Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Education Funding and Education Policy

Would you buy a book, even if the author hadn't finished writing it yet? Would you start playing a game, even if all the rules for the game hadn't been clarified? Would you get onto an airplane, even if you didn't know where it was going?

State legislatures around the nation have adopted a nation-wide educational program called 'Common Core State Standards' - often simply called 'Common Core' or CCSS. Educational programs have come and gone over the decades, but what is new about this one is the fact that the individual state legislatures have adopted it without knowing what it even is, because at the time they adopted it, it wasn't completely written or finalized. Tim Walker, writing in NEA Today, notes that

Forty-five states have adopted the CCSS, which means for the first time there will be consistency among states in what students should know and be able to accomplish in the two core subject areas of English language arts and math. The purpose of the CCSS is to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, no matter where they live, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The CCSS is also designed to be much more rigorous, focused, and coherent than current standards. It is also relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and their careers.

Thus far, the CCSS sounds good. It's difficult to argue with consistency, rigor, focus, coherence, and relevance. Who wouldn't want students to have knowledge and skills? But, in fact, while curricula and tests are being rewritten, and

student assessments are being remapped to the Common Core, the design and implementation of these new exams is still largely a work in progress, despite the expectation that they will be implemented for the 2014 – 2015 school year.

Why would anyone commit to complying to a program which didn't yet exist? Why would someone promise to follow a set of guidelines that hadn't yet been written? The answer is money. The federal Department of Education "gave" money to individual states in return for a blanket promise to follow whichever guidelines the department might issue to the states in the future. Note the years:

In 2010, two consortia of states were awarded federal Race-to-the-Top money to develop a new set of assessments that will be tied to the Common Core Standards scheduled for implementation during the 2014–2015 school year. Both groups — the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — plan to administer these new exams primarily on computers, and both aim to minimize multiple-choice questions in favor of open-ended problems requiring creativity and critical thinking. Both groups also plan to develop materials for teachers, such as curriculum maps, to show how the material on the assessments can be taught over the course of the year, and they will create items that can be used formatively in classrooms. The PARCC consortium consists of 23 states, and the Virgin Islands. Twenty-seven states belong to SBAC.

"Race to the Top" was a slogan created by the Department of Education. It was a label for a contest: those states which would make the most blanket promises to the federal level - turning over the state's present and future decisions to the national government - would receive funding. Step by step, various states gave away more and more of their freedom, and promise to let the federal Department of Education dictate current and future educational policy inside the states. Both federal and state governments seemed to be ignoring the ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution - the final two amendments in the Bill of Rights.

While criticizing previous educational programs as relying too much on high-stakes standardized testing, "Race to the Top" drove states into the arms of CCSS, which simply repackages such testing in new formats. Despite misgivings on the part of some educators, many states rushed to embrace CCSS, simply because doing so would result in money from the federal government arriving their school systems. Or so they thought. Because "Race to the Top" was constructed as a contest among states, the winners were those states which promised to turn over the most control the federal government. Some states promised to give almost complete control to the federal government; they lost the contest, because other states gave total control to the new program. But those states who lost the race - because they promised to give "almost" complete control instead of simply complete control - were still obligated to fulfill the commitments they'd made, even though they now received none of the special Common Core funding. An article in the MEA Voice notes that

Many states, including Michigan, began the process of adopting the standards in 2009 — despite not having seen them — in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding. The Race to the Top program, part of the 2009 federal stimulus package, doled out more than $4 billion to states “that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.” The program also included more than $300 million to develop tests based on the new curriculum standards.

The Michigan State legislature, then, lured by the possibility of millions of dollars from Washington, agreed to implement a program about which it freely admitted that it had no clear idea - a program about which it knew nearly nothing. How they "began the process of adopting the standards" which had not been formulated is a puzzling matter. In any case, while they promised to abandon Michigan's sovereignty and ability to decide its own matters for itself, their efforts were in vain. Other states surrendered even more autonomy, and Michigan got no money from the program.

The Michigan Legislature passed numerous “reforms” in an attempt to secure Race to the Top dollars. While Michigan failed to win any of those federal dollars, the state is still responsible for implementing the Common Core State Standards by the 2014-15 school year.

The State of Michigan is now "on the hook" to pay for programs it didn't even understand when it agreed to adopt them. Not only has the federal government usurped the state's autonomy, and not only has the state agreed to this usurpation, but now the state must pay for the removal of its own freedom. The state had hoped to sell its freedom for money; instead, the state has lost its autonomy and now must pay for the removal of that autonomy.

Much of the state's educational bureaucracy will have to be re-tooled, at the expense of Michigan taxpayers, to align itself with the new federal dictates. MEA Voice cites William Schmidt at Michigan State University:

Schmidt reports that more than 90 percent of teachers support the concept of Common Core standards. However, there is a big gap between what teachers understand the standards to be and what they actually are.

In the end, the State of Michigan gave away its autonomy, got no money in return, and must now pay to re-tool its own system to make it correspond to a set of guidelines which originated neither with the Michigan legislature nor with the Michigan voters. The federal Department of Education's trickery, and the state legislature's naivete, resulted in massive damage to Michigan's educational programs.

Sadly, Michigan is not an isolated example. Many other states followed suit. The question now confronting these states is whether they can in any way regain the liberty and autonomy thus lost.