Why We Don’t Learn Much from (the Few) Effective Education Policies or Programs

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/10/17/why-we-dont-learn-much-from-the-few-effective-education-policies-or-programs/

On the face of it, it would seem reasonable to believe that education policy makers could learn much from successful policies and programs. But they often don’t.

Here are two relatively clear examples of policy makers failing to learn from effective policies/programs. In both cases, the policy makers were the members of a state board of education. One is from California, the other from Massachusetts. Both sets of policies or programs were known to state policy makers at the time that the Common Core standards in mathematics and English language arts were being developed.   

In California:  The major distinguishing feature of the 1997 California mathematics standards was the build-up in the K-7 mathematics curriculum to grade 8, where all students were expected to take an Algebra I course. At the high point of enrollment, in 2013, 67 percent of middle school students — 58 percent in grade 8, and 9 percent in grade 7 — were enrolled in Algebra I, according to a 2018 article by Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. The increase in taking and passing Algebra I in grade 8 after 1997 enabled more students to get to Pre-Calculus or Calculus courses in upper high school grades. The number of college-ready students in mathematics steadily rose from 16,000 to 31,000 between 2006 and 2013. From 1997 to 2014, the California State University system, which keeps complete records on admissions and remediation, found increasingly more qualified students, and freshman enrollment more than doubled, from around 26,000 to around 63,000. At the same time, remediation rates in mathematics dropped from 52 percent to 27 percent.

Until the adoption of Common Core’s standards in 2010 and their implementation in 2014, California had used its own mathematics standards, written largely by faculty in the mathematics department at Stanford University. But as Evers and Wurman noted, Common Core’s standards in both mathematics and English language arts were adopted even though they were not benchmarked to those in high-achieving countries — despite claiming that this was so — and they had significant gaps in content coverage. Deficiencies in Common Core’s mathematics standards were spelled out or attested to by many mathematicians. (See, for example, this article by a New York University math professor and this article about a column by a retired University of California at Berkeley math professor.)

Here is what happened according to Evers and Wurman:  “In K-12 education, the gains of the previous 10-15 years — as reflected in large increases in students successfully taking Algebra I early, and in students taking more advanced math courses in high school — have been reversed. As worrisome is the fact that disadvantaged minorities (who made faster gains than the rest of the cohort before Common Core) are losing ground after Common Core at faster rates.” Enrollment in Algebra I in grade 8 was 16 percent in 1999, rose to 59 percent by 2011, and plummeted to 19 percent in 2017, according to information Evers and Wurman gleaned from student answers to questions on the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) and the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in California.

Were California educators and political leaders concerned about a decline in Hispanic and African-American enrollment in advanced mathematics (and science) courses in California high schools? Not so far as we can tell. Instead, state education officials announced in 2017 that the California State University system would allow some students to take mathematics classes other than intermediate algebra in 2018 to satisfy the general mathematics requirement they needed for graduation.

Public concern was expressed about the number of students who didn’t complete college because passing the intermediate algebra course had become an “obstacle” for them and because algebra wasn’t necessary for the non-STEM (which stands for science, technology, education, and math) career paths they had chosen — so it was claimed. California educators and elected political leaders wanted to ensure that more Hispanics and African-Americans completed a community or state college degree program — a worthy goal in its own right. But:  they seemed to be interested only in graduating more semi-educated students in California colleges, not more mathematically capable students in California high schools.

In Massachusetts:  What were the distinguishing features of the final version of the first set of English language arts (ELA) standards to emerge after the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993? (At the time I co-chaired the committee that produced these standards.)  Dated 1997, these pre-Common Core standards in two-year grade spans from grades 4 to12 (mandated by law) first presented standards on language highlighting oral language, vocabulary study, and the history of the English language, preceded by an essay on teaching beginning reading skills and sample passages showing the level of reading expected by grade 4.

The 1997 Curriculum Framework then presented standards for literary analysis mainly for the four major types of genres (fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry), followed by a smaller number of standards highlighting the “aims of discourse” for composition. Appendix A, vetted by the editors of The Hornbook (the major children’s literature quarterly in the country), listed by educational level from K-8 the authors reflecting our literary heritage, recommending authors only on the basis of the literary quality of their works. Appendix B listed authors for K-8 and 9-12 reflecting contemporary movements worldwide. Most authors in Appendix A were dead white and black authors of historical and cultural significance in American history.

We had mainly authors’ names in both lists because high school English teachers wanted recommended authors, not titles. They would choose the author’s work they wanted to teach in their classes. Both grades-9-through-12 lists were vetted by a diverse range of literary scholars. In a survey, English teachers anonymously rated on a 1 to 5 scale the features of the new curriculum framework, including Appendices A and B. They strongly approved the document’s emphasis on reading literary texts. They helped to write the literature and writing standards and test items. They selected appropriate passages as well as writing prompts for the state’s English language arts tests, reviewed the wording of the multiple-choice and Open Response questions, and rated student writing at all tested grade levels in holistic writing assessment sessions. The state’s English teachers had some degree of ownership of the new English language arts standards and the tests based on them.

The Bay State’s 2001 English language arts curriculum framework (a slight revision of the 1997 document, with grade-level standards added in 2004 to address federal No Child Left Behind yearly testing requirements in grades 3 through 8) was judged as a policy success because students got high scores on independent tests (such the (NAEP) tests) that the state had no way to manipulate.

There were other criteria to use. When the state’s department of education decided in 2005 to revise the standards (because state standards had to be revised on a “timely” basis), a survey was sent to the entire “field” (a traditional practice) asking English and reading teachers and related personnel for suggestions. Only 27 anonymous responses in all were returned, and none came from practicing teachers. No one asked for changes in the standards themselves. The satisfaction of the “field” with the 2001/2004 standards was clearly a sign of a policy success even though state education department staff (possibly under pressure from a few faculty members in our education schools) proceeded to make drastic changes in its first revised draft.

But the standards alone were not the cause of student success in the Bay State. As of 2000, the state had new teacher licensing regulations, and in 2001 the state implemented new professional development criteria. The state’s teaching corps was being strengthened academically and pedagogically (in beginning reading) so they could better teach to the new standards. Bay State students continue to be in first place on NAEP tests in 2018 (another criterion of policy success) because the academic and pedagogical quality of its teaching corps was strengthened in every K-12 subject, making for gains in all demographic groups. The state’s position is certainly not due to annual testing, which came about after adoption of Common Core’s standards.

The best set of mathematics standards in Massachusetts to emerge after the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993 was issued in 2000. It encouraged Algebra I in grade 8, but it didn’t require it. The grade 8 test would mainly address pre-algebra material even though about half of grade 8 students in the state were taking Algebra I. The document did list (in addition to grade-level standards for every grade from kindergarten through 12th grade) specific standards for traditional courses in Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus so high school mathematics teachers could see what topics were expected to be covered if end-of-course tests were later developed. California and Massachusetts were among the few states to provide standards for Pre-Calculus in their K-12 mathematics standards documents (though not assessed on state tests), a problem for Common Core’s writers because its mathematics standards deliberately had no links from standards in earlier grades to calculus. In a September 2013 article published in the Hechinger Report, the lead Common Core mathematics writer, Jason Zimba, admitted:  “If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core.”

Unfortunately, Common Core’s writers learned little if anything from the Bay State’s pre-Common Core standards in both English language arts and mathematics despite the claim that they learned a lot from them. The old standards’ effectiveness was clear by the time the writers presumably chosen by the Gates Foundation and the Council for Chief State School Officers were writing the Common Core standards for both subjects (in 2009-2010). Bay State students had already placed first in three consecutive testing cycles on NAEP tests in grades 4 and 8 in both Mathematics and Reading. In 2007, enrolled as a separate country, the Bay State placed sixth among the top countries in grade 8 mathematics and tied for first place in grade 8 science with Singapore on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, repeating the results in 2011. Nevertheless, in 2010, the Bay State’s Board of Education voted out its nationally and globally competitive standards in mathematics and English language arts, seemingly to try to get federal Race to the Top funds, and, later, revised its competitive science standards to be more compatible with those produced by Achieve Inc. (called Next Generation Science Standards), despite the heavy criticism that Achieve’s science standards drew from scientists for their inadequacies in mathematics (among other things).

So, the question remains:  why did the Massachusetts Board of Education, supported by its then-Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Education Paul Reville, vote out the only sets of effective standards in English language arts and mathematics in the country? When personally asked that question, the chairman of the board in 2010, Maura Banta, neither a mathematician nor a literary scholar, said that Common Core’s standards had “higher expectations.” Earlier, Governor Patrick was quoted as saying that he wanted “accessible” standards, possibly implying that there were obstacles preventing some students from reaching them or that the state’s pre-Common Core curriculum frameworks expected low achievers to learn more than they could. He never explained why he may have felt that the state’s pre-Common Core standards were not “accessible.”

Why the state Board of Education voted to change or revise any of its 2001/2006 science standards in 2016, no one knows.  Governor Charles Baker and Secretary of Education James Peyser, as well as most members of their state board of education, knew relatively little about the relationship between high school science and mathematics — as little as Governor Patrick and Secretary of Education Reville seemed to know before them — so why they agreed to support less rigorous standards in mathematics and science is unclear. It’s as much of a puzzle as why California educators and political leaders agreed to adopt less rigorous standards in science and mathematics in place of those that had been judged superior in academic quality to those in the Bay State and in the country as a whole.

There had already been much national talk of the need for more STEM-proficient students. Did decreasing high school standards seem like a good way to achieve that goal?

Did members of the California and Massachusetts Boards of Education really believe that Common Core’s standards were academically stronger than those they already had, or were they afraid to admit that they couldn’t tell the difference and therefore didn’t want to ask groups of experts in mathematics and science in their own states for their advice? Did the powerful teachers unions in California, which opposed its 1997 mathematics and science standards, simply not want standards written by mathematicians and scientists because math and science educators in their education schools — union members — didn’t know enough math and science to prepare teachers to teach to the standards?  (Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, had headed the California committee that had developed its higher-quality pre-Next Generation Science Standards science standards.) Or did political leaders in both states believe that teaching to Common Core’s standards would make low-achieving students college-ready?  Or did members of both boards really want less rigorous standards for all students?

We don’t know answers to these questions because members of the state boards of education that adopted Common Core’s standards in 2010 or 2011 have never explained publicly why they did so, with details. So how can we learn from effective policies when those who were responsible for voting them out won’t explain why they did so, with details, and can’t show us effective policies and programs in their place?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.