There’s a new education reform website on the scene, another “new voice” representing a new thinky tank, slick and pretty and well-endowed and charter-friendly and made out of smooshed-together words. Welcome FutureEd
Much of the pitch is familiar. FutureEd is “grounded on the belief that every student should be effectively prepared for postsecondary learning and that performance-driven education systems have the potential to greatly improve student achievement.” And like all such undertakings, the site is intent on letting us know that they are totally independent and fair and balanced and in no way going to pursue a particular agenda.
|A new voice? Sounds mighty familiar to me.
We won’t follow a script. Sometimes we’ll tak about what everyone else is talking about, and other times we’ll address a topic that we feel deserves more attention. Our goal is to give policymakers, practitioners and other change agents research and analysis that helps them navigate a complicated, fast-changing educational landscape. In every case, our work will reflect what research says is best for students, rather than the pursuit of ideological agendas or adult self-interests.
Annnnd of course the use of terms like “change agents” and the nod to the pursuit of adult self-interests mean that FutureEd does, in fact, have a reformy ideological agenda to pursue. But as we’ve seen before (e.g. Education Post and the74), Rule #1 of pitching your ideological agenda is declaring that you have no ideological agenda. “This is not PR! I’m just laying some unvarnished objective Truth on you!” I have nothing against Believing Stuff– everyone has to believe something. But when you try to package your point of view as Higher Objective Truth, my BS detector starts to beep. Thinky tanks tend to lean one way or another; just own your tilt.
The director is Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and contributor to US News, Education Post, and Education Next. He’s worked for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Brookings. Editorial Director is Phyllis W. Jordan, a former editor at the LA Times and Washington Post. The advisory board includes folks from Georgetown. NYU, Tulane, Stanford, Harvard GSE and RAND. It seems unlikely that this group is infected with the rampant liberalism rampant on Certain Campuses.
If this all feel a little reformy, take a gander at the list of Senior Fellows, which includes Norman Atkins (Relay GSE), Steve Cantrell (formerly Gates Foundation), Marshall S. Smith (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), and Joanne Weiss (formerly New Schools Ventures Fund and Race to the Top apologist).
And then there’s the list of funders, which includes the Bezos Family Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.
So if you think this thinky tank does not have a love of charter schools and other reformy features built into its dna, I would ove to sell you a bridge.
But hey– maybe despite all this, FutureEd is not here to beat the charter drum. Let’s take a look at some of the articles in its first week’s worth of thinkiness.
Proficiency vs. Growth: Toward a Better Measure
Reformy data wonk Morgan Polkoff makes a wonky case for tweaking the balance betweenperformance (and turning it into a performance index with many score categories) and weighing growth more heavily. This, of course, steps right over the critical question– if your raw data is coming from a narrow junk test, does it really matter how you massage the numbers? Test-centric accountability is bunk, but we’re not going to have that conversation– just discuss how to rearrange the data deck chairs on the testing Titanic.
In Defense of Common Core and Its Tests
Scott Marion is the president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a company in the business of doing standards-and-testing consulting for states, and he actually wants to characterize opposition to CCSS and its Big Standardized Test as “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Who knows– maybe FutureEd wants to set a jaunty Slate-style contrarian attitude, but calling Common Core and the BS Tests “the good” requires a deeply committed level of denial. But he promises it will take a series of three posts to lay out his detailed denial.
He thinks the Core have made states more rigorous, and paints it as a necessary outgrowth of NCLB because states set different standards and couldn’t be compared. “Once we had a set of common standards, we needed common tests and cut scores,” he observes, taking a swift blind leap over a chasm of unexamined assumptions. Were the standards a good idea, and were these particular standards any good? And why do we need common tests and cut scores– to what purpose?
Critics (like Betsy DeVos) are “simply wrong” when they claim that CCSS “impinges on local control of public education.” The states adopted the standards voluntarily! Also– “in practice, local control is an illusion,” on the theory, apparently, that there aren’t that many different textbooks, and teachers mostly just teach out of the book as their curriculum.
But the Core unleashed textbook creativity (really– you mean, like slapping “common core ready” on the same old crap?) and unleashed the “collective creativity of educators” to produce great edu-works like EngageNY. Oh– and the Common Core was “painstakingly developed with input from educators and researchers.”
So Marion is unleashing a bunch of three-year-old half-warmed baloney that has all been debunked repeatedly. I am trying to imagine exactly which audience he can imagine is buying any of this.
Vouchers in Indiana: What the Trump Administration Can Learn
A thinky tank worth its salt must produce Papers and Reports, and FutureEd has them, including this report on the voucher program of Indiana, showing how the whole thing is pretty much a money-wasting bust. Mostly, as other researchers have shown, the vouchers of Indiana have been a windfall for private religious schools and have had almost no effect on moving students out of pubic schools and into private ones.
Grading the Graders: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education
Here’s another Report, providing an evaluation masquerading as a summation of what’s happening in teacher evaluation. This really deserves its own full response, but so you can get a sense of how FutureEd thinks (Toch wrote this report), let me just hit the high-ish points.
Teacher evaluation is going great. Instead of just test numbers, we now throw in some other numbers. And by “going great,” we mean that bad teachers are being chased out and focus is on classrooms (where the testing is, anyway) and districts are making “smarter” (aka lowered job security) employment decisions. Toch acknowledges some “challenges” like VAM being junk and 70% of teachers not teaching tested subjects, but these are characterized as “challenges” and not “reasons that a reasonable person would throw the whole thing out.” Also, those darn teachers’ unions often resist them, even though they can save lots of money.
Short form: this report packages all the same thing we’ve been hearing for years, but Toch is far more gifted at writing it up in a way that sounds like he’s taking a reasonable middle-way approach. But I don’t think he is– he just talks a better game than many of his predecssors. His conclusions are still the same, and his assumptions are still unquestioned.
Diane Ravitch’s Problematic Polemics
The site also features “annotations,” a thing that Education Post used to do where we print somebody else’s piece and then intersperse responses. As a regular mocker of other people’s work, I recognize this as a rather lazy approach.
But I guess Toch wants to make a point straight out of the gate by taking on Diane Ravitch. Sure, why not. People all over the ed conversation take their shots at Ravitch and sometimes they have a point and sometimes they don’t. Me, I don’t expect any two humans to agree 100% of the time or be right 100% of the time, and disagreement is good and healthy for everyone. So if you’re expecting me to climb up on my high dudgeon because anyone dares to disagree with Ravitch, you’ll have to wait for another century.
However, what Toch offers as counter argument tells us plenty about what we’re dealing with here.
Toch incorrectly characterizes Ravitch’s opposition to “privatization” as an opposition to profit, which in turn allows him to offer the defense that only a few states allow for-profit charters. This is an old word game and extra-disingenuous when it comes a few paragraphs after he characterizes the movement this way:
Reformers have pointed to a lack of incentives to improve in traditional government-run public school systems as a core problem, and they have sought in a variety of ways to create more competitive, performance-driven systems.
The “incentive” that they feel is lacking is, of course, the chance to put public tax dollars in private pockets. It may not be strictly defined as “profit,” but it doesn’t change the idea that these modern reformsters believe that education should be a field in which private businesses compete to collect public moneys. That’s privatization, and that’s what lots of folks oppose.
Toch is also going to trot out the old “charter schools are also public schools– funded by and accountable to taxpayers.” This is only half true. Modern charters are funded with public money, and in some cases have gone to court to avoid having to account to anyone how that money is spent. Nor are they run by an elected board of community members. Charter schools are not accountable to the taxpayers.
When Ravitch points out that no high-performing nation has privatized its schools, Toch replies that the US has not done so (and he suggests that Ravitch implies it has, which she clearly has not). He refers to public schools as government schools. He asserts that opening charters is good for students. He suggests that Ravitch is allied with the teachers unions. He acknowledges that a DeVos/Trump administration may well make accountability even looser. He declares that charters totally don’t skim or cream or make themselves marketable only to the right students and certainly don’t have things like a got-to-go list. He suggests that since Ravitch disapproves of high turnover in schools that work young teachers 50, 60, 70 hours a week, she must prefer “disengaged teachers working to the clock under collective bargaining contracts.”
In short, given a chance to “debate” a leading reform critic on matters of substance and detail, Toch instead chooses to misrepresent her point of view and take shots at the straw men he creates. I am not for a moment suggesting it’s not possible to disagree with Ravitch; I’ve read many folks on many sides of the ed issues do it. But that’s not what Toch did. Maybe he’s trying to make a point, or maybe he’s just trying to create some clickbait by taking a shot at one of the more recognizable names in the field. Maybe he’s just trying to punch “up” for the attention. When you’re the new gunslinger in town, it’s good publicity to go after one of the Big Guns to make a name for yourself.
Also, there’s an infographic that shows that Betsy DeVos is a Republican who gave money to some candidates. Just in case you needed a visual to grok that.
It feels like we’ve been here before. Pro-Common Core, pro-testing, gently anti-union, trying to steer a course between the most obvious excesses of hard right ed reform without actually disavowing the many, many education policies with which they actually agree. This is a worthy destination for Walton money and an appropriate employer for some reform-loving academics.
This is definitely not a new voice, or maybe it’s just a new-ish voice singing from the same old hymnal. Others have tried to stir up some clicks and attention by being cantankerous, but speaking as someone whose brand is cantankerosity, at the end of the day, if you have nothing of substance to say, the crowd gets bored and moves on. FutureEd will be a fine addition to the same old constellation of well-funded reform-pushing advocacy groups, but other than a fresh logo, it seems unlikely to bring anything new to the education debates. Easily duplicated, easily ignored.