A Chance for a New Fordham

Nov 5, 2013 by

Jay Greene – Fordham’s Kathleen Porter Magee has responded to my post last week in which I argued that Fordham’s vision of Common Core as “tight-loose” is looking a lot more like “tight-tight.”  In her rejoinder, Kathleen Porter-Magee reiterates the distinction between standards and curriculum and insists that “good standards aren’t prescriptive, but they’re not agnostic, either.”

But just a week earlier in the foreword to Fordham’s new study judging the extent to which English teachers are changing instruction to meet Common Core, Kathleen and Checker talk about the “instructional shifts” Common Core standards “expect” and “demand.”  Now we are asked to believe that there is a world of difference between “prescribing” and ‘expecting” or “demanding.”

If this is beginning to sound like debating what the meaning of the word “is” is, there is a reason.  Almost everything coming out of Fordham (and a great many other DC think-tanks and advocacy groups) feels more like political campaign rhetoric than serious intellectual inquiry.  Rick Hess described Kathleen Porter-Magee’s rejoinder, saying it “read to me like a pol’s answer.”  Precisely.  It is a politician’s answer because the folks at Fordham (and many other DC policy shops) too often behave, talk, and write more like politicians than scholars or serious policy analysts.

My goal in critiquing Fordham (and the Gates Foundation) is to encourage them to behave less like politicians and more like scholars and serious policy analysts.  Kathleen Porter-Magee misunderstands my motivation, suggesting that I am trying to “undermine the credibility of [my] opponents” on Common Core so I “can win the day—facts be damned.”

But the truth is that I am under no delusion that what I write or say will have any effect on the fate of Common Core, nor do I really care about having such an effect.  As I have written and said on numerous occasions, Common Core is doomed regardless of what I or the folks at Fordham say or do.  Either Common Core will be “tight” in trying to compel teachers and schools through a system of aligned assessments and meaningful consequences to change their practice.  Or Common Core will be “loose” in that it will be a bunch of words in a document that merely provide advice to educators.

Either approach is doomed.  If Common Core tries being tight by coercing teachers and schools through aligned assessments and consequences, it will be greeted by a fierce organized rebellion from educators.  It’ll be Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and their army of angry teachers who will drive a stake through the heart of Common Core, not me or any other current critic . If Common Core tries being loose, it will be like every previous standards-based reform – a bunch of empty words in a document that educators can promptly ignore while continuing to do whatever they were doing before.

This is the impossible paradox for Common Core.  To succeed it requires more centralized coercion than is possible (or desirable) under our current political system and more coercive than organized educators will allow.  And if it doesn’t try to coerce unwilling teachers and schools, it will produce little change.

If Common Core is doomed, why do I bother responding to Fordham, Gates, and others making arguments in its favor?  I am responding to the intellectual corruption that the political campaign for Common Core is producing among otherwise decent, smart, and well-intentioned folks.  Arguments like “tight-loose” are political campaign slogans, not intellectually serious ideas.  I’m trying to point this out, not “win the day” on the merits of Common Core.  I pick on Fordham because I am actually in substantive agreement with a good deal of what they are trying to accomplish and don’t want to see them pursue those goals with crappy political slogans.

But with Mike Petrilli assuming the presidency of the Fordham Institute next year, I see hope for a new Fordham.  He might start by hiring more social scientists and fewer former journalists and office-holders.  Policy analysis isn’t entirely about “messaging” to convince people to do what we already know is right.  There is a lot we don’t know and competing social science claims we need to adjudicate, so a good policy organization needs a bunch of people with content and research method expertise.  You can’t just rent this expertise on the cheap; you need to hire social scientists to make this expertise a stronger part of the organization’s DNA.  Look at Brookings, EPI, and AEI for models across the political spectrum that give priority to social science.

Mike might also consider diversifying support away from the Gates Foundation.  With more than $6 million from Gates in the last few years and with the appointment of former Gates political strategist, Stefanie Sanford, to the Fordham board, Fordham is beginning to feel like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Gates Foundation.  I don’t think Fordham is advocating for anything they don’t believe because of Gates support, but I do think Gates is a corrupting influence that tries to make everything part of a political campaign rather than serious, honest inquiry.  Reducing reliance on Gates might free Fordham up to sound less like a string of political slogans.

To accomplish less reliance on Gates, Fordham might need to shrink a bit in size.  That would probably be a good thing.  A policy shop shouldn’t try to maximize its budget or head-count.  It should try to be the right size to do the work it wants to do.  Not chasing every dollar to become ever-larger would also free up Fordham to speak only when it wants to and not feel obliged to produce reports, tweets, and blog posts all of the frickin’ time.  A lower volume of communication might produce higher quality communication and probably increased influence.

Lastly, a shift away from the political obsession of journalists and former office-holders and toward a more serious, social scientific approach would help Fordham avoid crappy research and slogans.  Fordham should avoid doing any expert panel studies giving grades to this or that.  It should avoid doing selection on dependent variable analyses exploring why Massachusetts, Finland or anyone else is doing well.  It should avoid repeating the Fordham drinking game in which arguments depend on appending “smart” to regulation, curricum, etc… or dividing policies into three kinds where the middle one is the sensible alternative to two extremes.  Messaging is not really an argument.

One thing Fordham should not change is its principles and its sincere commitment to Common Core.  Contrary to Kathleen Porter-Magee’s assumptions, I am not trying to convince Fordham to change its position on Common Core. I just want Fordham not to confuse political campaigns for policy analysis.  Whatever happens with Common Core (and who knows, perhaps Fordham is right in thinking it is a great idea and will somehow help), we cannot degrade the currency of policy analysis by turning everything into an advocacy campaign.  Education reform is likely to be a very long game, so we don’t want to bend all rules, twist all facts, and pull out all stops just to win this one battle.  It would be nice to have a credible and effective Fordham around for the next ed reform debate.  I hope Mike Petrilli can help do this.

A Chance for a New Fordham | Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

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