Jay Greene and Kevin Carey: The Anti-Tight Right vs. The Anti-Loose Left

By 04/13/2011

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Recent pieces by Jay Greene and Kevin Carey serve as effective bookends on the current ESEA debate picking up steam in Congress. They both appear to dislike the “tight-loose” formulation to federal policymaking that was first championed by Fordham and is now heralded by Secretary Duncan and others—though of course for opposite reasons.

Let’s start with Jay. In a witty and amusing blog post yesterday, he proposed a drinking game for readers of Fordham’s new ESEA proposal, due out next week. (Clearly Jay has seen it—or at least heard about it—or else simply knows us very well.)

Tight-Loose — The Fordham folks will say that they favor being tight on the ends of education, but loose on the means.  Never mind that dictating the ends with a national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments will necessarily dictate much of the means.  My instruction for the drinking game is that every time you see the phrase “tight-loose” you can take a shot of your choice.  We are loose about the means but tight on the requirement that you numb yourself to this edu-babble.

Let me give you a little hint: if you play this game, you will get very, very drunk indeed.

But I’m at a loss for why the concept of “tight-loose” strikes Jay as so preposterous. Try this: Start by looking at the list of potential mandates that Congress could attach to federal Title I funding in the next ESEA:

1.  States must adopt rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.

2.  States must test students annually in English and math.

3.  States must build assessments and data systems to allow for individual student growth to be tracked over time.

4.  States must develop standards and assessments in science and history, too.

5.  States must rate schools according to a prescriptive formula (i.e., AYP)

6.  States must intervene in schools that fail to make AYP for several years in a row, or in schools that are among the lowest-performing in the state.

7.  States must develop rigorous teacher evaluation systems and ensure a more equitable distribution of effective teachers.

8.  States must ensure that Title I schools receive comparable resources—including good teachers and real per-pupil dollars—as non-Title I schools.

The way Jay argues it, Congress has to either choose “none of the above” or “all of the above.” But of course it doesn’t. We at Fordham would select items 1-4 off this a la carte menu, and leave the rest alone. That, to us, would be “tight-loose” in action. Does Jay not want to require any of these? And if so, isn’t he arguing for federal taxpayers to just leave the money on the stump? Why not make the principled conservative case and say that Title I and other federal funding streams should simply be eliminated?

And then there’s Kevin Carey’s much more earnest—yet equally problematic–essay in the much more earnest New Republic. He takes the opposite view, and seems to argue that if Republicans don’t opt for “all of the above” they are showing themselves to be “radicalized” and in fear of awesome powers of the Tea Party.

The about-face among key Hill Republicans on education has been striking. Consider Senator Lamar Alexander, who pioneered the use of annual school testing when he was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s and continued pushing the standards-based reform agenda as President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. Today, he is working with Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi to lead Republican negotiations on the new version of NCLB. Yet all indications now are that Alexander has largely abandoned his lifetime of education reform work in the face of the new anti-federal mood.

Never mind that this brief account of Senator Alexander’s career is incredibly misleading; Alexander joined other Republicans in calling for the elimination of the Department of Education in the mid-1990s, and has long pushed for a smaller federal footprint in education. Now he’s “abandoning” his lifetime of work because he wants to let states take the lead on the next phase of reform? All that’s happening is that the GOP is returning to its federalist roots after a wayward journey with No Child Left Behind.

Note, in particular, Kevin’s concerns that “states might no longer be required to test students annually or intervene when schools persistently fail to help students learn. Progress on using federal dollars to change the way teachers are evaluated, hired, and paid would grind to halt.”

Say what? First, nobody is seriously talking about moving away from the annual testing requirement. Second, what evidence can Carey point to that federally-mandated interventions in persistently failing schools have amounted to anything? And third, as Kevin knows, Republicans remain the biggest supporters of the Teacher Incentive Fund, which is the program that attempts to “change the way teachers are evaluated, hired, and paid.”

So let’s quit with all the over-the-top rhetoric. Give the list of eight mandates above a good look. My best guess is that Congress will move ahead with the first few, will definitely reject the last few, and that the real debate is about the ones in the middle. In other words, we’ll be arguing over the precise definition of “tight-loose,” regardless of what the anti-tight Right or the anti-loose Left have to say about it.

-Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • Jay P. Greene says:

    I think the issue is who gets to decide what are “rigorous academic standards (and cut scores) in English and math that imply readiness for college and career.” If the feds decide, then they also decide much about the “means,” since ends determine means (as well as the other way around). Repeating a slogan, like “tight-loose,” does not make ends and means distinct.

    And speaking of empty slogans, does anyone have any idea what is meant by college and career readiness? I don’t. Nor does anyone else, since different colleges and different careers require different things to be “ready.” But that won’t stop some highly unaccountable committee at the national level from telling everyone what they have to know (and by implication, how they have to know it).

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Jay is quite right about the hopeless vagueness of “college and career readiness.” Many of the top jobs in terms of numbers in coming years are thing like long-haul truck drivers and health care aid. The connection to quadratic equations escapes me. Thus, #1 has real problems.

    Jay is also right that the definition of standards helps determine the means. Required by your state to boost decoding skills rapidly but not assessed much on writing skills or whether you made kids hate books, and you’ll be following direct skills instruction, with a bottom-up approach. Required by your state to do equally well on reading comprehension and writing, with lesser emphasis on boosting decoding skills, but while also expected to have actually turned kids into people who actually choose to read, and whole language is a much better bet.

    If you want education that is effective in the long run, you need to stop creating structures that foster short-term thinking, and thus, annual tests in reading and math would be the first thing that should be deleted from this list, because they foster the kind of panicked cramming and test-prep that is the enemy of real education. So, item #2 is an obstacle to excellence, and annual testing itself establishes a huge federal footprint. Also, imagine assessing doctors on whether they brought down the fevers of every subgroup faster every year than the year before, and did so year after year. This is a silly definition of quality, and annual high-stakes testing is one of the biggest obstacles to educational excellence.

    Since slower growth is often better in the long run and faster test score gains often means kids are on a worse developmental trajectory, what exactly would #3 accomplish?

    Haven’t states already done #4?

    5-6 We’re still talking AYP? Haven’t we learned anything from past failures of AYP?!

    6. Some of the schools who fail to make AYP several years in a row will be more successful and effective than some of the schools who consistently make AYP, so this creates more problems than it solves.

    Why Jay is right about the tight-loose issue is that different ways of defining educational goals and objectives lead to very different teaching methods and very different degrees of curriculum flexibility. For example, there is zero evidence that teaching formal grammar or vocabulary instruction (or formal spelling instruction) is any better long term than simply reading widely, writing a lot, and discussing the reading and writing with a wiser peer or teacher. However, if you mandate “these particular” grammar rules and vocabulary words and spelling words be learned in a particular year, people immediately shift to more controlling and less complex teaching and learning.
    Freedom gets rapidly sucked out of the system, and everyone gets a bit more turned off to learning and teaching.

    Fordham has often criticized states for having vague standards, but it is precisely the highly specific grade-by-grade standards, benchmarks and grade-level indicators that suck the freedom out of the system and make schooling even more of an assembly line. The way you word goals and objectives has direct and powerful implications for curriculum and teaching methods.

    When those of us in education criticize policymakers who “just don’t understand education,” this “tight-loose” illusion is the kind of thing we mean. I’ve never met Jay and might disagree with a hundred other points he makes, but his criticism of “tight-loose” is totally accurate.

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