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Thursday, May 06, 2010

These goalposts won't move much further, fellas

by folkbum

"Moving the goalposts" is a pretty clever shorthand way of making a real point about human nature: We often compromise what we really want or believe in order to accommodate a reality that makes our ideals impossible. "This house will be spotless by the time my mother gets here" is replaced by "The downstairs will be spotless and Mom won't need to go upstairs" is replaced by "If all my various piles are neat, that's good enough, because Mom raised me and knows I've always been a bit of a--oh, crap, the doorbell."

The problem is that people in a position to advocate policy and spend your tax dollars like to move the goalposts, too, and it affects much more than just your mother's incredible disappointment in you. It means "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" becomes "We're spreading democracy" becomes "We fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" and so on. Eleventy billion dollars later, we're down to, "If we leave, it will fall apart; they can't even run an election." Democracy inaction!

Closer to home, we've seen the goalposts move pretty steadily on the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program. It began, of course, as a way to help struggling poor and minority students achieve at the same levels as the wealthy, white students whose families could afford private school. But as independent analyses have shown, voucher students on the whole aren't yet--20 years into the program--outpacing their Milwaukee Public School peers. So the goalposts have moved over the years, settling most recently at "Voucher schools do equivalent work at a lower price." As we have discussed here previously, though, this is true only because voucher schools don't have the same layers of state and federal bureaucracy to deal with and virtually ignore Milwaukee's special needs population. And the original goal? Long surrendered to reality. Trouble is, voucher advocates are still content to spend your money to support their pet project and prop up a religious school system that would have been bankrupt long ago absent your tax dollars.

Charles Murray--yes, that Charles Murray--had an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday along these same lines. He notes the mediocre test results and then picks up the goalposts:
So let’s not try to explain [the test results] away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers--measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.
First, let us first pause to consider the irony of Charles Freaking Murray downplaying the importance of a test score.

And then let us step back and remember why we're even talking about test scores in the first place: Public schools, unlike private schools, are veritable fonts of data. And among the data--in fact, some would even call them the most important data--are the scores on the tests that measure whether students are meeting or exceeding the state's academic standards. Now, believe me, I do not disagree here; I have always maintained that standardized tests scores are among the worst means to judge students, teachers, and schools. But it is those very test scores that have spurred proponents of vouchers not just here in Milwaukee but across the country to push for every conceivable means of yanking tax dollars and students out of public schools. And now that test scores, not just of Milwaukee's voucher students but of charter schools across the nation, have shown that those public-school alternatives are not, in fact, the answer to schools' ills, the proponents are scrambling. Murray:
[A]ll I can say is thank heavens for the Milwaukee results. Here’s why: If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

Here’s an illustration. The day after the Milwaukee results were released, I learned that parents in the Maryland county where I live are trying to start a charter school that will offer a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline. This would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county’s other public schools.

I suppose that test scores might prove that such a charter school is “better” than ordinary public schools, if the test were filled with questions about things like gerunds and subjunctive clauses, the three most important events of 1776, and what Occam’s razor means. But those subjects aren’t covered by standardized reading and math tests. For this reason, I fully expect that students at such a charter school would do little better on Maryland’s standardized tests than comparably smart students in the ordinary public schools.
So much goalpost movement ... starting with a radical redefinition of why charter schools are necessary. It has nothing to do with the original theory that charters could provide innovative programs to better serve the needs of hard to reach students and more nimbly respond to challenging situations. A bunch of white suburbanite kids taking "a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition" is hardly challenging or innovative. And if choice and charter schools don't get good tests scores, it must be because the tests are biased against the schools' gerund-heavy curricula!

In the end, the goalposts are left standing at the weakest point they've ever been. It's no longer about improving the educational lot of the neediest and furthest behind children. Instead, Murray says, the "real reason" we need choice and charters is to placate know-it-all parents. What a world!

See also Barbara O'Brien.

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