Maddox And I Talk Edu, Lazy Achievement Takes, Lazy Reading, Plus Enormous Fish

Holland & Knight sponsors a podcast about Washington policy, regulatory and political issues. I sat down with Lauren Maddox to talk education. Lauren’s first question was about the Pan Mass Challenge and why I ride in it every year, which was a lovely way to start. (Fundraising ends tomorrow!) Then we covered a range of issues – including the follow-up question we want to hear when people say they’re going to “abolish” the Department of Education, why preference falsification is poisoning the education debate and what’s lost when dissent is forced underground, AI and education, Covid recovery in Virginia and more generally, and why we need more error and learning in education.

There are bunch of ways to listen including the podcast landing page, or you can open on Apple Podcasts, listen on YouTube or via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

In case you missed it yesterday’s post was this interview with IES Director Mark Schneider about education research.

Today in flat earth pandemic policy dialogue:

The Youngkin administration has consistently blamed learning losses in Virginia on the closure of schools during the pandemic and decisions by prior Boards of Education to lower cut scores on student assessments and change the state’s standards of school accreditation. Many Democrats and prior board members have defended those choices, noting that Virginia is one of many states to experience learning loss since the pandemic.

Once again, here’s federal data, ‘Joe Biden’s data’ if it makes you feel better:

And here’s a Democrat and prior (and current) board member on this exact “question”

As long as the media continues with this ‘one side says the moon is made of rock and the other says it’s made of green cheese so the debate over the lunar surface continues’ stuff the kids don’t stand a chance. We talked about this nonsense recently. There is plenty of room for reasonable and legitimate debate about the best remedies to this problem. The denial and obsfucation about the problem is beyond irresponsible at this point and when you do it you’re not damaging Glenn Youngkin politically, you’re hurting kids substantively.

The education world is flat:

Tyler Harper with a column in the Washington Post on Ibram X. Kendi’s problems at BU. Those problems aren’t a big surprise to anyone who paid attention to his run at AU – and that’s the problem, few in the education world did. There was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere without encountering Kendi or his “How to Be An Antiracist” book. And what was really wild is that while people went on about how “consciousness raising” the book was, when you’d ask about any specifics, or ideas like this straight out of Vonnegut or 1984, you’d get a blank stare. That was, of course, because much of the discourse wasn’t really about the book, but it made a great Zoom accessory and let people know you were one of the good guys.

That’s a problem. As we’ve discussed around here the education world has a tendency to flatten the discourse around race. The problem wasn’t Kendi specifically, it was that too many touting his ideas seemingly hadn’t encountered divergent ones or alternative ways to think about things. This was now the way to think. And I’m not talking about Chris Rufo. I mean Skip Gates, or Randall Kennedy or the Fields sisters, Thomas Sowell, or Touré Reed or Adolph Reed. Or popular writers in media. Interestingly, Kendi himself challenged some of the shibboleths of the DEI industry that was busily gobbling up parts of the education non-profit sector, but that level of discourse was not on offer. And whatever you think of Kendi’s book Stamped, or standardized testing, the parts about educational testing misstate aspects of that debate so it was odd for our sector celebrate all this so uncritically. (It was also an absolute dream for the teachers’ unions).

This same tendency, incidentally, is what has sadly left the College Board’s AP African-American history course suspect on the left and the right. Serious scholars who were neither white nor on the political right raised concerns about aspects of that course and were ignored with predictable results.

My point here is not who is right or wrong in any of this. If you want to go full on Kendi that’s fine. You’re a critic? That’s fine, too. Like or don’t like those others I just mentioned, great, whatever. I find the idea that every policy is either racist or antiracist a dead end intellectually as soon as that method is applied to complicated real world examples. Your mileage may vary and debate and dissent is healthy and the path to progress. My point is that’s not how the “discourse,” which is far from a conversation or debate and incredibly insular, plays out in the elite education non-profit world. That has effects that are as predictable as they are unproductive to the mission of making education in America work better for young people or greater social and economic inclusion for Black Americans. Kendi’s ideas aren’t the problem. That is.

It’s Friday, I know why you are here, so here’s some fish porn from an Icelandic friend. This is Hrafnhildur, Habby is fine if, like me, Icelandic people cringe when you try out their language. Habby’s involved in education there with a company called KVAN that’s involved in educator development. She’s a great person and a badass on the water as you can see – these fish pull hard.

Iceland does some unique things on education and youth development. And it’s insanely beautiful and wonderful to visit.

Habby with an enormous salmon
Iceland…it really is this amazing.

Habby is our second Icelandic fish here, Tim Lee was first. All part of this unique archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Send me yours!

Five Questions For IES Director Mark Schneider On “DARPA-Ed” And Education Research

There’s a popular narrative that government doesn’t work that well lately – and budget brinksmanship in Washington this week certainly underscores that there is some truth to that. Yet underneath the noise there are committed public servants trying to make progress on challenging issues. One of those people is Mark Schneider, who left a comfortable perch in the education world to become director of the Institute of Education Sciences in 2018. IES is the Department of Education’s independent research arm.

Mark’s a colleague and a friend. He’s a no-BS education reformer if you define reformer as someone who thinks the education system is capable of a lot more than what it delivers today. An empiricist by training and temperament he doesn’t drink the kool-aid of any education faction.

This is Mark Schneider standing next to a flag

Mark is leading some interesting and important work to rethink education research, R&D, and the federal role so I asked him some questions about that for Eduwonk, those questions and his responses follow. It’s a long post, but Mark shares important information and context on what IES is trying to do and why.

IES is one of those agencies that is important but not top of mind for a lot of people. Can you briefly describe its mandate, legal authority, and your role? Why does this matter, and why especially now post-pandemic in 2023?

IES is driven by a critical mission to determine what works for whom and under what circumstances. The agency was born at a time when we recognized the need to pursue education policies and practices informed by research, but we lacked a central agency to provide guidance and support for rigorous research in the education sciences. IES changed that.

Our ability to step into that role was baked into our foundation and has been maintained by ongoing investments. Created by the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA), IES is a nonpartisan science agency housed within the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that we can draw on their resources and expertise but ultimately act with as much political independence as can be afforded to any agency. 

Our work spans broad needs thanks to our four centers: the National Center for Education Research (NCER), the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER), the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

In Fiscal Year 23, our budget increased by $70 million (nearly 10 percent), bringing IES’ overall budget above the $800m mark. Unfortunately, it looks as though IES will not fare particularly well in the upcoming fiscal year. 

This money supports research programs (mostly via NCER and NCSER), the evaluation of federal education programs (NCEE), and statistics (NCES). Within NCES, the Assessment division supports NAEP (the National Assessment of Education Progress) plus international assessments run by OECD (including PISA and PIAAC) and two other international assessments run by the International Education Association (IEA): PIRLS is an early reading assessment and TIMSS focuses on math and science. 

I’m glad you asked about IES’ role in a post-pandemic world, as the last few years have given us a chance to show the value of rigorously produced evidence. All four of our centers stepped up to contribute based on their specializations, both during the height of the pandemic and in the aftermath. This work has included –

The National Center for Education Research (NCER) invested over $24m for a project focused on “Improving Pandemic Recovery Efforts in Education Agencies.” Working closely with LEAs and SEAs, this funding created a Recovery Research Network bringing together multiple projects focused on reversing learning loss. Another work stream focuses on supporting recovery in community colleges, also by bringing together multiple related research projects into a coordinated effort. 

The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) allocated around $26m to support research on pandemic recovery for students in special education. This was especially important because special education students experienced disproportionately large learning losses during the pandemic. 

A $15m investment established the School Pulse Survey, run through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Early in the pandemic, the School Pulse was one of the nation’s most authoritative sources of information on such things as whether schools were open or closed and which types of students were receiving in-person, remote, or hybrid instruction. As the pandemic has receded and as schools have reopened, those themes thankfully also receded in importance. However, policy makers, researchers, and the public came to value the near real-time data the Pulse generates. Indeed, IES envisions the Pulse as a precursor of other “sensors” that could help the nation more quickly obtain indicators of the health of our schools, the education they provide, and the directions schools are pursuing post-pandemic. 

IES invested $7m through NCER in the Leveraging Evidence to Accelerate Recovery Nationwide (LEARN) network. Led by SRI International, LEARN constitutes one element of IES’ strategy to address both long-standing student learning achievement gaps and those exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The LEARN network aims to adapt and scale evidence-based practices or products that have the potential to accelerate students’ learning and help educators address learning loss related to COVID-19. Researchers have developed promising products and interventions that have evidence of benefiting students, yet often these discoveries don’t make their way from research settings to classrooms. This effort is one of our biggest initiatives supporting scaling up of promising interventions. 

Smaller investments were made to support state education agencies as they use their state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) to monitor and fine tune their efforts to accelerate learning; to improve the mobilization and use of proven strategies for learning acceleration; and to support prize competitions to identify ways of accelerating learning.

We believe that these funding decisions will help the U.S. monitor the nation’s recovery from COVID—but more importantly will help us identify more effective and cost-efficient means of delivering high quality education.

I’m starting to hear conversations indicating that perhaps the Education Sciences Reform Act or ESRA will be reauthorized during this Congress. If so, what are some priorities you have?

The Senate HELP committee is investing time in a (possible) reauthorization of ESRA (which passed in 2002 and was due for reauthorization in 2008, so this effort is welcome, if a bit overdue). Recall that ESRA was passed during the same year as the No Child Left Behind Act and some of the language reflects the issues and concerns of that era. The nation has made progress on some of the pressing issues highlighted in ESRA while identifying newer issues that need to be included in a new law governing education sciences.

Among my priorities is the insertion of a legislative mandate for timeliness in all of IES’ activities. Right now, far too much of our data and research findings are stale by the time they are released. This long lag time is often done in the name of accuracy—but being accurate at the fifth decimal point is false precision while being years late is disqualifying for much of what we are studying or gathering data about.

ARPA-ED (an education effort modeled after the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA)). Creating this suite of risk-informed, quick turnaround activities in IES is essential and is part of the proposals we will ask Congress to consider as they approach reauthorizing ESRA. 

As is well known, DARPA has had an outsized influence on creating innovative products, many of which have affected all of society, not just the military (GPS anyone? The Internet?). What I hope to see in a reauthorized ESRA is stronger legislative authority to allow the Director to accelerate change and speed up the needed modernization of education R&D. 

Perhaps the best way to understand our plans for a more modern educational R&D system is by way of analogy. The nation’s scientists spent years conducting basic research on the building blocks of mRNA vaccine technology. The moment of truth for this foundational research came when the COVID pandemic began in 2019-2020. With a strong foundation already laid, COVID vaccines were developed within months instead of years, likely saving millions of lives. These new COVID vaccines are just the beginning. We now expect other vaccines to be developed at an accelerated pace building on that same foundation, including ones for HIV and a host of respiratory diseases.

It would take considerable hubris to assert that the foundational research IES has been engaged in over its 20-year life is directly akin to the work of vaccine researchers. But make no mistake: IES has built a strong foundation on which we can and will launch the rapid turnaround, high impact, scalable work called for in the discussion of APRA-ED and explicitly called out in the FY23 Omnibus funding act’s report language that gave IES $30m to start down the APRA-ED path.

Over its 20-year history, IES has assembled multiple assets that will be critical to this ARPA-ED effort. Two decades of rigorous research has yielded insights into many fields of learning science, especially in the science of reading and the importance of social-emotional learning in supporting student learning. 

Over the past five years, we have sought to quicken our pace and bring new tools to the challenges the nation faces. We are supporting rapid turnaround research using digital learning platforms. We are encouraging high risk/high reward transformational research. We are experimenting with new partnerships to help ensure our research is grounded in the problems of practice facing SEAs and LEAs. We are investing in prize competitions, including a recently completed XPrize, as a means of spurring innovative solutions to specific education problems. Noted above, we are funding a network of researchers to develop strategies on how best to encourage the education research community to think systematically about scalability. 

Many of these things can be done within the existing framework of ESRA, but there are many places where legislation is needed giving IES more authority to move in the right direction.

More generally, in terms of education research, what are you most excited about and what are you most worried about?

I, like everyone else, am both excited and worried about how AI will affect everything we do. Not surprisingly, responses to the challenges and opportunities of AI are all over the board. These concerns about AI have been around for a while but dramatically escalated when ChatGPT burst on the scene at the end of November 2022. Some schools want to ban it totally; others are insisting that all writing goes through ChatGPT to improve it. Fundamental questions abound: What is literacy in an era of ChatGPT? What skills do students, teachers, citizens need to negotiate this world? What counts as plagiarism? How do you fact check what ChatGPT produces when it becomes the underlying algorithms for all the major search engines such as Google or Bing? 

One thing we know for certain: generative AI and the Large Language Models that drive it depend on high quality, large data sets. Unfortunately, such data sets are scarce in education. I see two sources of large data sets that we need to make more widely available: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS).

Since 1969, NAEP has measured student achievement across the country in mathematics, reading, science, writing, arts, and civics. NAEP uses a mix of conventional forced choice “fill in the bubble” items; student essays; short, open-ended responses; and simulations. NAEP also collects “process data” about how students interact with items using the digital-based assessment platform. Further, NAEP collects detailed demographic and self-reported information, which includes the basics (for example, race/ethnicity, gender) and deeper information (for example, English language learner status, IEP status, disability accommodations). 

In turn, NAEP holds hundreds of thousands of examples of student work coupled with detailed contextual information about students, their school, and their community. We need to mine that vast repository of student artifacts to learn better how to improve student understanding of math, reading, science, and civics. This is a potentially revolutionary moment in which technological changes in AI can generate lessons now hidden in an existing large repository of data. This requires a culture shift in how we view NAEP data and a transformation from NAEP as “the nation’s report card” to a more expansive vision of using NAEP’s treasure trove of data to inform classroom practices.

State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) also contain lots of high-quality data, which in many ways dwarf the data NAEP holds. The SLDS Grant Program has helped propel the successful design, development, implementation, and expansion of early learning through the workforce longitudinal data systems. These systems enhance the ability of states to manage, analyze, and use education data. Since 2005, when the first round of grants was awarded, the federal government has spent close to $1 billion on these systems. SLDS needs modernization (think of it as SLDS v2) and will probably require another $1 billion over the next few years. But modernizing the technological infrastructure of SLDS and using modern technology to link education data to a wide variety of other data systems (for example, labor market information or social welfare data) would be groundbreaking. 

Freeing both NAEP and SLDS data requires careful attention to protecting the privacy of student information. NAEP data is far easier to protect, so I hope we can move ahead with releasing more and more NAEP data quickly. For state systems, the equation is more complicated, but we need to carefully consider the benefits and the risks of opening these systems. We also must recognize that there are new ways of protecting data that have not been fully explored or implemented.

There are many other changes going on in the education sciences, but I think the intersection of AI, big data, and protecting student privacy is the most important issue we need to consider.

Returning to DARPA, the idea of a DARPA-ed is getting traction again, and that would be part of IES. In your view, how is education innovation similar to the sort of R&D we see elsewhere across government, and how is it different?

Hopefully either through the reauthorization of ESRA or through the NEED Act, we will get a new center in IES that will be charged with implementing DARPA-like programs and projects. Last year, IES has received additional money ($30 million in FY23) to begin to implement APRA-like high-reward transformative projects. IES senior leadership has been exploring how other APRA agencies have been set up and the kinds of programs they are investing in. The most successful of these programs include the original DARPA and ARPA-E (Energy – they got there first and took our “E”). In any case, right now we are not calling our ARPA program ARPA-ED, rather, according to pending legislation, it will be the National Center for Advanced Development in Education – NCADE—housed in IES). 

During the last few years, we have been building a foundation for ARPA-like projects (for example, the transformative research program, the prize competitions, the research networks focused on scaling up innovations that work and on digital learning). More generally, IES’ two research centers (NCSER and NCER) have been investing in foundational research for 20 years. The balance between applied and basic research in these two centers has rightfully been skewed heavily toward basic work—a rough guess would be about 80% basic and 20% applied. NCADE would flip that balance, putting most of its funding toward applied work.

ARPA agencies rely heavily on the Heilmeier Catechism in judging prospective projects and often in hiring program managers. Here are the core questions of the catechism:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost? How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

We will be using this catechism as we launch more projects and lay the foundation for NCADE.

We also need to think more about how education research contributes to national security. The nation faces a human capital “supply chain” problem, where the need for a large, diverse, well-trained STEM workforce exceeds the capacity of our school system to supply it. Recent NAEP results show how few students, especially Black, Hispanic, and special needs students, reach even the basic level in science and math (let alone reading). Unless we use our research resources to solve that mismatch between need and human capital, the future of our nation is at risk

What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about education research?

In a previous life, I was a professor of political science at Stony Brook University. Like many research universities, the reputation of the university was built around the physical and biological sciences, even though most of the students were enrolled in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. In many, many meetings, we were told about the importance of the “hard sciences.” In response, I frequently would cite James March’s observation that “God must have loved physicists because he gave them all the easy problems.” 

The biggest misconception I encounter is that education science research is a “soft, easy science.” It is true that all too often interventions, programs, and policies that we try don’t work out the way we hoped or planned. But that is true for experiments in any field, including those in the “hard sciences.” But somehow our failure rate is taken as a sign of our weakness as a science, while in other fields failure is taken as part of the scientific process. 

Many people are credited with a version of the following: “The only true failure is the failure to learn.” (I assign it to Warren Buffet.) IES has a success rate across its grant programs of around 15% (depending on which outcome you count). After 20 years of funding research there are lots of data about our successes and failures. Yet, it was only recently that we embarked on a serious effort to see what can be learned from our failures (a project that’s been tied up in all kinds of red tape regarding access to information contained in our grants files—a different kind and relatively common source of failure). 

We have also neglected the importance of replication to the advancement of science. For a long time, we emphasized “main effects” measured in randomized control trials. But the heterogeneity of our nation and of our students makes main effects a terrible approach to achieving what is encapsulated in IES’ goal of “identifying what works for whom under what conditions.” To achieve that goal, we need to replicate, replicate, replicate in different groups of students (defined by, for example, demography or geography). Some interventions might not have a significant main effect but could have important outcomes for different groups of students. Designing muti-arm studies is one way of identifying such effects, but through these type of studies or through other forms of replication, we need to do more . 

All of this is hard; humans have far more agency than electrons and our science is just beginning to catch up to that reality. So, we will fail often (as is the case for any science), but we need to learn to learn from our failures. This is especially the case as we move into more DARPA-like programs, where failure is part of the very lifeblood of the agency. 

You can see why I think that the biggest misconception of education research is that it’s a “soft, easy” science. 

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.