Call Me, Mark Zuckerberg!

B-ding! There it is again, the silver-bullet school-reform alert. As long as there have been rich people and schools, we have seen well-meaning but misplaced attempts at reform. The latest round comes from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, our Facebook Overlords. In order to help people succeed in school and life, their foundation has established a “Manhattan Project” to bring equity to the standardized-testing game.

It won’t work. Historians don’t know much, but we do know one thing: No matter how much money we pour into silver-bullet schemes, they always prove disappointing. It’s not due (only) to mismanagement or incompetence, but rather to the nature of schooling itself. There’s a better way to go about it, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of headline-grabbing oomph.

Here’s the latest: Zuckerberg and Chan are donating a bazillion dollars to get SAT-prep courses to low-income students. The goal is to increase students’ test scores, even if the students can’t afford test-prep courses. So far, the SAT game has been skewed heavily in favor of students who take such courses. They have higher scores, not due to talent or even “grit,” but rather because they come from families with money and time to spare. So they get into college more easily. They get scholarships more easily. In other words, because they had more advantages to start with, they are given more advantages. The Facebook plan wants to offer similar bonuses to students who can’t afford to buy them.

It’s a good idea. And I’m glad Zuckerberg and Chan are looking for ways to give away their money, rather than just guzzling gold smoothies and target-shooting peasants.

But here’s the problem. Test wizard David Coleman of The College Board is over-promising. He is calling the Facebook plan a “Manhattan Project” that will radically improve educational equity. It won’t.

Just like Zuckerberg’s last ill-fated attempt to purchase social justice, this one needs to realize the scope of the problem it claims to address. Giving Cory Booker $100 million will not fix Newark. Making test-prep classes free will not give low-income students equal access to higher education.

The mantra is simple. It is not cynical. It is not depressing. But it does make it difficult for well-meaning reformers to fix things with a single stroke of their check-writing pen. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but here it is again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In this case, allowing free access to test-prep materials is a good thing. But it does not address the real problems of social equity involved. It is not an accident that college success is based on things like family income and parents’ educational levels.

I’ll say it again: It is a good thing to help students from low-income families do better on high-stakes standardized tests. If the King of Facebook really wants to increase social equality, though, he should not focus on helping some students do better on those tests. He should recognize that fixing schools can only be part of fixing society.

As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, Zuckerberg’s naïve approach to social reform is not just a Facebook quirk. It has been universally accepted by all sorts of school reformers throughout history. No matter what they think society should look like, activists have always blithely assumed that changing schools would automatically make social change happen.

It’s just not that simple.

If Zuckerberg and Chan want to make society more fair, to make things less skewed in favor of the rich, there are still plenty of things they can do. They can even do it by investing in schools. They just need to think differently about the ways schools really work.

What would I do if I had Facebook money? I would invest in schools that don’t rely on SATs in the first place. I’d find schools and programs with proven track records of helping students from low-income families succeed. I’d ignore programs that focus on improving test scores, and donate instead to schools that focus on improving lives.

Priscilla and Mark, please give me a call. We can talk about the details.

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A Conservative Plea for the Common Core

Don’t throw the conservative baby out with the Common Core bathwater. That’s the plea this morning from two leading conservative intellectuals.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli rally conservative support for the new standards.

As we’ve noted in these pages, all sorts of conservative activists, from Phyllis Schlafly to the Heritage Foundation to the Tea Party, have denounced the centralizing tendencies of the Common Core.

The conservative credentials of Finn and Petrilli are difficult to dispute.  Both have long been leading voices for the movement to introduce market choices into public education and reduce the influence of unions and left-leaning schools of education.  Both have worked in conservative think tanks and conservative political administrations to fight for such measures.

They want conservatives to embrace the Common Core as the best available program to heal public education.  As they argue,

the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Finn and Petrilli offer three specific ways to use the Common Core to best conservative advantage.  Conservatives, they insist,

should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

  • Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)

  • Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)

  • Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Finn and Petrilli base their argument on a conservative vision of the recent history of American education.  As I’ve argued in the pages of Teachers College Record, conservative school reform proposals, no less than progressive ones, depend on their own interpretations of American history.

In this case, Finn and Petrilli remind their fellow conservatives that the fundamental ideas embraced by the Common Core, including elevated academic standards as well as rigorous standardized testing, began as conservative responses to a public education system that had strayed from its true mission. In the 1970s, they recount, control over public education had been seized by well-meaning but short-sighted leftists who emphasized equity at the expense of rigor.  After 1983’s Nation at Risk report, bold conservative reformers such as Ronald Reagan, Lamar Alexander, and William J. Bennett took steps to reverse that curse.

The solutions back then included increased public money for private education as well as ambitious new standards.  To lend heft to such standards, iron-clad standardized tests hoped to limit the ways educational bureaucrats could game the system.

The Common Core, Finn and Petrilli insist, represent an imperfect attempt to impose those higher standards.  In the end, by providing better information about school performance to parents and policy makers, the standards will fuel the conservative drive for greater privatization of public education.

So what is a conservative to do?  According to these scholars, the real conservative choice is to back the Common Core.  As they conclude, conservatives who take time to read the standards themselves “will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their ‘conservative’ nature.”