(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
The year ahead will see no end of blather about the education records and policies of the major presidential contenders, but few assessments are likely to be as much of a curiosity as “The 2012 Republican Candidates (So Far)” in the next issue of the magazine Education Next.
Education Next calls itself a “scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.” With a few exceptions, its editorial board is dominated by voucherites and other conservatives – Paul Peterson, Chester Finn, Bill Evers, John Chubb, Terry Moe, Caroline Hoxby, and Jay Greene – and it has always squinted hard, if politely, to the right.
In this article, by Allison Sherry, the Washington bureau chief of the Denver Post, the squinting becomes more like a stare. It’s not scholarly and omits too much. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong. But its wrongness tells a lot about what you’re likely to hear from Republicans in the campaign next year – and not likely to hear.
The main theme of the piece is that while some of these candidates – Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, if heruns – have sometimes done policy flips in their careers, three of them –Perry, now governor of Texas, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Pawlenty, ditto for Minnesota – have impressive education records.
Education Next even provides a convenient set of bar graphs headed “Governors Have a Right to Brag.” Fourth and eighth graders in every state headed by one of the three governors, the piece says, correctly, scored higher than the national average in math and reading on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Romney, it says “is widely credited for raising test scores.” He “proposed education reform measures that lifted the state cap on charter schoolsand gave principals more power to get rid of ineffective teachers.”
What is doesn’t tell you is that the kids in those states scored nearly as high, and in a couple of cases, higher, before these candidates became governors. Minnesota fourth graders got an average raw score of 225 in math in 2002 (pre-Pawlenty) and 223 in 2009. In 2002, their average was eight points higher than the national average; in 2009, it was three points higher. In reading, Minnesota fourth graders scored 225 in 2002 and 223 in 2009.
The same was true in eighth-grade reading in Texas, where the average score in 2002 was 262 in 2002 and 260 in 2009. And contrary to the implications of the piece, Texas’s reading score was lower than those in 32 other states and jurisdictions. Massachusetts, which had the nation’s highest scores under Romney in 2009, also ranked among the nation’s highest-scoring states in both reading and math before Romney.
In fact, the NAEP scores in the brag chart don’t mean as much as a lot of people seem to think. They’re not aligned with school curricula – and can’t be. The protocols for who gets tested and which English learners and special education students get left out of the testing program, moreover, vary widely. In Texas, 9 percent of all students were exempt from the 2009 reading test; nationally it was 5 percent; in California it was 3 percent.
Also, since the tests have no consequences for students, those picked to take them have no particular reason to make an effort to do well. NAEP’s own technical reports warn about making state-to-state comparisons based on the tests, but NAEP’s press people blithely ignore those warnings in their handouts.
The piece in Education Next doesn’t allude to that caution either. Instead it lauds Perry and his education commissioner for “pulling up the quality of Texas tests…to a level respected among education reformers.” But the up-pulling seems to have produced little in gains.
The phrase “education reformers”, incidentally, should be read with a touch of caution. In the world of Education Next and other ed-policy conservatives, it’s a euphemism for people demanding “choice” – vouchers, charters, privatization – “accountability” for teachers as measured by student achievement, and suspicion of, if not outright hostility toward, collective bargaining. It doesn’t mean centrists, much less people who oppose the use of standardized tests in evaluating teachers or individual students.
And, as always, there’s the phony sentimentality about the good old days in the little red schoolhouse. Education Next quotes Michele Bachmann saying she entered politics “because I want to give my children the incredible educational experience I received from public schools as a student.”
But having been born in 1956, she finished high school less than a decade before publication of A Nation at Risk, which warned in no uncertain terms that America’s schools were going to hell. Maybe that would explain why Bachmann never learned that the American Revolution began not in New Hampshire but in Massachusetts or that the nation’s founding fathers didn’t work all that tirelessly to end slavery as she seems to believe. As Will Rogers was supposed to have said (but probably never did), “The schools were never as good as they used to be.”
And wouldn’t it have been useful for the piece to mention that Bachmann, a creationist, favors the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools? “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes,” she said in a campaign debate, “who believe in intelligent design.” That surely says more about a would-be president than a few test scores.
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.