Minnesota's spending per capita on higher education peaked in that year, 1972 and has been falling ever since. Minnesota's ranking among states in state funding for higher education dropped from 12th in FY 2001 to 35th in FY 2006, as a share of personal income. And although Minnesota is below-average in state funding for higher education, it is above average in the cost of attending public institutions.

The current full year tuition for undergrad at the University of Minnesota $10,320, Law School. It costs $21,000 to attend the law school for a year, and at my alma mater, Georgetown Law it now costs $39,000 per year. According to MNSCU statistics, the state appropriation per MNSCU sudent, adjusted for inflation, has decreased since 1999 while tuition has increased 57%

What was the University of Minnesota like when tuition was only $255 per year. In those years, Dr. Lilihei's team there completed the first open heart surgery using hypothermia. Their efforts led to cross circulation techniques, then to a heart-lung machine and ultimately to techniques that now make open heart surgery almost mundane. Lilihei's expertise led him to train more than 150 cardiac surgeons from 40 nations, including Christiaan Barnard (a fellow University of Minnesota Ph.D. recipient in the 1950s who went on to perform the world's first heart transplant in South Africa). At the University of Minnesota Lillihei and his coworkers also developed the first electronic pacemaker. At the University, when tuition was under $255, the school of medicine did the first pancreas transplant; pioneerered the development of the mechanical heart valves; conducted the first implementation of artificial blood; and implemented the first clinical use of cortisone, the great anti-inflammatory. Without these advances, our medical technology industry, which employed 20,400 workers in 2000, would not exist without the people and the basic research coming out of the university. In fact, from 1990 to 2000 the number of medical technology employees grew 67 percent in Minnesota, while increasing only 17 percent nationally.

During this time, the university spawned and supported growth of other areas of technology. That era witnessed the growth of Control Data, the establishment in the Twin Cities of Cray Supercomputers. U of M grads populated the laboratories of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing .

Over the last two decades, and especially during the last 8 years, there has been a fundamental change in our ability to sustain the vital educational infrastructure that made Minnesota a center of growth in technology and in the next decades, unless this is reversed, we will pay a heavy price.

Atlantic Century

Atlantic Century

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Discussing Compensation Does Not Disparage Dedicated Educators

In recent weeks, I have explained my position that there needs to be a more transparent, more public discussion of the structure of compensation and benefits in public education. In a recent post, I said that the process of reviewing our costs and benefits should be "open and fully transparent." I said that the public would benefit from understanding our system of compensation, and I said, "Let the public review begin." This statement has enraged some people, claiming that it was akin to George Bush's famous words "bring it on" challenge to the terrorists. I did not mean to disparage anyone with that comment. I find that interpretation of a public officials statement that the public has a right to understand the compensation system and the bargaining system that determines the very survival of public education pretty strange. Evidently some folks believe that publicly to discuss the cost of compensation, the structure of compensation, and the bargaining process is a violation of some unwritten rule. I dissent from that point of view.

I believe that the public's business must be done in public view--all of it. The cost of a public education is a matter of high public importance. The public needs to understand more about the costs and what is driving them, not less. All over the state of Minnesota right now, school districts are locked in a struggle over survival. District after district is paralyzed because they are caught in a vice-grip between funding cuts on the one hand and expectations from employees that they receive increases in pay that the districts cannot afford. These districts are being asked to make significant increases in class size, cut major programs, and it is not appropriate to meet this challenge in the back room. This problem will not be solved with less transparency; it needs more.

Perhaps some people sensed a bit of a tone of anger in the syntax of my words in that previous blog. I regret that tone, because it wrongly suggested to some that I was disparaging individual dedicated public servants. I apologize for that. I was disappointed. Often it is the people who you respect the most who disappoint you the most. We have superb public servants working for the school district. They do a great job. They have dedicated their careers to what I regard as God's work: the nurturing of children. They often feel abandoned, as they do their work against the background of increasing child poverty and what seems to them an ever increasing sense that parents aren't as supportive of the work of educators as they used to be.

One of the ideas that we must drive out of public education is that by discussing the compensation of our employees publicly we are criticizing the work that they do. That is not the point. Education is the most valuable commodity in our society, or nearly so. More valuable than financial planning and the brokering of stock, more valuable than lawyering, accounting, and even doctoring. For it is educators who train financial planners, stock brokers, lawyers, accountants and doctors. We under value educators in our society and the consequence of that under-valuing is that policy makers in St. Paul and Congress can allow it to decline without public consequence.

Some people claim that it is wrong to discuss our compensation system in public because it is offensive to our employees. To them I say that I am proud to be one of those people who defends every last dollar that we pay to educators. I know that they work hard. I know that they are doing important work. I deplore people who think that educators are overpaid. I think that the State of Minnesota is not investing enough in education, and I believe that an open and transparent discussion is what is needed to establish that fact.

The problem in Minnesota that is destroying public education is not that teachers and administrators are overpaid. The problem is that we have a system that forces local school districts to pay them more than they can afford. Precious few superintendents are willing to face their citizens and explain that fact. Precious few school boards are willing to open up and explain what is going on. A system has developed in Minnesota where superintendents and boards go behind closed doors and make settlements with their employees, the consequences of which they know take us further down the road towards the destruction of our public education system. It is regarded as bad form to tell the truth. Who are we protecting? Many school boards and superintendents are now finding new ways to evade the true cost of these settlements. And when they do that, their lack of transparency and courage avoids making public the true nature of the problem in public education.. Unless the problem is publicly discussed, it cannot be solved.

When I say that the public education financial system is broken because superintendents and boards are persistently paying out more than they can, I am not attacking teachers or administrators. They earn what they get paid. The problem is that we are paying them what we cannot afford to pay them, and somebody has eventually got to talk about this problem, as painful as it is, before it is too late.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Minnesota Constitution Puts Public Education First

The education clause of the Minnesota Constitution states:

“Uniform system of public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

To maintain a thorough and efficient public system of public schools throughout the state we need three things:
  • Adequate revenues, raised through taxation at the state level, to achieve our objective; without adequate revenues we cannot maintain programs and recruit and retain the very best professionals
  • Cost controls so that our labor costs do not rise faster than the rate of growth of revenues. Without cost controls, the adequate revenues can never maintain a stable thorough and efficient system of public schools
  • A long term strategic plan for continuous improvement implemented in all school districts founded on visionary best practices
Our state leadership, in both parties, have abysmally failed us in the first two respects, and the tragedy is that neither democrats nor republicans even want to acknowledge the nature and scope of the problem. This constitutional provision requiring the legislature to establish a “general and uniform system of public schools” means that education is a fundamental right in Minnesota. Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993). This Constitutional provision places public education in a unique position in Minnesota. In my view, all of us in the public service must adhere to this constitutional requirement, by putting the requirement to provide a thorough and efficient education first and foremost in our actions.

If I am in the military, I put the nation's defense first before everything. My duty to uphold the constitution in service to the nation requires me to prepare to make the ultimate sacrifice. Soldiers make family sacrifices, financial sacrifices, and risk life and limb, all because they are in the service of the nation's effort, sanctified under the Federal Constitution, to put the nation's safety first. If I am a Congressman, Senator, President, or cabinet member, I have been sworn to defend the Constitution and no excuse justifies failing to provide the necessary resources. National defense is a national obligation which admits of no evasion.

So I think that the education clause places public education in a similar position for all of us in public service, from the Governor, to legislators, to school boards, to teachers, administrators and staff. We are all called upon, by the Minnesota Constitution, to put the provision of a thorough and efficient public education system first and foremost. But frankly, public servants in Minnesota are behaving as if they are somehow exempt from the Constitution. When soldiers ignore their constitutional responsibility, they get court martialed and dishonorably discharged. But when Minnesota's public servants ignore their constitutional responsibility, all we do is give out an alibi.

In the legislature, Republicans and Democrats alike behave as if this constitutional provision simply doesn't apply to them. There is not a democrat in the legislature, not one, who regards the constitutional requirement to provide a uniform system of public schools as superior to their obligation to Education Minnesota and public employees unions. In Minnesota, the democratic party regards labor rights as superior to childrens' rights, and as a democrat its painful for me to admit it. In the legislature, the vast majority, if not all, republicans place the no-new taxes pledge as superior to their constitutional obligation. When they all get sworn in, republicans and democrats, they swear to uphold the Constitution, but its as if they have their fingers crossed. If they were soldiers, and regarded their oath with they same fidelity, when the enemy attacked, they'd all be running away backwards.

Now listen. Teachers are important and deserve to be well paid. Keeping taxes down is important, and fiscal responsibility is an important public goal. But neither union rights nor taxes plays a favored role in the Minnesota Constitution, and when you become a public servant, your constitutional duty comes before everything else, or so it seems to me.

If you think my critique is unfair to republicans and democrats, then put my thesis to the test. Next time you meet a democratic office holder ask them this: do you think that labor has the right to force school districts to make cuts that would impair their ability to deliver a quality education? What you will get is a string of evasions, because for Democrats the painful fact is that labor rights comes before children and before the constitutional responsibility to deliver a thorough and efficient education. In fact its not even a close call. There is no C in DFL.

If you think I am wrong, next time you meet a republican office holder, ask them this: do you think that your no-taxes pledge is a higher duty than your pledge to assure a thorough and efficient education "by taxation or otherwise"? What you will get another string of evasions. But you can't make a no-new-taxes pledge and uphold the legislature's responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of education at the same time. When you pledge never to raise taxes, no matter what the circumstances, you are stating explicitly that the tax pledge is superior to your constitutional duty. In fact, its not even a close call. There is no C in GOP.

Ok. I'm being a bit unfair, you say. Don't get me wrong. Democrats and Republicans care about children. They value public education. Its a high priority. They just don't regard it seriously as a constitutional duty that rises above everything else. Its a goal, and objective, not a constitutional duty. Lots of things come first, even though the Constitution plainly requires it to be put first.

What about school boards, teachers, administrators and the rest? We too are sworn to uphold the constitution. To me that means that we cannot cut programs and raise class size, when we know that doing this will lead to destruction of a thorough and efficient public education system. The constitution comes first, even when we are squirming. But more about that later, because we too have plenty of alibis.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Costing School Settlements with Courage

I've been running a series on what School Boards need to do to improve the financial structural mess in Minnesota. When I started the series, I said that I spoke to a powerful Minnesota legislator about the financial crisis in public education. I said that I was urging that legislators need to do something bold and dramatic to address the crisis in public education. I argued that they need to give us the power to balance revenues and costs during this crisis, or if they won't give us the power, they need to do it themselves. The crisis is manifest by constant cuts in programs and services followed by operating levies seeking to make up the difference. Do something, I said. Either give us more money, or give us the power to control our expenses, so we can maintain quality programs. But for God sake, you have to put an end to a system that continually forces school districts to pay out more than they can afford to. The legislator told me that we school board members need more courage. So I decided to write a series about everybody's role in the school finance mess, beginning with school boards and local districts.

In today's post, I want to explain how school districts avoid and evade publicly disclosing the amount of their labor settlements. One way of doing this is to understate the cost of their settlements. If the legislature provides us with a 2% increase in funding, its hard to explain publicly if we increase our compensation costs by 3% for that year, isn't it? If you increase compensation by more than you received, then you are going to make cuts, and if the public knows that you are making those cuts because you gave more increases than you have, they're likely to be pretty upset. Because if you do that year after year, eventually, there's not going to be anything left. But over the last decade, as state funding increases have declined, but pressure for settlement increases has continued unabated, school boards and especially school superintendents, have increasingly tried to soft pedal the persistent difference in revenue and cost increases, by avoiding full transparency on the impact of financial settlements.

This issue is a major concern for several reasons. First, if school districts are not transparent about the true cost of settlements, it evades public responsibility. Second, if school districts are not transparent about the true cost of settlements, then the State of Minnesota--governor and legislature, cannot make a connection between increases in State funding and local financial problems. Third, if school districts are not transparent about the true cost of settlements, it makes it exceedingly difficult to devise a solution. We can never arrive at a financially stable public education system if we don't understand what it causing our difficulties in the first place.

There are several devices that folks in education use to understate the disparity between (and the reason for) increases in revenues and increases in cost:

  • They can ignore some of the costs that are actually involved in the settlement. You'll see an example of that in the table below
  • They can "backload" the settlement so that the impact of the increases take place in a later year, making it less transparent that the cost increases agreed to have caused the cuts that result. We'll talk about backloading in a future post
  • They can use calculation devices that understate the percentage increase in the settlement (or leave out the total cost of the increase) when they report it publicly. We'll see an example of how that is done in the table below. It is very common for school districts to report an increase as being, say 8 percent, when it is really 10 percent, by use of a form of fuzzy mathematics.
  • They can ignore the costs of steps and lanes in the calculation and report only salary schedule improvement. We'll discuss that in subsequent posts.
One way in which the financial cost of settlements is understated is to fail to the entire cost of the settlement. To understand this issue, let's look at the following hypothetical costing summary from a labor settlement or proposal. The costing sheet for an actual settlement proposal is fairly complicated. It contains a listing of all of the elements of employee compensation, including salary and benefits.

Costing MethodBase YearYear 1 Year 2Total CostPercentage
Education Minnesota Method$45,225,000$46,626,000$48,837,000$2,889,8976.3 %
MSBA Method A$51,047,000$52,795,000$55,213,000$4,265,0006.0%
MSBA Old Method$51,047,000$52,795,00055,213,000$6,013,0008.0%

To read this chart, you need to understand that costing starts with the base year cost. Under this example, the total cost of all compensation is $51 million in the base year. The cost rises to $52.8 million in the first year and $55.2 million in the second year. To fund this settlement, the District will need to come up with $6 million extra dollars during the two year period. The total compensation package in the second year is about 8 percent higher than the base year.

But Education Minnesota will report this as 6.3 percent increase over the two years, costing only $2.8 million. What a difference!

In the above example, Education Minnesota is saying that the base year cost is about $45.2 million with an increase to $46.6 million and $48.8 million respectively. But the actually cost of the settlement begins with a base year of $51 million and rises to $55 million. So, one problem with the Education Minnesota method is that it doesn't account for the actual cost of compensation. This is a trap for school boards, because it presents a misleading picture of what the district is paying for compensation, and a misleading picture of what is being increased, and a misleading picture of the cost of the package.

But there is another misleading element of the Education Minnesota method. It pretends that the increase from the base year to the first year is not paid in the second year. The increase paid in the first year is paid again in the second year, but the Education Minnesota method just discards that amount, and pretends that it isn't there. If you do the math, you will see that the total increase in compensation under the Education Minnesota method is actually $5,013,000, not the $2.8 million displayed on the table If you subtract year one from the base year and year two from the base year, and add the two together, you get $5 million, not $3 million. The Education Minnesota completely obliterates $2 million in costs. When a school board uses this method, it is completely misled as to the true cost. When the newspaper reports this method, it is understating to the public the actual cost increase. Notice that by doing this, the Education Minnesota method makes it look like these $2 million in extra expenses came from somewhere else entirely. Everyone says, what happened to that money? It must be inflation, someone says.

When a school district wants to quiet public concern, it may resort to reporting the lower numbers. And, in fact, in the last several years, the Minnesota School Boards Association has advised school districts to use a new method which under-reports the rate of increase. In the above example, this new method would report the increase as 6 percent, as suggested by Education Minnesota, instead of the true increase of 8%. Many of the school districts in the State, but not St. Cloud, have adopted this new method of percentage reporting, which significantly understates the rate of increase of the settlement.

While this change may make the public less concerned, it does a great disservice, because it keeps policy makers from understanding what is happening to school finance. If you think that costs are going up 6 percent per two years, instead of 8 percent per two years, you simply cannot address the true nature of the problem. And, if the legislature is trying to fund the increased costs, it cannot address the problem when it is misled about the rate of growth in these costs and what is causing them.

If we board members are going to be courageous, we need to confront financial realities and accurately report the true cost of labor settlements. If we are going to pay more, we need to advocate that the legislature increase revenues by the amount of the increase, and we need to communicate the true reason for what we are doing. Part of what is going on here is that school superintendents and school boards are truly frightened by the continuing spiral in which they pay out more than they take in. The panic is so severe that it is hard to stand up in public and explain what is actually happening. And, when you actually explain it, the folks in St. Paul don't seem to want to hear. Why explain a problem that nobody wants to solve? The continued spiraling gap between money out and money in is going to kill public education eventually. Many folks are just hoping it doesn't happen while they are still around to get blamed.

In my next post, I'll talk about some other issues in the way settlements are structured that lead to confusion in the cost of settlements.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nation at Risk(2) Howard Gardiner

Nation at Risk Retrospective--Howard Gardner

This is a reprise of previous posts on the Nation at Risk retrospectives that have begun to appear 25 years after publication of that document. As always, I seek to expose various points of view. With that disclaimer let's look at Howard Gardner's critique of the trend towards centralized nationally imposed solutions that began, in part, with publication of Nation at Risk.

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. He is best known in education for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there is but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. In a recent article in Education Week Gardner describes the evolution of his thinking on whether a single nationally imposed solution can best transform public education. He writes:

I’ve come a long way from a reflection on the national or federal role in education. ... Too much of the talk and action about U.S. education has focused on issues of method—what to do about test scores, vouchers, charters, unions, teacher salaries. While not unimportant, these debates distract us from asking the important questions about the goals of education—and particularly goals that go beyond the instrumental ones of more and more competitiveness in the international marketplace. Historically and contemporaneously, the United States has done quite well as a nation, even without a “one best system.” Before rushing headlong toward uniformity, we ought to spend time debating the goals of education, and considering the various ways of achieving them, in light of the plurality of populations that constitute our land.

Gardner sees American education as harboring three quite separate systems "each with its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses."

He writes: Each system needs to strengthen one of the E’s [excellence, engagement, and ethics]. . Education for each system, accordingly, should be directed toward the E that needs to be bolstered.

The first system consists of the schools in our inner cities, featuring a population that is diverse and disadvantaged. Many of these students never finish secondary school, and many who do are not fully literate. The problem in system one is excellence in literacy and the disciplines. These schools succeed only if they are blessed with teachers of unusual quality, and human and technical resources well beyond those that are routinely available. The No Child left Behind law was designed with this target audience in mind. Its fatal weakness is that it is using the whole country to repair problems peculiar to inner-city Detroit, Hartford, Los Angeles, and their fellow, all-too-beleaguered metropolises.

The second system, he generalizes, constitutes "the large rural areas in the center of the nation, as well as the working-class suburbs...."

Here students do finish secondary school, for the most part, and their literacy, while far from stellar, is at least at the basic level. But the bulk of these students are distinguished by their disengagement from the learning requirements of school and, in all too many cases, from the constructive use of their minds in general. Asked to complete a two-word stem, most would readily respond, “School is … boring.” The challenge to educators in the heartland is to make the “stuff” of school sufficiently intriguing, so that students want to pursue their educations and have the disposition to do so, even when no one is twisting their arms.

If you are saying, "whoa," now wait a minute, I'm not ready to put schools, kids, and places in boxes like that, that's ok. Because that actually supports Gardners fundamental point--that a one size all approach to public education doesn't make sense. Different school systems have fundamentally different problems, but within those school districts, in varying proportions, we find many young people and famlies who actually fit the description that Gardner utilizes for another system. So it is a fair criticism of Gardners approach, that his categorization of systems into three is as flawed as the attempt to treat the entire American system as if it were just one system. But look, thinkers like Gardner perform a tremendous service when they try to organize information into categories and find basic organizing principles.

The third system, Gardner writes is

"the system enveloping elites living in suburbs, often attending schools that are or could as well be independent, attending four-year colleges and having ambitious career goals and options." Some of these youngsters—and they are often our youngsters—are impressive in their goals and admirable in their means of achieving them. But as our research in the GoodWork Project has dramatically confirmed, too many of them do not take their ethical obligations seriously. They are quick to assert their rights, in a way that smacks of excess entitlement. But when asked about the responsible thing to do at work or as a citizen, and when their behaviors and actions are monitored, they emerge as a population that has rarely stretched in an ethical direction. All too often, members are engaged in compromised or even sheer bad work. The challenge with young people in the third system is to strengthen their ethical muscles, so to speak.

Gardner then suggests that the key to quality education differs depending on the community. "The key to quality education in the inner city may lie in bringing students to an excellent level of performance; in the heartland, in catalyzing a greater degree of engagement in learning; and in our affluent urban and suburban areas, in strengthening the ethical musculature of young people. Paraphrasing Plato, we might say that these three paths will help students want to do what they have to do.

Now you don't have to buy into Gardner's attempt to put communities in boxes, to recognize that Gardner has identified one of the problems with "A Nation at Risk" and the nationwide single mandate-based solutions that have ensued. From my vantage point in the heartland of the United States, I wouldn't have described the core issues in education the way Gardner has done. But the purpose of these blogs on Nation at Risk is to expose a variety of points of view. By the way, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of Education Week's full coverage of Nation at Risk. They offer 4 weeks of free online coverage, and I think you will find the articles stimulating and the education news timely.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nation at Risk (1) ED Hirsch

Earlier, I collected some materials written on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary "A Nation at Risk." That event has led the education community and education pundits to write retrospectives on the course of public education over those 25 years. So, I thought that I would begin a blog-strand on some of the perspectives on that seminal work. As always, when I provide access to resources, my goal is to share different perspectives: I don't believe in limiting ones thinking to the people with whom one agrees.

My first blog entry comes from a recent article in Education Week, by E.D. Hirsch, one of American's leading educational thinkers. E.D. Hirsch is one of our most stimulating writers on the topic of school reform. I recommend especially his The Schools We Need and Why We Don't have Them. In his article in Education Week, Hirsch writes:
In American educational history, A Nation at Risk is significant as a very dramatic official recognition in the 1980s that our schools were declining in effectiveness not only in relation to schools of other nations, but also in relation to our own results in earlier decades. In the 25 years since the report was issued, energetic reform efforts have been put forth, to small overall effect. The best single gauge of overall national school effectiveness—the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test of 12th graders––has remained flat, and has even declined slightly. This persistent lack of significant improvement is owing to the unwavering persistence of the very ideas that caused the decline in the first place—the repudiation of a definite academic curriculum in the early grades by the child-centered movement of the early 20th century. Given the continued content vagueness of state standards in early grades, especially in language arts, that underlying condition has not much changed. There is still no definite, coherent academic curriculum in the early grades. That is the principal source of the low academic achievement of our high school students.
There is much to admire in E.D. Hirsch's point of view. He writes from the point of view of a literate, learned, social scientist. His recommendations on enriching the core elementary curriculum is stimulating and often hits the mark. Hirsch is the leading critic of the over reliance on teaching critical thinking, without the core knowledge base that represents the language and knowledge base with which, and about which, we think critically. You cannot think if you do not know, is a simplistic paraphrasing of Hirsch's approach.

Some people have gone too far with Hirsch's point of view, and have argued that schools should avoid critical thinking altogether. They would argue that critical thinking is no part of education. But that is not Hirsch's message at all, for he is a thinker. Hirsch is criticizing the people who believe that it is possible to learn history without knowing historical facts, mathematics without knowing arithmetic fundamentals, or science without knowing basic science facts.

Hirsch writes;
Decades later, elementary schools continue to follow the advice of the anti-curriculum experts, and work to achieve higher-order skills like “critical thinking” and “problem-solving.” Yet, according to international studies, these turn out to be the very skills that our students lack compared with students in Asian and European countries that have placed less emphasis on formal skills and more emphasis on coherent year-to-year subject matter. Higher-order skills are important, but they are not gained best by endlessly focusing on them. Anybody who is reading this probably possesses the skills advocated by A Nation at Risk. They can read the words with comprehension, and think about them critically. Somehow we have gained these higher-order skills without being taught them directly. Few of us learned critical thinking by taking lessons in critical thinking.
How did we manage that? Cognitive science is clear on the point—through practice. By the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, cognitive psychology had achieved a consensus about the importance of long practice and the content-based character of most academic skills. But the science of psychology was not often alluded to in A Nation at Risk, and today, 25 years later, there is still little crossover between cognitive science and educational policy.
A Nation at Risk simply assumed that gaining an academic skill such as reading or reckoning is independent of the specific curricular content through which the skill is taught. This is wrong. There is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.
So Hirsch is right when he calls upon us to provide students with the knowledge based tools necessary to think critically. You cannot critically think about the causes of war and conflict, if you don't know the history of nationalism, of religion, of economics, and the other causes of the great wars. To think critically about war and peace, bereft of knowledge, is as futile as it was for our current President to imagine that he could turn Iraq into a Jefferson democracy. Critical thinking without knowledge is dangerous.

Ironically, Hirsch's own venture into mathematics education represents an illustration of this very problem. For Hirsch seeks to apply his theories of learning and thinking from the social sciences, writing and reading, and apply them blindly to the teaching of mathematics, where he seems to be ill-prepared. This is one of the dangers of educational theory. We find a good idea, and then we try to make it a universal principle.

Hirsch believes that mathematical genius results from an accumulation of little differences in arithmetical learning, as if mathematical strenth comes from doing your sums and times tables each day. He writes:

What makes a math genius is thus in large part what makes a great musical performer—a small advantage in talent leads, over time, with long effort, to a big advantage in achievement—as in the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” In general, it is not some Kryptonitic superiority of Superman-like endowment that accounts for high expertise in any subject, but rather tenacity of practice (lasting on average some 10 years). What is true for math and music is also true for language abilities. Wide knowledge and a large vocabulary—the prerequisites to high achievement in high school—are gradual accretions. You cannot gain them by a sudden intensive incursion into high school.

But lovers of mathematics know that this is not so. Mathematics, is the exception that proves Hirsch's rule, as it were. Mathematics is a form of critical thinking, of deep thinking. Hirsch misses the difference between arithmetic, which is for running cash registers, and mathematics, which is the logic and language of science. Mathematics is founded on an accumulation of little differences, true. The foundation of mathematics is not number facts: it is numeric understanding. You don't learn mathematics by memorizing math facts; you learn mathematics by understanding. Mathematicians are borne of a lifelong adventure in critical thinking. Hirsch's prescriptions for elementary school in literature, reading and social studies are stimulating; in mathematics they are suicidal.

For articles by E.D. Hirsch, follow this link.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving up the Farm an acre at a Time

This is the beginning of a series of posts on what Board of Educations need to do to show more courage in confronting the structural financial problems we face in public education. My starting point was that I'm really frustrated with the lack of courageous leadership in St. Paul at every level to confront these issues. I have a lot of criticisms of the folks down in St. Paul, and I have a lot I would like to say. But I said that courage begins with looking yourself in the mirror to ask what you can do first. Board members come to service intending to benefit kids by making education better. Almost all of us are thinking that we will have a chance to add value, to make things better than they were when we were students in school. We come to our board service with stars in our eyes. This is an opportunity to do public service.

Some people run for office as a stepping stone to some larger political career in St. Paul or Washington. But almost never do I find a school board member who is thinking of school board service as providing some long term personal or political advantage. And so, when I argue that we board members need to do better, I start with that background Everybody is trying to do their best to create a first class school environment for children. But back to the mirror.

The greatest deception that we Board members practice on ourselves is the rationalization that we can give up something every year, and that we'll still have something left after a decade of doing that. We give up a little bit here, and a little bit there. If we cut ten percent here, and ten percent there, we'd like to believe, its not really going to add up to very much. One hundred minus ten, minus ten, minus ten is somehow going to equal ninety five.

Every year, we board members are forced with difficult decisions and difficult choices involving requests to provide more funds to really worthy causes. That's the difficult part. In the last two bienniems, the four years ending with 2011, the general education funding formula calculated on a per student basis has increased by an annual average rate of 3/4 of one percent. Two percent, followed by one percent, followed by two years of zero percent. And yet, all the time, we are presented with requests and even demands, to increase some very worthy aspect of our budget by substantially more than 3/4 percent per year.

For example, over the last several years, our board of education has been consistently pressed permanently to add more counselors at the elementary level. We haven't been able to do that, because funding is so tight. The benefits of elementary counseling are quite clear. The people who ask us to find a way to add more elementary counselors are wonderful dedicated people. Almost always they are doing good work and making a difference for kids. If we would just make a few hundreds of thousands of dollars in adjustments here or there in our budget, we could help them do a lot of good. If we cut a little bit of art, and a bit out of the textbook budget, and maybe add a half a kid to class size, who will ever notice the difference. And if it stopped there, maybe it would be ok. But next year, its something else.

We have wonderful staff. Like everyone else, their health insurance costs are rising. If we didn't think highly of them, it would be easy to say, look, we have nothing this year, so we have to freeze our payroll. But they are fantastic dedicated people, and its so easy to let the fiscal responsibility part slide, just this one year. This year, we'll make some cuts to raise salaries more than we can afford. Next year to pay for health insurance increases we'll raise class size another half student.

This issue is at the root of the funding crisis for public education. Its really hard to resist the pressures to divert resources to good causes. Teachers salaries and benefits. Counselors. A new program that doesn't receive enough state funding, but is a really dang good program. Just a little bit here, a little bit there, and then a whole lot somewhere else.

My fellow board member, Bruce Mohs, calls this giving away the farm, an acre at a time. He says if you try to take a few acres of land from a family farm, the family protects that acre at all costs. They know that if they give up an acre, then pretty soon, they'll be asked to give up another acre, and another, and pretty soon, the family farm is so small that it is no longer viable. Land is precious. You have to protect the family farm at all costs. But in public education, we school board members have grown accustomed to giving up the farm an acre at a time, for just one more cause. This year, we cut just a bit of music. Ten acres gone. Next year, maybe we add just one student to our average class size. Another ten acres gone. The next year, we cut our library or textbook budget. Ten more acres gone. Pretty soon, we don't have enough textbooks for kids to take home. And so, we rationalize, kids don't really need to read their textbooks at home. Homework is over-rated. Who ever learned from a textbook anyway?

One acre at a time, or even ten, our farm gets smaller and smaller, until pretty soon, its not much of a farm and nobody would want to buy it. Its not capable of really supporting a family anymore. We can't remember, really, when it all happened. It was somebody else who started us down the road to losing the farm, certainly not us. Nobody ever gave up very much. But over a decade, or two decades, the sum total of all of the acres we gave up, leaves us with a farm so small that the tractor hardly has room enough to turn around anymore.

As the farm gets smaller, we invent a variety of ways of avoiding accountability for giving away part of the farm. That's the topic for tomorrow's post. How can we deceive ourselves into thinking that when we make the farm smaller, we aren't implicated, that its entirely somebody else's fault. All the farmers are doing it. Giving up big chunks of their farm. Farms are going out of business all over the State. If you try to hang onto yours, you're dreaming. Who are you kidding. Its inevitable. Go with the flow.

Here's the problem. It wouldn't be so bad if we gave up a couple of acres in one year, and then got a couple of acres back in the next. But the truth of the matter is we've gotten so accustomed to giving up a few acres every year, that its a habit. We never try to get some of our land back. If somebody says, lets hang on to all of the farm this year, everybody says, you've got to be out of your mind, everybody gives away at least some of the farm every year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Accept good accountability or you will get Accountability Bad

Earlier this year, Education Secretary announced that "he will leverage a $5 billion fund to shape school reform, rewarding states that push for classroom innovation with federal stimulus dollars and denying extra aid to those that do not."

States that are simply investing in the status quo will put themselves at a tremendous competitive disadvantage for getting those additional funds," Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. "I can't emphasize strongly enough how important it is for states and districts to think very creatively and to think very differently about how they use this first set of money."

A building consensus is calling upon as to think creatively and think differently in education. Yet still, there are those in the education establishment who believe that they can stick their fingers in the dike and keep things from changing. There is this still this lurking belief that the future of education likes in preventing any and all change, unless it is perfect.

I wish that I could say that I agree with Duncan on his overall strategy, but I do agree with his desire to inculcate reform. The Obama administration is approaching education reform with some of the same flaws as the Bush Administration. President Bush appointed an educational leader from Texas, and he was a prisoner of his experience in Texas, a highly troubled public education system. He proceeded to try to conduct national education policy as if the entire nation was Texas. Obama has a Secretary of Education from Chicago, and he too is a prisoner of his experience: he is trying to reform education as if the entire country was Chicago. Our nation's leaders are also prisoners of their personal experience with one of the nation's most troubled public school systems, the District of Columbia system, and they tend to believe that every public school system in American must be not unlike the District of Columbia. Spare us, please, from pretending that you can "fix" our school districts by treating us as if we are Texas, Chicago, or the District of Columbia.

With that Said, as I talk to educators, they often fail to understand this demand for reform which centers around accountability. They feel that as professionals, their professionalism is their own accountability. What I try to explain is that accountability is about communication and trust building as well as continuous progress. The demand for accountability in the reform movement shouldn't be viewed as an indictment of teachers or of education. It is what we need to do in order to make what we are doing transparent. Only 30 percent of the families in Minnesota now have children in public schools. Even if every one of those families are completely satisfied, and of course, that can never be true, the rest have no way of knowing whether the hard earned money that they contribute to public education is making a difference. And especially now as they hear a drum beat of criticism from right wing critics who complain about "government schools," accountability is key in developing public support for public education.

One way of responding to this emerging trend of tying new funding to accountability and reform is to just plain refuse the money and the conditions that go with it.. The problem with this is that more and more money is coming with accountability strings, and going down that road is leading to financial starvation. Its a losing battle. The public is getting to the point where they are going to say, no accountability, no money.

There is reason to fear the change process. Not all change is good. One way to prevent bad change from happening is to stop all change from happening. We have in Minnesota an elaborate infrastructure that is much more powerful in stopping change, good or bad, than in promoting good change. If you don't believe me, just take a look at what happened at the legislature with labor day start. There isn't a single educator in the State of Minnesota, unless he or she happens to own a resort, who believes that the legislative decision on labor start was wise. But still, the legislature could not come up with the courage to do what was good for education.

Whether you like it or not, whether we like it or not, the public is demanding change. We can ride that wave on our surfboards, guiding the change, and make it our own, or we can drown in the waves by trying to turn them back. What is not acceptable, what the public will not accept, is that we try to keep things the same.

The public wants more accountability in education. There are good ways and bad ways to promote accountability. But educators and education will not be able to avoid the bad systems of accountability by simply stalling accountability until it goes away. By doing that, we will make it inevitable that politicians remote from education will foist their own vision of accountability on us. This is the lesson of No Child Left Behind. A tremendous amount of damage has been done to education by an ill considered, poorly structured accountability system. But the lesson here is not that we should avoid accountability, the lesson here is that we must capture the accountability movement, improve it, and use it to benefit kids. Instead of fighting to stop NCLB, educators should have seized it right at the beginning and made it better.

Many excellent hard working teachers fear accountability, because their is so much potential for imposition of bad accountability systems. That's because there are students who are easy to educate and students who are hard to educate. The students who are hard to educate are not distributed evenly among school districts and schools. Some teachers get assigned to classrooms with students who practically teach themselves. Some teachers get assigned to classrooms with students who are struggling, who come to the classroom way behind, and so on. And there has been, regrettably, a movement amongst politicians right here in Minnesota to compare the results across classrooms and schools in ways that do not truly measure whether the teachers or schools are doing a good job.

So this is the fear, and its a fear being fed unfortunately by some of the approaches coming out of our current state administration. The fear is that as a teacher, I might take on a difficult class, and be rated poorly even though I do a great job, when other teachers get rated highly, because they have an easy class. There are other fears. The fear that accountability systems will be used to harm teachers, will be used to enhance the arbitrary power of management, or to destroy the power of labor. Right now, these fears are driving out the ability of education in Minnesota to respond appropriately to the need to make good change.

That's a losing battle--to just stop everything new. The Democratic Secratary of Education is sounding the death knell of the movement to keep things just the same as they always were. Education is going to have to answer the public call for change by implementing good change, or somebody is going to inflict bad change on us against our will.

Educating our way to a better economy
New Era of Science Education
In Education, a Chance for Change

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Proficiency Cut Scores Leads to Watered Down Standards

From time to time, I've been talking about the use of proficiency cut scores to evaluate students and educational programs. I've been a critic of the proficiency cut score system. A proficiency cut score system sets an arbitrary standard of "proficiency" and then rates a school, a district, a state, or a nation, based on the number of students who can score higher than that proficiency standard. I'm not critical of the proficiency cut score model because I want to water down standards and make public education look better. On the contrary, I criticize the proficiency cut score model, because it actually has the opposite impact.

The mother of all cut score systems is the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP sets arbitrary cut scores for various indicators of progress, math, science, and reading, and then tells us how many students are at the basic and proficient level. Then periodically, they issue a report on how many kids are proficient and how many are not. Now there are a number of problems with setting an arbitrary proficiency level. It suggests that there is one level for everyone, and that anyone who is not proficient is lost to mankind, and everyone who surpasses it is ready for the future. In fact, for some students, proficiency represents a tremendous waste of talent, and for other students, proficiency represents an unattainable distant goal. But today, I want to illustrate the fundamental arbitrariness of the proficiency cut score by presenting some graphs that compare the proficiency cut score used by states in comparison to the NAEP proficiency cut score. I've taken this from a Report by The Center for Public Education.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are evaluated on whether their students pass the State's proficiency cut score. But each state can set its own cut scores arbitrarily. The Report points out that Not one state's fourth or eighth grade cutoff score for reading proficiency was as high as NAEP's (NCES 2007) "As a matter of fact, fourth grade students in 22 states can be deemed proficient in reading on their state assessment, yet be characterized as below basic in terms of NAEP." Now who is right, the NAEP or these states? And if your answer is that surely the state with the highest cut score, then step back for a minute and think what you are saying. You are really contending that proficient means the highest score identified by the politician who wants to set the highest definition for proficiency in the Country.

That begs the question whether NAEP achievement levels are unrealistic? The Report continues:

It appears that NAEP's proficient level is a good goal but not easy to achieve. As studies have shown, not even the highest performing nations would get 100 percent of their students above NAEP's proficient level. Most would not even get half. And within the United States, many high school seniors, who by other measures are high-performing, do not score above NAEP's proficiency bar.

  • However, the NAEP's proficiency bar is not specifically set with the expectation that all students would be able to clear it. Proficiency is set by teachers, other educators, and subject-matter professionals who use their knowledge and expertise to set an aspirational goal for what they believe students should know and be able to do at each grade level. In contrast, state assessments are mandated by NCLB to set the proficiency bar at the level all students are expected to clear at their grade level.
  • Policymakers need to consider what are good goals for educational purposes compared to what is appropriate for accountability when establishing cut scores on their state assessments. Many experts suggest that NAEP-Basic level is a better gauge for the latter.

Just remember, how proficiency is defined is based on how proficiency is used. Considering the different purposes of NAEP and state assessments, it is not surprising each provides different results. What is most concerning is the large variance in the way that states define proficiency.
And that's exactly my point. Proficiency does not come from on high. It is not handed to us on a tablet on a mountain. Proficiency is different, depending on what you want it to mean.
Now take a look at these charts, which are linked to the Report. You can see that the states are all over the map on what proficiency means. If they set low standards, then their politicians can say that their schools are doing poorly. If they set high standards, then their politicians can boast that more of their students are proficient. And all of this governs which schools are penalized under No Child Left Behind.

Look at the spread in standards displayed here. A student in North Carolina is "proficient" in reading at grade 4 when she scores 180. A student in nearby South Carolina is proficient when she scores 230. Does it tell us anything at all about North Carolina and South Carolina to report that more students in North Carolina are proficient than students in South Carolina at the same grade level? Why should the schools in South Carolina be subjected to no child left behind penalties if their students don't make adequate yearly progress towards all students scoring 230 (which by the way won't likely happen in the next 50 years), whereas the schools in North Carolina are scored under NCLB if their students all score at the NAEP "below basic" level.
More to come.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

AYP means Are You Phooling?

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, last year, about half of Minnesota's schools were not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, an arbitrary cut score based measurement established by politicians. This year, the actual scores of real students improved slightly in most cases. But even more schools will be designated as not making adequate yearly progress, because every year, the State raises the standard for success. Better isn't good enough. Better, in NCLB is worse, because NCLB is based on the premise that all students will reach perfection by the year 2014. And each year, until 2014, more schools will be designated in "AYP" until by 2014 virtually no school in Minnesota will qualify as making adequate yearly progress. In a past post, I compared this Utopian idea to the belief of communists that right-thinking government could bring about utopia and cause all people to reach perfection.

Now here is a puzzling fact. Kids in Minnesota are doing just about as well as kids in Wisconsin, but over the last several years, many more schools in Minnesota have been designated as failing, that is not making AYP, than in Wisconsin. And kid s in Alabama are doing way worse than either Wisconsin or Minnesota, but fewer Alabama schools are rated as not making AYP. What in the world is going on. Are you phooling me, or something.

The answer is found in the way that the No Child Left Behind Law works (or should I say doesn't work). In order to understand this strange phenomenon, you need to understand a few basic facts about NCLB. Let's take a look at the reason why, because its another window on the strange operation of No Child Left Behind. The two charts below compare the path chosen by Minnesota and Wisconsin to reach the magic proficiency perfection goal in 2014. Both States are required by NCLB to increase the number of students scoring at the state-defined proficiency level until all of the students in every school and every classroom are scoring at or above proficiency. But the two states have chosen different paths. Notice that Wisconsin chose to set modest goals during the first six years, and save most of the improvement until the last four From 2004 to 2010, Wisconsin schools were expected to improve the number of students scoring at the proficient level from 62% to 74% or 2% per year, leaving Wisconsin schools another 25% to go, to get to 100%. That means that in the last four years, Wisconsin schools will have to make up the difference at the rate of 6% per year.

Why would Wisconsin try to make so little ground in the first six years, and leave all the work for the last four? Could the answer be that Wisconsin knew that it was going to be impossible to get all students to 100 percent, and wanted to put off the day of reckoning? Take a look at the AYP path to proficiency for mathematics planned by Wisconsin and Minnesota respectively Wisconsin planned to get only 58% of its students to proficiency by 2010, and then to make up the rest of the way to 100% at the rate of 15% per year for the last four years. I've taken the information from a Liberal thinktank, called Minnesota 2020, and conservative think-tank, called The Education Sector. Both point out that there's a whole lot of manipulating going on in NCLB. I think that the reason is that everyone is beating around the bush: they don't want to admit that the fundamental flaw in NCLB is the mistaken belief that all children are exactly alike and that its just a matter of politicians decreeing that they'll all be the same by 2014.

This is another example of the hocus pocus that is No Child Left Behind.

  • The underlying assumption of the NCLB law is that all children can reach an arbitrarily set standard of proficiency by 2014. When I say, all, I mean all. Think back to your high school math class--say first year algebra. Many of you were in tracked mathematics in those days. If you were in algebra, there were probably a slew of other kids in your class that were diverted into consumer math, or some other math track. NCLB says, that those kids that were in the slow track for mathematics need to be put in algebra with everyone else. In Minnesota, under our approach to NCLB, all of those kids are not only supposed to pass Algebra I, but they are also supposed to pass on to Algebra II (binomial theorem, multi-variate equations, graphing of geometric shapes and equations, and so on.) And, under NCLB, as interpreted in Minnesota, all those kids must pass Algebra II at a proficiency level set arbitrarily. By arbitrary, I mean that there is no research to show that this is possible.
  • The Second NCLB fact is that each state can set the arbitrary proficiency standard where it sees fit. Different states have different levels of proficiency. I posted on the vast difference established by various states in a previous blog post, called
    Problems with Proficiency Cut Score System. There, I displayed graphs showing that some states have very high proficiency cut scores, and other states have very low cut scores. In other words, some states have decided that none of their students can reach the very high proficiency cut scores attained in the most demanding states (like Massachussets and South Carolina). Yet, strangely, all states have decided that all students within the same state can reach the same cut score. If you are born in Massachussets, you can reach a high level of proficiency, but if you are born in Alabama you, evidently can reach only a very low level of proficiency. We recognize individual differences across state lines, but not within the same state.
  • The third fact is that each year, the percentage of students who must reach proficiency increases until eventually the percentage is 100 percent. By way of example, in Minnesota, a school was deemed to be making appropriate progress in 2007-2008 if 77% of its students pass the reading test at the Minnesota proficiency cut score, but in the next year, 2008-2009, the school must pass 81 percent of its students. The same pass rate is established for all schools, no matter whether the school has a lot of educationally challenged students, or virtually none, and each year, the percentage of students who must reach proficiency goes up, until in 2014, it is 100%..
  • The fourth and final fact is that there is no research--not a scintilla of research to support the belief that all students can reach the prescribed levels of proficiency. Public school students, home schooled students, private school students, charter school students, you name it, nobody has demonstrated that you can take a group of students who match the general population and put them in any kind of school, and have them come out at the end reaching the NCLB prescribed level 100% proficiency. It has never been done and there is nothing to support the contention that it can be done. It a wishful invention akin to the claim that the naked Emporer is wearing clothes.
Here is what is going on. While all students in every state must reach proficiency by 2014, the states were free to choose the rate at which they would get there. Some states, like Minnesota decided that every school would have to make the same progress (regardless of the composition of its students) at the same rate each year between 2003 and 2014. You can see the plan for Minnesota schools on the charts above, as I have said.. The target goes up 4 percent every year in Minnesota, but Wisconsin knew that rate of increase was humanly impossible to attain. It put off the day of reckoning until later, hoping that the politicians would eventually wise up to what they had done.

The leadership in Wisconsin.knew that it was going to be impossible to make it to 100%. Not because their schools are worse than other schools, but because children are different. They knew that there was no research support for NCLB and that eventually all schools were going to fail, if getting all students to perfection was the goal. They might have done what some other states did: they might have established a really low proficiency standard. But that would have lowered the standard for all students. The problem with setting one standard for all students is that it forces you to pick a very low standard for everyone, or it forces you to create a standard that will cause a significant number of students to fail to pass the standard. Wisconsin adopted the clever strategy of waiting until very near the end before they ramped up the AYP requirements. They wanted their schools to look as good as they could as long as they could. They knew that the NCLB law had to be renewed in 2009, and they believed that by that time, people would wake up and realize that the NCLB was not based on reality. By posponing most of the increases until after 2009, they hoped to keep their schools protected from the penalty sanctions.

But the leadership in Minnesota had a different point of view. Some people believe that's because the Commissioner at the time was a proponent of vouchers and wanted public schools to look like they were failing as soon as possible. In any event, as every year passes, more schools "fail" because NCLB says that more and more students have to reach the proficiency standard, and frankly, they can't. But we are undeterred. Even though more students are doing better, the NCLB standard goes up even faster, and still nobody speaks out and says--maybe children aren't all the same:

"Sixty percent will never be good enough," said Chas Anderson, Minnesota's Deputy Education Commissioner. "It won't be good enough until we hit 100 percent proficiency, and those are our benchmarks and that's what we want to reach. "What we're pleased about is we've made really good progress from 2006-2009 with all students. We feel we're on the right track as it relates to math." Last year, about half of Minnesota's schools were not meeting AYP. Even though scores improved slightly in most cases this year, state officials say they didn't improve at the rate needed to keep up with AYP demands and that's why the state expects even more schools to make that dreaded list, come August."