Earlier this week Secretary of Education Cardona gaffed. Apparently unaware that President Reagan was not much of a fan of large government Cardona deployed Reagan’s famous 1986 press conference quip, “I think you all know that I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” The problem? Cardona dropped the terrifying part and merely said he wanted to help, like Reagan had said. Oops.
Look, two things are true at once here. One is if part of your job is saying a lot of words you’re going to screw some of them up. It’s inevitable. Especially if you’re tired, stressed, or whatever. (I’m assuming here this wasn’t in prepared remarks or talking points but was a botched audible). I still cringe when I think about mistakes I’ve made. I once mixed up a Kennedy and Einstein quote, that in that case could have been given by either man though the Einstein one is iconic, because I was at the Kennedy School and nervous giving a talk. That I can pretty vividly recall the moment years later tells you how painful these things are if you’re the kind of person who cares. Cardona’s job requires saying a lot of words. It happens. Yet of course it was catnip for conservatives given that this mistake lies at the center of a Venn diagram of things they care about. That’s fair, Cardona is a political figure and turnabout is fair play. Democrats did the same thing with DeVos.
The other thing that’s true, however, is this is part and parcel of what happens as we move away from a focus on rigor, knowledge, and facts in school and society. You don’t have to be the kind of person who can recall page numbers in Lou Cannon’s books to know that Reagan was a conservative, he was the vanguard of the conservative movement, and the 1980 and 1984 elections were consequential. Whether you’re a conservative or not that’s relevant cultural knowledge and cultural capital in the same way that you should understand some high level things about FDR and Johnson whether or not you’re a Democrat or a progressive. The secretary should have known this orientation given his role – and especially given Reagan’s history with the Department of Education.
Why would he though? Listening to Cardona these past few years he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who spends a lot of time with people who disagree with or challenge him. The media sure doesn’t. And our current environment leaves little room for acknowledging the other side has a point.
That, not whether Secretary Cardona doesn’t know Reagan 101 or misspoke in the moment, is the real problem here.
Through the education rhetoric looking glass.
Dana Goldstein has a piece in The New York Times about history/civics standards in three different states, Florida, South Dakota, and Virginia. Mike Petrilli immediately objected to some bias in the article. He’s not wrong (and I don’t always say that on media stuff), this sort of selective exercise is almost always bias confirming and bubble revealing. If you really wanted to compare the three states side-by-side it would be a useful and illuminating and probably not narrative confirming exercise. Even better, look at the process by which they were developed in each state. Regional emphasis, various changes, big debates. That’s where the action is. Lumping these states together obscures more than it reveals. We ought to be having a more sophisticated conversation about different approaches to content and skills and teaching challenging material than this culture war approach to covering these issues allows. Don’t hold your breath.
On the politics, Republican governors are happy to have TheNew York Times write articles like this all day every day. It’s part of the brain numbing back and forth of narrative driven politics and journalism. These stories aren’t hit pieces, they’re gifts. Getting attacked in the New York Times for being too conservative on history standards is about the best press a Republican governor can get.
That’s politics though. Why it matters is twofold. First, it leaves readers with a skewed sense of these issues. That’s not helpful to the exhausted middle. But also, because, as Traub points out, Virginia got to a place of unity and quality on its history and civic standards. They passed a politically diverse board unanimously. No small thing in this climate. Now comes the hard part, implementation. And there are conflict entrepreneurs on both sides who would love to see that go sideways or keep up the fight, especially right now activists on the left for whom getting Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin is more important than getting things done. Articles like this makes their work easier, the work of implementation harder, and it’s consequently bad for Virginia students.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
By the way, if he went to high school in Virginia now Secretary Cardona would know heads from tails about Ronald Reagan:
Credit Where It’s Due:
This Portland teachers strike was a mess. Don’t take my word for it, the union’s chair of its negotiating committee quit over it saying the learning loss wasn’t worth the gains and the gains were meager because union leadership didn’t do their homework. But while the national press couldn’t be bothered with a strike that had kids out of school from Halloween until this past Monday the local press, in particular the Oregonian’s Julia Silverman, did a fantastic job and set a standard on how how to cover these things. They covered both sides, were not in the bag for any faction, checked facts and math, and hustled and reported. Well done. More please.
It’s Friday. I have fish porn:
This is Parker Baxter with a fat largemouth bass from Florida. He bills it has a modest size fish for down there, but c’mon, that’s a beast. You can find Parker at his day job at CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs.
They say most of the time you’ll spend with your kids is before they’re 10, and certainly before they’re 18. Portland parents, then, are getting some bonus time. They should be grateful to the teachers union not frustrated that schools have been closed this month! What ingrates! Portland parents, and education experts, Christine Pitts and Andy Jacob (of Bellwether) discussed the strike with me on LinkedIn earlier this week.
As I try to say often, thank you. Grateful for your readership. Even at a time education reform is less front and center, Eduwonk continues to do more than 2 million page views each year. So thanks for your time and attention or just your interest in fish.
This is a long one. Buckle up. But there is fish at the end.
Coming attractions: Look for a LinkedIn live on Monday with Andy Jacobs, Christine Pitts, and me discussing the strike in Portland. Like other strikes lately remarkably little attention in the media. Andy and Christine are both education experts, and also Portland Public School parents. And Jed is back from Europe so look for a new Wonkyfolk soon.
If it seems like increasingly vibes or narratives are driving perceptions about education and education policy, well that’s because it’s happening. There has always been some of this, but it seems more acute right now. I’ll use a few Virginia examples to make the point and then get into why it matters more generally.
The recent election results are in Virginia are being portrayed as some sort of landslide and a referendum on a range of issues. This makes people feel good, but it’s not accurate. The election was close, it’s really about one issue, and that issue was not education.
None of this is to say the election is not consequential, it is substantively and politically. The Dems had a good night and it was a rebuke of Republicans and the governor. But it’s overhyped. Democrats will control the state Senate 21-19 and the House of Delegates 51-49. There were 70 Republicans and 70 Democrats in the legislature before the election now it’s a 72-68 Democratic advantage. Control matters in some important ways, but that’s close. (Most of our elections have been close lately. One reason a lot of people are so antsy about 2024 is that in 2020 a shift of less than 50,000 votes would have us in the middle of a second Trump administration right now. Trump won by 80,000 or so votes across key states in 2016. Not a lot of wiggle room.)
The two closest House races (HD – 21 & 97) were decided by 1,826 votes.
A switch of 914 votes and the Republicans would have a majority in the House.
In the Senate, the two closest races (SD 30 & 31) were decided by 6,494 votes.
A switch of 3,248 votes and Republicans win Senate too.
Again, better to be the Dems than the Rs, but that’s tight.
Second, there was one issue driving this election: Abortion rights. You see this in what the ads were about, you see this in the results, and you see it in what people in the state are saying. You see it everywhere except for people trying to make a point about this or that issue they really care about and so want the election to be about.
If there was a secondary issue after abortion it’s probably redistricting that makes districts increasingly insurmountable for one party or the other. The rural / urban/ suburban divide continues to deepen, which will impact school finance reform – something Virginia desperately needs.
Overall, the Republicans didn’t really have a message, but I’m not sure it would have mattered if they did. The bottom line is voters simply don’t trust Republicans with the keys to the car if first trimester abortion rights are in play. Ann Coulter said abortion is the Republican version of “defund the police.” She’s wrong, it’s worse in terms of political damage. A Democratic candidate who was literally caught performing sex acts for money on the internet – after she had announced for public office – nonetheless performed pretty well on election day and lost a close election. That should tell you all you need to know. If not, it’s also why a governor with approval ratings in the mid-50s couldn’t drag candidates over the finish line in close races. Dobbs is an absolute political millstone for Republicans. People will do gymnastics about how this was about education but outside of school board races that obscures the core dynamic: If Dems can run marginally compelling candidates in competitive races they will win until the Rs figure out how to slip this abortion noose – of their own creation it should be noted. Generally I don’t think these off-year elections are as predictive or revealing as some people think, but the reproductive rights signal seems pretty clear.
But that sucks to write again and again if you’re an education reporter or opinion writer. It doesn’t really help you much if you’re an education activist. It matters greatly to governmental politics but means electoral politics are being fought out elsewhere. So, for instance, even though transgender issues were a low-priority for Virginia voters this cycle, we’ll hear a lot about how that was a big driver.* It wasn’t.
Optimistically, Virginia voters seemed to have a refreshing no-drama bent. School board elections in some key locations – Gloucester and Spotsylvania – tossed out divisive and bombastic types. But it wasn’t just conservatives getting the boot. Loudoun voters tossed out the progressive prosecutor who oversaw the circus surrounding sexual assaults in schools there – including taking the unusual step of personally handling the prosecution of the father of one of the victims for a disorderly charge (he was subsequently pardoned). Voters there also wiped the board slate clean (also several close races) after multiple reports showed the sexual assaults were mishandled – and that whole episode was narrative driven. The message across these diverse geographies seems less partisan than just: Be more normal.
It doesn’t seem like Moms for Liberty had a good night, but I don’t trust any advocate’s numbers on school board races. What matters is what happened in highly contested races, not all the endorsements. What size geography are we talking about – eg some yo yo somewhere gets headlines but impacts relatively few students or a big district? What happened where control was at stake? And this conflates school board candidates and other races, which turn on different issues. Both Moms for Liberty and the AFT use slippery criteria.
And then there is this:
Even assuming a world where Republicans had won by comfortable margins school choice was still going to be a dogfight in Virginia. The state has basically a fake charter school law and even university-sponsored lab schools remain controversial. There are both obvious and subtle reasons for that, but it’s not just Democrats in the way, though that’s a convenient narrative. You see that dynamic in some other states as well. So sure, choice supporters may “hope” or feel that way. Doesn’t mean they are right. School choice in Virginia is about more than any one election.
And look, on restricting race in classrooms, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a vibe, sure, but read the standards about that. If you really want to make a case that schools should be doing stuff that violates the Civil Rights Act I’m all ears, but I don’t see it.
The law in question is actually this one – and it’s causing confusion. Even the law’s patron (who lost in a close race that turned on, you guessed it, abortion) says it’s being used in unintended ways. You can read about the rolling chaos in Spotsylvania, they were doing a lot of stuff, but they were not implementing some coherent agenda the way this implies.**
I don’t raise all this to argue Youngkin hasn’t made missteps or the Dems didn’t have a good night, Moms for Liberty fell short and seem a little high on their own supply….etc…and I’m personally glad to see new leadership in Spotsylvania for the kids there.
Rather, the point is it’s all illustrative of a broader problem plaguing us right now: Narrative or vibes driven reporting and analysis fueling vibes driven discourse. Details matter. They matter to understanding and they matter to effective strategy.
Again, look I get it, if 2024 is about Dobbs, the economy, and democracy, as it seems like it might be, then it will be a pretty boring cycle to be an ed writer, at least at the national level. Still, resist temptation to fan culture war flames where they don’t exist.
Some of this rigid narrative driven / confirmation bias confirming reporting owes to the echo chamber, some to social media and some to intense polarization and the idea that nuance is giving care and comfort to the “enemy.” When The New York Times committed an act of journalism by daring to report on an evolving and complicated set of medical questions about transgender youth all hell broke loose. People notice that.
(Also, of course, no one can even agree on what a book ban is, or what CRT is, and so forth. Some of the views cited in the media as outliers are actually majority-held viewpoints – there was an amusing headline recently about how majorities of voters support extreme conservative education positions. It’s a muddled and confused debate only made more muddled by rampant polarization and narrative driven reporting).
Here’s the ‘to be sure’ graf: Doing general interest writing on deadline is harder than it looks. We all make mistakes. These issues are complicated and really disparate in a country with 13,000 school districts and 50 states doing different things. Still, there sure does seem to be room to do better in terms of not just flattening everything out?
We all know good information is instrumental to good decision-making. We talk about that a lot around here because it matters. A lot. Narrative driven coverage distorts things and contributes to our more general misinformation problem. That’s not pro-or anti-reform, rather it’s pro-good decision-making.
Yes. the labor of keeping informed has increased. And the decline in nuance in the coverage has helped fuel a rise in the need for high-quality proprietary analysis. People in strategy, sales, and key decision-making roles need to know what’s going on at an accurate and granular level and open source is not reliable. But that obviously creates an inequity – good information for people who can afford to hire someone (like me) to do an analysis, narratives, vibes, and acrimony for the proles. It’s not just a problem on education and it’s not good for us.
“We’re raising native brook trout to release in the Mormons River. Now we’ve learned fly-fishing technique, techniques connected with brook trout and their habitat,” science teacher Chris Stanek said. “When we connect the curriculum to something that’s more real, learn a new skill, and get outdoors, I think are all benefits.”
And here’s Melody Schopp’s granddaughter with the biggest fish she’s caught…yet. Later that day she killed her first deer, so that’s a pretty big day.
*This is another example of the narrative problem. There is a big gap between what the public thinks on this issue and schools and what reporters think and that shows up in the coverage. Glenn Youngkin’s position basically aligns with a majority of Virginians, which is why it wasn’t a big issue except among the columnist set. That’s neither here nor there about whatever your view of the correct policy happens to be, you shouldn’t base your views on public opinion polls, but it’s essential context to understanding the dynamics of this and any issue.
If you have not read Cara Fitzpatrick’s new book “The Death of Public School” I recommend it. Ignore the title, whether you love school choice, hate it, or are in the messy middle Cara’s book is a discussion of the complicated history of school choice along two key dimensions – the expansion of choice and the change in Supreme Court jurisprudence.
There is a tendentious debate on social media and elsewhere about the origins of school choice. And yes it was a tool of segregationists during massive resistance. Cara gets into that (and goes deep on Virginia history) but also gets into the support on the left for vouchers as an equity strategy. That’s especially salient today given the attention to how many public school boundary policies don’t have a rosy history either. It’s all more complicated than whatever some outrage-addled tweet jockey told you.
Jed Wallace is off on an incredible walk so Morgan Polikoff joined me at Wonkyfolk for a wide-ranging conversation. Perhaps the most salient point is how hard it is to stay out of the ideological ruts that are shaping the debate today, but it covered a lot more ground.
Working a lot when you’re young isn’t going to kill you and it’s a great investment.
This is not strictly speaking an education or education policy post – but it certainly implicates at least parts of our sector. The non-profit sector in particular. And it’s something that comes up a lot in conversations with colleagues and friends so sharing because it might be helpful for someone. If nothing else, weekend reading. Or scroll through to the fish.
If you’re say 22-30, maybe even 35, you might be getting what I’d consider really bad career advice, albeit from well intentioned people.
I am surprised how often I meet with young people who have been told to focus on their work-life balance, sustainability, and personal growth journeys in their 20s more than their work. In my view, if you want to do professional work, this is not great advice.
Let’s first be clear on one thing, this is not some macho bullshit suck it up, sleep when you’re dead, everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc…etc…post. Take care of yourself. If you are having mental health challenges you should attend to those first and foremost, they will at least hold you back and lower your quality of life or perhaps much worse. If you are miserable you should do something else. If you are having trouble with your relationship with alcohol or drugs, get help and get on top of that right now. What’s quirky and funny in your 20s will be ruinous in your 40s or 50s. Make time to stay in shape.
What I’m talking about here is if you like your work generally, have goals you want to achieve and things you want to do, and your life is more or less on track broadly speaking.
In that case…let’s talk about your 20s and early 30s. First, physically and mentally you’re not ever going to be more at the top of your game. You’re strong and you can push through stuff that you won’t when you’re older. And your mind is still a sponge. You’ll know more when you’re older, and that’s pleasing and useful in its way, but your pace of learning is better when you’re younger. That’s why at this age rather than worrying about your employer’s views on work life balance or going on about radical self-care, you should be investing in yourself – by among other things working a lot if you have professional goals and learning everything you can. (If you don’t have professional goals that’s great, too, there is nothing magic about professional work and a lot more to life).
But I want to be clear: it’s impossible to overemphasize learning. You should take every opportunity to learn. Attend things, mix with people who are not like you, read everything you can get your hands on. I’m always impressed when in an informational interview someone doesn’t ask me what book they should read but instead what 5 or 10 they should. And then they follow up to share what they learned. That’s badass. (Even more when they have good ones to suggest.) Seek out more experienced people and situations where you can watch them operate and learn from them. This is invaluable. Assume you’re going to be wrong half the time but move forward anyway – that’s good life advice at any age.
Travel. As your commitments grow your appetite for time on the road will probably lessen. So take advantage of the opportunity to stay an extra night on trips or come in early, visit a school or two, spend time with someone, hang out somewhere different. Once my kids came along I was a lot less excited to miss mornings with them, even just a little time before school. I don’t have the status with the airlines I used to and I don’t miss that – but I’m glad I once did.
I broke in to the policy sector like most others, informational interviews, seeking out opportunities. People often say to me now, it seems like you know everyone. I don’t, but I know a lot of people because I made a point of getting to know them, learning from them, and I try to pay that forward. It’s a solid investment to make when you’re young because it force multiplies, people know other people. It’s how you can figure out who knows what that you need to know. And you will never stop needing that.
Do an honest inventory, are most of your contacts in one bucket or another? Seek out people with informed and divergent views on the big policy and practice questions our field wrestles with. Intergenerational learning is key so find opportunities for that.
Do this with your friends, too. A diverse group of friends – who don’t all work in your field – will make you a lot better at what you do. It will also help with perspective. Friends in say medicine or the military will give you important perspective on what a bad day at work really is. Friends in the trades will remind you of the difference between working “hard” and just working long. Real friends don’t care if you’re up or down at work, they care about you. Seek them out.
In my 20s I was at a table at a dinner and listened to Paul Hill and Jane Hannaway discuss a question. The comfort and fluidity with serious analysis, multiple things are true at once, who was being dishonest about the evidence, the lack of credulity, was obvious and I realized I wanted to be able to work more like that in a sector where a lot of BS flies around all the time. Grad school, and mentoring – including generous mentoring by Paul and Jane, including various collaborative projects, publications, and a book project – helped me close that gap.
But it was a lot of work and didn’t lend itself at points to anything like optimal “work life balance.” But that’s ok. I’m at a point now, married, kids, other responsibilities, where sustainability and balance matters more.
But when you’re young, perhaps the most radical act of self care you can take is to invest in yourself for the future. You can handle it then better than ever. The people telling you otherwise, even if they’re well intentioned, aren’t putting your best interests first. They’re often focused on aesthetics or theater. You should be focused on you.
It’s Friday so here’s some Fish Porn. Education people with fish.
Joe Biden is a centrist, and that he’s not more of an education reformer is less about him than the political environment reformers backed into.
Centrism is one of those words that is in common usage but has an awful lot of definitions. It can mean practical, or politically moderate, someone whose views sort of wash out as centrist because they’re left on some things and right on others. That’s more common than it seems. Or, it can be someone who just splits the difference so their politics derive from wherever the poles happen to be at a point in time.
President Biden isn’t a centrist like these definitions in an inter-party sense, but he is an intra-party one. Biden’s a longtime politician whose centrism can be largely traced back to Democratic party orthodoxy. Find the rough center of the Democratic party at any point in time, and right around there you’ll usually find Joe Biden.
Before I explain that more I want to note clearly that I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. Pragmatism and dealmaking are underrated in politics right now. Biden spent decades in the United Senate and whether you agree or disagree with him that’s service worthy of respect as is his current role. (And as I’ve noted before in the interest of transparency I voted and raised money for him in 2020 even though you could tell his education policy was going to leave a little to be desired.) He’s a good politician.
Back in the day Biden was pretty law and order, too:
Coming back to education, in 1997, in the midst of an elite pressure campaign about school choice Biden became voucher-curious on the Senate floor, noting that he was reconsidering his opposition to private school choice (and its constitutionality, which the Supreme Court later upheld).
My point is not the right or wrongness of any of these positions, and it’s fine for politicians, like the rest of us, to change their minds as evidence or situations change. Rather, my point is that none of these positions made Biden that unusual. Even on the voucher vote, Biden voted no, but support for school choice was already growing among Democrats at the time. All of these positions were places you’d find a roughly median Democrat at the time. Again, Biden is a politician.
‘Biden has just moved left’ some people will say, or something to that effect in stronger terms. And that’s true, and you what else? The Democratic party has moved left, especially the past few years (and the GOP has moved right obviously). In his party Biden is just keeping up with the times. In other words, like most politicians, Biden is more likely to jump in front of a parade than organize one and is a largely a creature of political circumstance. Surprise! He is a politician.
What does any of this have to do with education now?
One school of thought, popular among some reform types, is that if only Biden had some ganas on the issue things would be different. I think that’s a stretch given how dysfunctional Washington is. Perhaps if Biden had made education reform rather than infrastructure a core issue he could have moved some actual reform legislation but Presidents only get a few bites at the apple and Biden’s choices his first year in office made political sense for him. Education reform remains a party splitter for Democrats, it’s a big part of why Republicans are making inroads on the issue.
Instead, imagine a world where there was real pressure for education reform and politicians were vying to outdo each other on the issue or at least responding to that political pressure. You don’t have to look too far, that’s the dynamic among Republicans showing up to debate right now. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently tangled over who was better on the issue. It happened in 2000 in the Bush – Gore race. It happens in state races. It happened with Obama in 2008. And then didn’t happen after circumstances changed post-2012.
When Bill Clinton was championing charter schools a lot of Democrats reluctantly signed on. That changed post-Clinton. When he was whip in the House of Representatives Tom DeLay famously noted publicly that No Child Left Behind offended his sensibilities but he pushed it forward anyway because the President of his party (George W. Bush) had made it a priority.
So this is all to say context and conditions matter and politicians react to the political environment. But the political environment doesn’t happen by accident. It takes interest groups, activists, and dollars supporting them to fuel all that. You might have noticed those are things somewhat missing from the ed reform world – especially since everyone got the sads after Donald Trump was elected.* Those elements are not missing from the part of our sector that doesn’t want broad structural reform.
So the reform world might want to ask itself, if Joe Biden isn’t much on education reform, why is that? And what could be done differently to change the national education conversation? How could you make – against the wishes of some folks on both sides – education a little less partisan? If we supported more parent activism? Why was the education conversation so different in the ’07-’12 period than it is now? What might happen if people really leaned into the context and conditions – especially now with the issue so up for grabs? It’s probably too late for Biden’s first term but it’s not too late. These are questions worth discussing.
Remember, the backdrop here is a sector that can’t say enough about its commitment to equity. Where majorities of people, especially Black and Hispanic people, support ideas like charters and choice. And where there is generalized – though politically disorganized – support for making the system more accountable and responsive.
I can hear a certain kind of person in our sector, right-leaning but not exclusively so, saying, ‘hey, he’s President of the United States for God’s sake, Joe Biden has plenty of power to do what he wants.’** This is an extension of the “great person,” (which used to be called “great man,” in a more sexist time) theory of change. We just need political heroes that argument goes, who are willing to stand up against the pressure and do the right thing. At one time that was senators like Cory Booker, or Mary Landreiu. But in practice politicians have a lot of concerns, their own reelection at the very top of the list with everything else a distant second. Heroes come and go or their political priorities change. That remains bipartisan. Sure pols sometimes do difficult and impressive things, Lyndon Johnson on civil rights, Mitt Romney on impeachment, or Marjorie Margolies on the 1993 budget. There are other examples, but it’s kind of rare. The median politician is by definition median. And that’s where context and conditions matter to political behavior. That’s where you aim.
This also applies more generally. If you’re always looking for bravery you’ll end up mostly disappointed, it’s not just politicians who are going to put their own careers first. I’d like to see some ideas about how to support risk takers more. But we’re not going to alter some basic facts of life. Mark Twain, for example, noted that it was strange physical bravery was so common and moral bravery so rare.
Bottom line: Make education reform safer for the average bear and you’ll see Joe Biden (and a lot of other people) doing education reform. Because Joe Biden is an average bear. And that’s actually pretty normal and what we ought to engineer around if structural change in education is the goal.
The resources exist to do that, they’re just not aggressively deployed that way anymore.
*I don’t mean to minimize the awfulness of Trump, but if your political commitments were this easily scrambled around say charter schools, choice, or larger issues like free speech and due process then they were not serious commitments to begin with.
**In fairness to Biden he’s using political capital to push back on some Democratic liabilities around cultural issues, and ironically crime, so he can realistically only do so much.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
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.