We’re Supposedly Serious About Schools…

This TIME article makes an important point, but it’s not really a head scratcher as to why we’re here:

The book that toggles between #1 and #2 in education administration on Amazon, “Street Data,” is more or less about how not to level with parents about achievement. And it turns up in PD all over the country.

The media is often no help. For instance, in Virginia here is Jeff Schapiro, arguably our leading and most visible political columnist, writing about student achievement and learning loss:

Holton, the daughter of a Republican governor and the wife of a Democratic governor-turned-U.S. senator, increasingly is taking the fight directly to Youngkin, challenging as specious, if not false, his claims about the supposed collapse of student math and reading scores.

OK, then, here’s Holton:

She even capitalized it to make it easy to read. And here’s federal NAEP data on the”supposed collapse:”  

Source: Virginia Board of Education documents

Virginia is the red line. Looks pretty real? There are also issues with cut scores and how schools are accredited. Here’s the bottom line:

Source: Virginia Board of Education documents

These are big problems.

This long running argument about whether the schools are “good” or not isn’t a productive one. Are Virginia’s schools good or not? Yes. Like other places, the story is variance.

And yes Virginia’s current performance measures obscure too much right now, despite these drops the state still reports to parents that things are pretty much A-OK:

Source: Virginia Board of Education documents

Look, again, this is a huge problem for Virginia kids (and elsewhere, Virginia is far from the only state dealing with learning loss). And this isn’t about Youngkin. The Washington Post editorial board has weighed in on this several times, making clear they’re not Youngkin fans, but that these data are alarming and we have to act. There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about the best remedies, but the data are what they are and we need to stop arguing about that and instead turn to what to do about it.

Here’s The Post on this last year:

“Virginia’s retreat from academic rigor.” That was the online headline on an editorial we wrote in 2017 decrying how officials were moving away from the high standards and accountability that long had been a tradition of public education in the commonwealth. Among the troubling moves: jettisoning of critical tests, adoption of test score standards to make it easier for students to pass and weakening of regulations for schools. Officials, alas, paid no heed to concerns about the consequences of lowering standards and expectations. Now, we get to say we told you so.

State education officials last week issued a damning report that documented a years-long trend of declining student performance and glaring racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps that have been hidden from public view. Chock-full of data, it cited significant drops in reading scores for both fourth- and eighth-grade students on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress administered in 2019, revealing the wide gaps in how students perform on state reading and math assessments compared with the grade-level benchmarks on the federal assessment. The report also noted the literary deficiencies in which 42 percent of second-graders scored below a key reading benchmark. Additionally, 45 percent of public high school seniors in 2019 — including 76 percent of Black and 54 percent of Hispanic seniors — were not college-ready in math on the SAT. Virginia has fallen from third to ninth in the nation in students earning college credit on AP exams.

Here’s 8th-grade math achievement. Those kids in the below basic range, 35% of our 8th-graders, are in huge trouble.

People argue about whether NAEP “proficient” is too high a standard, no one argues that below basic is OK. It means you are unprepared for life in this economy. 

Here’s the thing (and this isn’t just about Virginia, it’s reflected in the polarized approach to education policy in general right now). Who cares if you think Youngkin’s all options on the table energy policy isn’t the way to go, or you don’t like his efforts on youth mental health, you don’t agree on social and cultural issues, tax cuts, reproductive choice, any of it? It doesn’t even matter if you like his education policies, you somehow still think Loudoun County is cooked up, or would ever vote for him at all. People disagree, that’s fine. What we are talking about here though, insofar as schools and these data, is a generational crisis and the ante in the game is – what should we do about it right now?

Youngkin is putting forward ideas and a plan. So he has chips on the table. Yet there is little debate about that and other ideas, perhaps the kind of debate that could lead to a political grand bargain. Instead, almost three years after school closures dragged on and caused this problem people are still arguing about the underlying data – whether this is a “supposed” problem. That’s ridiculous, and a complete inversion of the Mencken idea that journalists, never mind the rest of us, should look out for those in need. History – and these kids and their families – should judge harshly for it.

Our Teacher Pay Debate, Still Dumb

The United States Secretary of Education tweeted this the other day:

This isn’t a good tweet.

To get right to it: That’s wrong. More importantly it’s also counterproductive if we want to pay teachers more (or get people to take education policy seriously or be able to take a serious stand on using evidence or….you get the idea). We do have a teacher compensation problem, yes, but it’s a lot more complicated than political rhetoric, and especially political rhetoric in 280 characters.

Why is it wrong? Well for starters second jobs are a good talking point but a fractional issue in practice. Less than one in five teachers taking a second job during the school year and one in three in the summer is not “most.” It’s also not a huge source of income. It’s actually more common among private school teachers. The seasonal patterns and patterns among different teachers might not be what you’d expect either.

More fundamentally, the very EPI analysis this rests on (which is funded by the teachers unions it should be noted) places the salary differential at 14% when you factor in benefits – defined benefit pensions, which are deferred compensation, being a crucial part of that although health care costs are also an issue. Still real, but not quite as compelling a tweet. But this part of compensation is a key part of this whole issue (another key part is overall numbers of teachers, more on that below). It’s a significant part of why in many places public dollars for overall teacher compensation continue to steadily climb but teachers are not seeing this in their paychecks every month. You can’t wish this part of the issue away or ignore it.

When people argue that a teacher can’t pay their rent with a future pension, that’s correct. But it’s also why we have to have a conversation about total compensation and how it’s structured not just assume away those – substantial – costs. In fairness, there is a long tradition of magic money in education conversations. People will say to you with a straight face that you just can’t count capital costs when thinking about how much schools spend annually as though those costs are somehow completely unrelated to expenditures rather than just a different category. Cash compensation is what teachers experience most immediately but it’s not the full picture of public expenditures or education finance.

Yet even accepting the 14% there are still some issues. This whole argument rests on a bunch of assumptions. One is how much teachers work each week and another is what professionals are comparable. It also conflates public and private school teachers. And here, as with all things teacher compensation related and generally American K-12 related, the key word you need to keep in mind is:


That's our special word for today, boys and girls.
Gratuitous clip from the glory days of SNL.

Teacher pay varies a lot by state and often quite a bit within states. The EPI analysis this whole narrative rests on shows the variance among states. Virginia is a really good (bad, you know what I mean) example of this intrastate variance. Comparable professions also vary a great deal. The market realities for a math, science, or computer science major are different than an elementary education major. You can’t compare teachers to architects. These debates often rhetorically turn on the value of different jobs for society – teaching elementary school is really important and formative for students- rather than how the labor market values different things and the supply of labor. It’s all too porous to be that useful.

Here’s a little nugget you probably haven’t heard. According to multiple sources, during the policy design of the Biden student loan forgiveness program (subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court) teacher salaries emerged as an issue. If you set the forgiveness levels for annual salary too low, say at something like $75k or even $90k that was more politically and substantively defensible than the $125k the policy landed on, you’d actually miss a lot of teachers with loans so there was pressure to keep the number high. In other words, while arguing publicly that teacher pay is too low the teachers unions were arguing behind the scenes to raise income limits on the forgiveness program because they were too low for some teachers. These points are not completely at odds, obviously, but they do point up how nuts this debate sometimes is.

And how much teachers work varies widely. It’s absolutely absurd we have these strikes about hours, often contracted hours, of say 296 minutes of instructional time (yes it’s measured to the minute, remember this is professional work…) while then arguing about the long hours. Some teachers work a lot on school work outside of school time, some don’t. That’s the reality, and I’m not confident you can just assume it comes out in the wash of averages. There is a whole debate about this you can Google if you care but self reported hours are not an ideal measure anyway. And I’m absolutely not convinced everyone is working a ton we somehow don’t know about because if that were so their unions wouldn’t fight tooth and nail not to extend the contracted day. They’d do the opposite, capture the time, so we could pay teachers more.

And that brings us to paying teachers more. We should in a lot of cases. It’s a really fun but really challenging job. Especially right now as we try to unwind the damage of pandemic policies and practices. And there are clearly some labor market shortfalls. The shortage issue is also more nuanced than the public debate allows but there certainly are places we’re not paying enough. But addressing all of this means doing some things we’ve been loath to do aggressively:

Really Differentiate by type of role in ways that reflect labor market realities about different subjects, geographies, skill sets, and demand. And also making sure prospective teachers know this, we overproduce teachers in a lot of cases but we underproduce in some areas and subjects .This isn’t an across the board problem so across the board solutions fall short. At best you get the peanut butter problem of education finance and policy where we spread everything around a little rather than doing a lot for those who need it.

Engage honestly with choices. We’ve made a decision as a sector to prioritize quantity over quality with teachers and deemphasize productivity. As we’ve talked about here before, class sizes could be marginally larger and teachers would be earning a lot more. Instead, we’ve gone the other direction and there are obvious political and operational reasons for that. But it is a choice, a choice with trade-offs, and one policymakers need to engage or change more forthrightly. We could, just for instance, increase the size of math class while lowering it for English. But you don’t hear too many of those conversations these days -which is weird given the demographic wave about to crash over schools to say nothing of the fiscal cliff ahead as the orgy of pandemic dollars wraps up.

Engage with the challenge of total compensation. Teacher pensions don’t work well for most teachers. Sometimes sort of not well, sometimes acutely. The debate about teacher pensions is a stupid binary between the status quo of defined benefit pensions or going entirely to 401(k) models. This is not the actual range of policy options or the dynamics of the issue. For starters you can have great 401ks or lousy pensions and vice versa. This issue is totally under-leveraged. It’s a huge problem for the sector. Few funders have the ganas to take it on.

Address finance overall. School finance is generally a hot mess. It’s inequitable, inefficient, and often misaligned with the avowed goals of the education system and certainly the expectations of many families who assume a greater degree of fairness than actually exists – often along class and race lines. Federal categorical dollars play an important role here in addressing some shortfalls but the real action is in the states. There are compelling models – both substantively and politically about how we can do better and some great people leaning hard into this. But we won’t fix compensation absent fixing the larger challenges.

Until we get serious about these elements this is largely going to be a debate of BS tweets and memes even as the profession strains under the challenges it’s facing. And it seems like a place there could be some bipartisanship. Over the past few years Republican and Democratic governors have raised teacher pay – including in some surprising places. The federal role here is somewhat limited although the feds could certainly create some incentives through policy – something that has worked in the past on this issue. Even better, they could just use the bully pulpit to call attention to these issues – responsibly.

*This isn’t something EPI does as far as I know or Secretary Cardona, but there are people in this debate who argue it’s fair to compare teacher cash comp for 9 or 10 months to the 12 months of comp for other professionals because it’s hard to find a short term job if you’re teaching. This isn’t baseless in my view – though I’m someone who thinks we should make the school year at once longer and more flexible for teachers, and again per the data above the whole extra job issue is more complicated. But then…these same people turn around and argue that teachers have to work these summer jobs and that’s not OK. It’s the kind of crazy-making rhetoric that makes people say, ‘oh whatever, maybe we can do something about climate, I’ll focus my efforts there.’

OK, it’s still a summer Friday, certainly feels like one in most of the country, so your reward is fish porn:

Here’s Austin Dannhaus on the Green River in Utah with a lovely trout. It’s a fantastic and varied river that makes a long journey down to the Colorado near Canyonlands National Park. If you’re looking for an epic account of river exploration it’s hard to beat this account of John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Green and Colorado. He did it without one arm, having lost his other at Shiloh fighting for the Union, or the amenities of modern raft trips. He went on to be the second director of the USGS – so a hero to all of us map nerds as well.

For a little fish flashback here’s current Amazon executive and former Deputy Mayor of DC Victor Reinoso also on the Green from a few years ago.

Here, should you have time on your hands, is a one of a kind archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Send me yours!

College Makes You Sad And Anxious? Plus, We Don’t Have To Argue About Absolutely Everything. And It’s Friday So Fish…

ICYMI – we’re hiring at Bellwether, for a few roles and a Development Director in particular. Our annual report, released earlier this week, gives you a sense of what we do and why.

On WonkyFolk, Jed and I talked with Lakisha Young and Heather Harding this week.

I’m a pretty big proponent of college as a good choice for a lot of people. But…maybe not? Post-secondary education makes you less tolerant of those you disagree with, a lazier domestic partner, and more miserable or anxious about things you can’t control in the world. Those are the less highlighted findings in this new Lumina – Gallup report about the benefits and worth of higher education. IHE with a happier headline and the happier findings here.

This Vanity Fair article about Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and the upcoming Virginia midterms has a delightful self-own for education policy nerds.

“Youngkin has completely reshaped the state’s education board,” the article ominously intones warning about what might happen if he gets more political leverage in Virginia. The link is to a Washington Post article about the appointments of school leader Mashea Ashton and noted researcher and analyst Amber Northern joining the board (along with career educator Debbie Kilgore).

From The Post:

Ashton, one of Youngkin’s newest appointees, founded Digital Pioneers Academy, a charter school that opened five years ago as a place for children to learn coding and game design in D.C. Most of the students enrolled in the charter school are “at risk” and live in D.C.’s poorest neighborhood. Last year, the school was recognized for outperforming other schools with similar demographics on standardized math and reading exams but has faced a rise in violence. It has experienced four deadly student shootings this year, the most recent in late June, when a 15-year-old boy was killed outside the apartment where he lived with his family.

It’s kind of this. That is a talking point for Youngkin. Any state would be lucky to have an Ashton or the others on their board (and as insiders know there actually is another one out there just like her if you are in the market!) He’s also appointed well regarded former superintendents, education leaders, etc…plenty to argue about in this election and more generally, including things the writer of the article also points out, but we don’t have to argue about everything. A stupid feature of our intense polarization is now the total war approach to political rhetoric and often journalism. It’s actually OK not to disagree with people on everything because you disagree with them on some things…

As of this week, Virginia also has new math standards, they’re good. Weird it wan’t the same circus as history…almost like that debate wasn’t about history.

Balanced literacy? Never heard of it…this is big news

Dr. Calkins shares her expertise as a consultant through her own LLC. Teachers College is not involved in the operations or provision of services provided by Dr. Calkins in her LLC...

…Second, TC will ensure that its professional development programs are informed by the latest research and evidence and that the College continually finds new ways to translate faculty scholarship into timely assessments, interventions, and research-based practices. 

Rick Hess on SEL:

In a very real sense, the serious SEL proponents and serious SEL critics are wrestling with the same problem—the challenge of fending off one’s “friendly” fringe. Fighting people on the other side of an issue is one thing; fending off the charlatans, poseurs, and kooks who are nominally “on your side” is a trickier kind of challenge. But it’s a critical one for both camps.

Agree. And I’ve written about this same issue in the past. It’s another example of why we can’t have nice things because of the fringes.

Friday Fish Porn:

Jeff Sirbu, who has some connections to the education world (and honestly even if he didn’t I’d probably post this pic anyway because it’s so lovely), with an absolute beauty from Labrador, taken on a 6wt.

Friday fish what? Yes, here is a one of a kind archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish.

Enjoy your weekend.

Bellwether’s Year, Bellwether’s Hiring, And Lakisha Young and Heather Harding Visit Wonkyfolk!

Three items today.

From Bellwether, our new annual report is out. Bellwether has grown from four people in 2010 to more than 100 full time employees now. We do more things today but we’re still animated by a pretty simple and essential idea: American education needs to dramatically change to work for everyone.

If that mission sounds appealing to you, we’re hiring for a development director. This is a great role where you can help design strategy and support our senior leaders through development work. Learn more and learn how to be considered here.

On Monday, Jed Wallace and I had not one but two surprise guests on Wonkyfolk. Heather Harding and Lakisha Young joined to talk education politics, advocacy, and change. We released the podcast today. It was an interesting discussion about theories of change, local versus national action, and some cross currents right below the surface of the education “debate.” The only problem was we didn’t have enough time.

Listen here or where you get your podcasts:

Watch here:

  • Introductions and the state of public education (00.03.00)
  • Parent power, the work of The Oakland REACH, and shifting the narrative of the recent Oakland teachers’ strike to focus on the harm done to students (00.06.25)
  • Parent power, the work of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, and the 4 aspects of its national campaign (00.23.06)  
  • The theory of action, power dynamics, and defining the wins, especially as they relate to urban education (00.29.24) 
  • The influence of politics on curriculum, advocacy, and community-driven solutions (00.36.32)
  • The Oakland REACHS’ Liberator Model (00.42.16)
  • The real threats to public education, a definitional problem, confusion, and distractions (00.47.50)
  • Book bans and the sensationalism of social and national media (00.53.40)
  • Responding to divisive issues and staying grounded with a focus on a home base of teaching and learning (01.07.13)

A Lost Generation? Plus Some Friday Fish Pics

To a certain kind of person, who you run into in the wild a fair amount, when you criticize anything about President Biden you immediately get a response along the lines of, “so you want Trump?” It’s an idiotic response and a sign of how wanting and unimaginative our political debate is. This shows up in education, too, when you point out that the Biden education agenda leaves a little to be desired. “He’s better than Trump” partisans retort. OK, sure, yes, but that’s not the standard.

On balance overall I think Biden’s done OK and in a general election against Donald Trump I’d vote for him seven days a week and twice on Tuesdays (I have Boston roots). But his policies are not above critique and that seems especially true in the policy desert of education policy. In fact, something Presidents Trump and Biden have in common is a record on education that it would be generous to call lackluster.

Donald Trump careened into Washington threatening to blow up federal education policy and create a national school choice plan. He didn’t do any of that of course. And in a way that’s unfortunate. Not because I think that policy is the way to go but rather because at least we would have had something substantive to argue about and from that argument might have come better ideas, policies, or syntheses across various ideas and factions. But because Trump seems unable to hold onto a singular idea for more than a few minutes and cares little about policy not much happened.

Instead, his secretary of education, who is personally kind and well regarded, became scared of the media, insular, ineffective, and, to her credit, resigned after January 6th. (Ironically, the one Trump education policy that is pretty well supported, DeVos’ reform of Title IX’s illiberal approach to due process in sexual assault cases, is a policy the Biden Administration has made of point of undoing).

All this was playing out, of course, in the vacuum created by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which even in the context of ridiculous law names is a standout because it was clear at the time it would widen not lessen inequities. Analysts including Chad Aldeman and Anne Hyslop called this out. But everyone was too excited to crowd into the East Room with Barack Obama to be bothered with, you know, policy. Yes, there was more accountability in ESSA than if Republicans had their way – but there’s not much and again that’s not the standard!

The unsurprising result was a continued post-NCLB decline in student achievement that’s been overlooked in concern about the impact of pandemic policies. Also, weirdly, many of these same people are the first to hector the rest of us about their “equity” “commitments.” Respectfully, if you actually talk with Americans from “marginalized” backgrounds they’ll take laws and policies that empower them and their kids over your bevy of political DEI trainings and workshops ten times out of ten.

What has Biden’s Department of Education done about all this? Not much. Like DeVos the current Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is a nice guy. But what’s needed now is leadership and some hard pushes. You don’t have to go the full Mike Miles, but the education establishment needs more than coddling right now given the stakes. The Biden team left billions on the stump for school districts to do with largely what they liked and the results have been as uneven as you’d expect. Meanwhile those dollars leveraged little in terms of actual reform because there was no demand for improvement attached to them. Essentially school districts were not told to build back better but rather to shelter in place.

Higher ed is more interesting in some ways. Still, after dragging us through the drama of a Supreme Court case on a loan forgiveness scheme even Democrats said wouldn’t fly, it turns out we could have had some relief of student loans anyway? Thanks.

So now here we are. Republicans still bray about wanting to “abolish” the Department of Education. Yet after the last seven years a reasonable question might be, why bother? Democrats, who purport to be the public school people, have little to offer at a time parents are looking for something more and the relationship between citizens and their public schools is being redefined. Have you noticed the popularity of choice plans lately?

We can ill-afford this, but if a Biden – Trump rematch is in the offing we apparently are looking at 12 years of stagnation (and the other Republicans wannabes are not offering much either). This is hardly, in my view, the most worrisome aspect of a second Trump term in office but it’s also not nothing. Twelve years is essentially the time it takes a young person to travel their path through our K-12 schools. Where’s the agenda? Where’s the leadership? Yes, there are governors of both parties doing some interesting things – and those could help inform an agenda. There is great stuff happening in various places – that’s a lot of the work we do at Bellwether. But context and conditions matter, too, and traditionally there has been an important federal role in schools that has driven some real progress (probably more than you heard in today’s orgy of presentism).

The Indians just landed on the moon. The Chinese clearly do not have our best interests in mind. It’s starting to look like the Iranians don’t like us…U.S. political, military, and economic stature is being challenged all over and just being an English-speaking country with functioning courts, property rights, and a lethal military is not the sure bet it was in the 20th Century. Meanwhile, more immediately, twelve years matters a lot to individual lives and the choices people will or won’t have right here at home. Twelve years…

Now the fish:

It’s Friday, I know what you want. I know what I want!

One aspect of a robust federal role in schools is some sort of R&D or innovation agenda (more in innovation in that context here).

In this fish pic Simmons Lettre offers a quiet nod to a high innovation culture. A steady voice for innovation is Jason Weeby. Here he is this summer on the water with his family (and it’s not too late in the season to take a kid fishing).

Here is an archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish since 2006. It’s the last weekend before Labor Day. Enjoy it.

How Much Does College Matter? Plus New Wonky Folk…

Jed Wallace and I did another WonkyFolk. We cover some trivia – do you know what education personality, Clooney-like, has a tequila company? Who was there for the inception of the Grateful Dead? We discuss our summers – and it’s a bit of a travelogue. Mine explains why the light posting, my teenage daughters had hoped for a hot girl summer but they got lot girl summer instead and saw a lot of live music. In addition to the usual stuff you’d expect from me (TTB, Dead & Co, Neil Young, Billy and the Kids) I recommend Noah Kahan. Jed breaks his vow on the Dead. And then we discuss Virginia because Jed’s obsessed with our fair commonwealth. We also revisit Moms For Liberty briefly and preview some special guests coming at the end of the month – who I am really excited about.

or here:

Here’s a rundown thanks to Jed:

  • The gentrification of college athletics (00.00.25)
  • Traveling, family and summer fun before becoming empty nesters (00.01.30)
  • Two amazing mystery guests, who specialize in educational politics, advocacy, parent organizing and empowerment, and will join us during our next WonkyFolk podcast (00.09.23)
  • Setting the stage for states, like VA, putting the interest of the Commonwealth and the kids of the Commonwealth before political expediency in adopting new K-12 history and social studies standards (00.14.17)
  • The education factor in Virginia elections (00.16.00)
  • School choice and the lack of robust parent groups in Virginia (00.20.23)
  • The political calculus to be made by rural Republicans in various states (00.22.20)
  • The juxtaposition of the two parties on school choice and reproductive choice (00.24.10)
  • Education, culture wars, and universal vouchers (00.28.00)
  • The existential crisis for public school supporters (00.30.22)
  • The juxtapositions of two articles focused on Mom’s for Liberty (00.36.03)

Does it matter where people go to school?

As I’ve noted before, when you’re in a large river or ocean the various currents often aren’t visible to you except at key moments, like crossing into the Gulf Stream. But when you get an elevated view suddenly you can see forces shaping things. In social science, research Raj Chetty continues to provide that elevated look – especially at questions about social mobility and education.

Earlier this summer I wrote about how the debate over affirmative action largely misses most of the young people education reformers purport to be most concerned about. That’s because a lot of people don’t go to college and especially not to the selective colleges where affirmation action matters (most schools admit everyone so there is no need for it). In a new analysis (here’s an overview in The Atlantic from Annie Lowrey) he shows how the super elite schools shape the structure of American leadership.

From Lowrey:

“People sometimes ask: Within the broad scope of trying to increase social mobility and address inequality in America, why is it important to spend your time focusing on 12 colleges that educate less than half a percent of Americans? Surely this can’t be important by the numbers,” Chetty told me. “That is right. But if you look at the people in positions of great influence—leading politicians, scientists, journalists—an incredibly disproportionate number come from these 12 colleges. To the extent those folks have a big influence on lots of other people’s lives, diversifying who is in those positions matters.”

This matters, yes, but a few pauses and caveats:

First, as with many of these problems improving the pipeline is the highest leverage solution. We see this on STEM and we see it here more generally with elite colleges. Yet improving the pipeline is attainable but awfully hard – substantively and politically – so we’re understandably attracted to quicker fixes or the sense that we’re doing something.

Second, it seems hard to juxtapose a need for greater diversity with what pretty clearly was anti-Asian discrimination (still less than 75 years since formal discrimination in immigration was ended). No, you can’t compare that to slavery, Jim Crow, or racial terror, but what was happening was also not a tenable solution to either the impact of those issues or the structure of American life today – not only the Supreme Court but voters feel that way. People do value diversity – they tell pollsters this and vote with their feet – but are leery of formal schemes. So there has to be a better way and, again, the pipeline seems like a pretty key place. It’s also worth noting that how affirmative action was practiced most recently is different than how it was originally conceived.

Third, it does seem that we have a diversity problem in our nation’s leadership if you look at say the United States Senate, the c-suites of large companies, elite institutions, and so forth. Yet one can argue that in addition to a problem of representation it’s also a viewpoint diversity and conformist problem. College students self-censor, so do professionals. If the last few years taught us anything it’s that we don’t have a healthy culture of dissent and free expression and that can lead to bad decisionmaking and policy. Preference falsification is rampant on the right and left because of the consequences of perceived wrong think and there is more common ground than a lot of unwilling combatants in the culture wars realize. There is plenty of really diverse, interesting, and robust culture happening – just a lot less in elite spaces and in politics right now.

Meanwhile, when some people say they want more diversity what they really mean is they want more like-minded progressives. But as we’ve also seen the past few years, and this is impacting the education sector now, racial determinism doesn’t translate cleanly to political behavior. And if the idea is to increase a progressive worldview then affirmative action doesn’t seem especially needed. There was relatively little disagreement in elite left spaces about affirmative action, for instance, look at Rick Kahlenberg. And white progressives are further to the left on race issues than many Black Americans anyway (in 2020 white Democrats were far more bothered that Joe Biden was a white guy than Black Democrats were). If anything, genuine diversity that includes viewpoint diversity might improve how we talk politically about these various issues and might have set the stage for a more fulsome defense of some kinds of affirmative action.

So, you have to hold two things in your head at once. Sure, who goes to the super elite schools matters at some levels in general *and* it’s still largely irrelevant to the experience of most of the individuals reformers say they want to help because they are not in that conversation around those schools. That of course brings us back to why, post-pandemic, post-affirmative action and pre-even greater disruption from technology and automation we’re not having a more serious conversation about K-12 schools? It’s hard not to think that perhaps has something to do with the conformist problem and the lack of viewpoint diversity as well.

It Can Be Done

Standards are a gift that keeps giving for those who love to hate click, cherry pick or whatever. It leads to a confused debate that tends to overlook the major issue: a lot of standards just aren’t that good. It’s one reason for the NAEP results we see.

But look, I have a dog in this fight. Virginia recently revised its standards, something that happens on a regular cycle here. It was a circus, because 2023. But the end product is quite good – if you like content standards. If you like the thematic approach and are the kind of person who puts the word “mere” in front of “facts” then you won’t like them. I talk about all that and the standards more generally in a discussion with Rick Hess in Ed Week.

Rick: The Virginia board of education just passed new History and Social Science Standards of Learning. This seems like a challenge in the current political climate: What’s the story?

Andy: The big lesson is simply that it can be done. It’s not always easy, but we should not give up on trying to get things done for students just because we are operating in a really polarized and contentious time. Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, said he wanted two things from the new history and social science standards. He wanted them to be best in class and he wanted them to tell the whole story of America: achievements, progress, and where we’ve fallen short. Partisans went bananas, but to most parents—and most Americans—those are two pretty reasonable goals. These standards meet those goals.

Rick: Before we get into it, can you talk a bit about the existing standards and what you all hoped to change?

Andy: The previous standards were not awful; I think Fordham gave them a B, but they had a number of issues. It was time to update. For instance, Virginia—like some other states—still taught that there were multiple causes of the Civil War rather than slavery being the underlying cause of the breach between the states. There was more to do to make sure we taught the full story of the good and bad and the incredible complexity of American and Virginian history. We also sought to more fully engage with some contemporary history including things like the movement for gay rights and the conservative movement.

Rick: You seem pleased with how the standards turned out. Why is that?

Andy: Look, they’re not perfect, no standards are, and any informed person would do certain things differently but—and this is key—those things would all be different…

You can read the entire interview here.

It’s Friday, but instead of fish, and because Rick leads education work at AEI, here’s Nat Malkus and his son with turkeys. But do send me your summer fish pictures, and if you have and I haven’t posted them please bump the email.

You Think These Recent SCOTUS Cases Are Just The Biggest Thing, They’re Actually Sideshows For Most Of The People You Purport To Care About

I was overseas for a few weeks, and it seemed like a good time to be away. The end of June has become sort of unpleasant if you work in or around public policy because the Supreme Court is now just one more place where everyone has a predictable partisan rooting interest.

The United States Supreme Court in a peaceful moment
Source: Wikimedia

On the student loan case I don’t have any big take beyond what I wrote a while ago before the Biden policy was enacted. From where I sit there is a strong case on the merits to forgive modest amounts of debt for low-income borrowers. This would clear a lot of cases (a third) and target many of those who may have been misled by schools – beyond a lot of what’s being done on that issue already. It was also politically palatable in a country where most people still don’t have college degrees. Instead, we got a massive wealth transfer to economic winners (college educated, often elite Americans) from the public at large and a whole new set of moral hazards and perverse incentives around college finance. The numbers were hard to defend and the kind of thing Democrats used to be against. Meanwhile, if Donald Trump had proposed this kind of exercise of executive power people would have, rightly, flipped out. In fact, until it became a Biden policy a lot of Democrats held that view. Also, it wouldn’t kill Congress to write laws a little tighter. And, like DACA, Congress could do something about this issue if it were inclined to. All that said, the issue is an obsession in our sector because we work in a pretty elite and college obsessed sector and it fits lots of people’s narrative about the court.

That brings us to affirmative action. I wrote on the issue when the court heard the arguments and my take is roughly the same. There is an opportunity here to do better, but neither the political left or the right is honest about either affirmative action as a policy or the context surrounding it. Higher education leaders offer an incoherent defense that caught up with them in this case. It’s an unfair policy, as the Harvard case in particular highlighted, but American life is unfair, too. The education system is set up in a structurally unfair way – especially against Black and poor people. Who gets into elite schools is a marginal issue because most people don’t go to college, if they do they go schools that take everyone or almost everyone. At the same time, who gets in also matters to American life. Reasonable people can disagree.

So, it’s not an especially satisfying issue that’s made worse by the way it’s treated more as an exercise in signaling than grappling with complicated issues or the actual arguments. It was hard to miss all the people and organizations that just recently couldn’t say enough about anti-Asian hate or structural discrimination suddenly oblivious that there might be any issues at all with this policy. In a larger sense that has political implications. In our sector it meant that there were not just people on one side of this debate wondering, ‘wait, what about us?’ in the wake of the ruling.

Here are a few essays I read about the case that could be worth your time if you want to get beyond the statements and virtue signaling and into the messiness of this policy, which really wasn’t doing what it was advertised to do anyway and was quite unpopular, and not even especially popular among its intended beneficiaries.

Freddie deBoer looked at the issue with the broader contours of American life in mind. This is an issue that animated the leadership of our sector, because the leadership of our sector is elite. Like Springsteen’s rich man in a poor man’s shirt people try to fuzzy that up but the reaction to the case acutely underscored it. I don’t agree with deBoer’s Cult of Smart take, but much of this seems on point to me.

Laura McKenna looked at some of the same issues. Tracing Woodgrains dove deep on what Harvard means and why. And Jay Caspian Kang did what too few wanted to, get past the talking points and actually look squarely at what was happening and if it was tenable. With both loans and affirmative action we might ask if overreach is a culprit here?

The invaluable Tony Carnevale looked at the possible impact and remedies. Though as I wrote I expect this case, despite John Roberts’ clear admonition in the ruling, to be somewhat ignored at elite schools and possibly create some weird byproducts. Coleman Hughes on some of the same issues.

For our sector this should be an enormous ‘what now?’ moment.

But no. It’s hard to miss the discorporate amount of energy that is now spent arguing about what to do at the end of broken pipelines rather than what we need to do to fix things. The debate about selective high school and selective college admissions share that unfortunate feature. In terms of access to opportunity in American life the NWEA scores that recently came out, the ongoing catastrophe NAEP highlights, and other data about achievement, especially post-pandemic, should command far more attention and focus. Especially in relation to debates about where a fraction of a fraction of students will go to college or the financing of that education.

I Am A Fragile Vessel

The Supreme Court declined to take up a somewhat bizarre case that would have forced a precedent on whether charter schools are public or private entities. Right now they live as publicly accountable and funded but often operated by non-governmental entities. Had the court heard the case almost any decision would have created complicated downstream effects.

That’s just one of the things Jed Wallace and I discuss on a new WonkyFolk. We also discuss science of reading wars, other court case news, and a possible origin story of Moms for Liberty.

You can listen here or watch below. Or listen at Apple or other podcast sources.

Science Of Reading And Debate, WonkyFolk Discusses CREDO, Can There Be Détente In The Culture Wars? It’s Friday So Fish…

Greetings. Light posting with a lot of other work commitments. July will be light as well. A few items today. A seminar I did at Harvard on culture wars and school boards, a new WonkyFolk with a special guest, a caution on science of reading zealotry, a caution on stories that seem just too good to check, and a really big fish. Let’s go!


Here’s a brand new WonkyFolk, and Jed Wallace and I welcome our first guest…Macke Raymond! Macke joins to talk about the new CREDO study on charter schools, which really isn’t new but is the latest installment in a long running set of analyses including two previous national studies like this one. She’s led that work so who better to have on? We talk about the results, but also about how these studies are consumed and used – or more precisely often aren’t. Here’s a link to the podcast and notes. We do a YouTube version as well, and this week I wore my special charter school debate shirt. Or listen here:

Harvard’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government is hosting a series of discussions about school boards. I joined for one focusing on boards and culture wars. AEI’s Max Eden and Harvard’s Scott Levy were respondents. You can watch that and the entire series here. Gale Morrison reviews.

Don’t overcorrect on the reading wars.

A positive trend the last few years is renewed attention on teaching reading according to the best available evidence. That seems obvious, of course, but reading instruction for decades has been marred by politics and ideology. Every decade or so some journalist would actually look into this and write a story about how screwed up it all is but it would bounce off and everyone would go back to business as usual. Journalist Emily Hanford found traction a few years ago and has done vital work bringing these issues to light. Now other leaders across our sector are leaning in on the importance of evidence-based reading instruction and a knowledge-rich education. There is real work happening as a result.

And there is work to do. Just this week NCTQ released an analysis of where colleges and universities are on this issue. It’s not great! This and other evidence is redoubling calls for reform. That’s for the good but science of reading or “SOR” adherents should be careful that the power and momentum of moment doesn’t lead them to overstep.

One place (of several) that could happen is in how we even discuss and debate reading. I’m all for requiring teacher prep programs to teach teachers how to teach reading based on evidence. That seems like a pretty basic public policy matter. But you’re now starting to hear talk about getting anyone who doesn’t support SOR out of schools of education or to limit any teaching or research about other approaches.

This is fraught. There is a real difference between saying ‘here’s how we’re going to teach reading in this state in public education’ and then aligning policies and funding around that approach and trying to shut down debate altogether. Yes, in too many teacher prep programs going back decades pseudo-radicals have tried to tell teachers their job is to subvert the authority of public schools or do this or that rather than teach in them. There is plenty of ridiculousness. (I’ve been involved on the boards at two leading institutions, taught at one, have been on many task forces and committees around these issues, chaired the board at NCTQ at one point, so I’m not reflexively hostile to schools of education or teacher prep).

In general, and here, the way to beat bad ideas is with good ideas. We can tell prospective teachers this is how you will teach reading and here is the why behind that while also leaving space for those who disagree to continue their argument, marshall evidence, and try to get policymakers to change their minds. Not in the actual training of teachers but in the academy and consequently the public debate. One of those, training, is a policy question that should be made based on the best available evidence, the other is a question about the limits of academic freedom and debate.

Yes, there is an understandable lack of trust given the guerrilla reading war that whole language adherents have fought for decades where they misrepresent various approaches. Balanced literacy, for instance, was a fig leaf not balance. Still, leaving space for debate isn’t only the basic liberal thing to do with regard to higher education, it also matters to progress. This SOR movement is important and will benefit kids, it’s not flawless or some sort of educational immaculate conception. Over time new evidence will emerge, in the near term mistakes of implementation or policy will be made. The way drive progress is to embrace not shut down discussion and debate about all of that. That’s also the only way to have progress over time, allow for error and debate.

SOR proponents should be especially sensitive to these dynamics because they were shut out and shut down for decades. I get the frustration, it’s a stain on this sector that much of today’s reading debate is not new and how leaders allowed politics to infuse reading instruction. But just reflexively setting the scales the other way or salting the earth is a bad idea, if for no other reason than it needlessly creates a rallying point for opponents of evidence based reading instruction.

In a healthy field this takes care of itself as the field evolves. Geology departments do not find themselves ferreting out people who believe the world is flat or rocks are made of cheese and Chemistry departments don’t endlessly debate alchemy. We should wish for the same for education schools. We won’t get there, though, by shutting down debate.

Check Your Facts

Here’s Snopes on the “banning” of Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Not every account of a book banning is a false alarm, but nor should you credulously believe everything that ricochets around. I’m not saying everything that sounds outlandish or too good to check is, zealots on the right and left mean there is some crazy stuff happening, but I am saying you should check because this pattern keeps repeating.

Big Fish

Here’s education entrepreneur Jonathan Harber with a striped bass that barely missed being a world record for fly fishing.

As always, if you want to see hundreds of pictures of education types (including some others with Harber) with fish – then click here.