Federal education standards (Part 1) — interview with Peter Shulman | VIEWPOINT

Peter: The vast majority of New Jersey teachers
wake up every day, come in there, give their best effort, which is quite good, and can
they improve, sure? We’re all life-long learners and hopefully,
educator evaluations help that. Andy: Welcome, everyone. I’m Andy Smarick, a Morgridge Fellow of education
policy here at AEI, and I am very lucky to have as a guest, Pete Shulman, a friend and
a long-time former colleague at the New Jersey Department of Education, ending his tenure
there as a deputy commissioner. Pete, welcome. Thanks for being here. Peter: Thank you, Andy, always a pleasure
to reconnect, looking forward to the conversation. Andy: Yeah, I can’t wait. So to just do a little setting of the ground
here. Over the past, I don’t know 5, 10, 15 years,
people have really laid into the federal government saying that it was too bossy, too intrusive
when it came to education policy. And whether people agree with that or not,
we can at least agree that the federal government has done a lot to either force or nudge states
and districts to do different things. So what we’re here to do over the next 20
minutes or so is actually talk about what has this looked like, what has this felt like
at the state level? And before we get into all the details of
the policies, New Jersey has actually made a lot of progress. There’s a lot of good news. So why don’t you spend a minute or so telling
us the good news story? What are the good results? Peter: Yeah, so, I mean, the good results
are our student test scores are up and we think that is driven by changes and structural
shifts in the classroom, recognizing the needs of students and we believe that’s a manifestation
of six, seven years of being consistent on driving policy. And that means implementing new policy, learning
from policy, listening to educators, listening to parents, listening to students and improving
upon that, but staying the course. And I think that last piece about staying
the course is a key one we want to talk about today. Andy: Yeah, so let’s talk more about that
because if people don’t know your bio, you were a senior official at the Miami-Dade school
system and you spent a good bit of time there and you did six years at the New Jersey Department
of Education. So you’re not one of these “go in, spend 18
months and leave after causing some chaos.” You believe in sticking with it. You are persistent when you go into a government
agency because you think implementation, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but
you think implementation is the biggest piece of this puzzle. So, why don’t you talk a little bit about
that? Like, policies are one thing, but actually
sticking with it and making it stick. Peter: In all honesty, I did have a stint
in Delaware, but I’ll tell you and to juxtapose that, why I think in New Jersey, we had the
continuity. So when I entered New Jersey, when I think
about this work, policy, policy development, policy alignment, obviously is key. But there’s a fidelity of implementation and
fidelity of staying the course. The counterfactual, all right, which is always
a good way to sort of juxtapose is the counterfactual is, “Let’s change policies every two, three
years and see how that works,” right? We’ve 100 years of history that shows that
that doesn’t work. Revolving doors of governors and commissioners
and principals and superintendents. There’s no organization in the world that
would function like that. So when I came to the department and you were
there in 2011, and I actually still have the article, there was bipartisan support. There is an article in Reuters that talks
about the alignment between Governor Christie, Arne Duncan and President Obama saying, “Look,
there’s this policy agenda that we’re moving forward in.” They probably didn’t agree on everything,
certainly, but in terms of education, there was movement there. And to me, those were very important pieces
and also to frame it at the time, I mean, in 2011, 2012, President Obama and Governor
Christie might have been the most two popular politicians on the planet. Very possible. So in terms of having those pieces, they were
critical. I’m not going to underplay them, but getting
the policies in place, I believe, is only 10% to 20%. There’s a fidelity of implementation. So we’re an agency that says, “We’re going
to push forward and we’re going to stay the course, learn and make changes along the way.” But when it comes to high standards, right? We started with the Common Core, we amended
them a little bit, but for the most part, have been moving in that direction. We drove towards a high-quality assessment
in part, which I still believe is the best assessment on the market. We’re sticking with it. Andy: So these are the tests that are aligned
with the standards? Peter: Tests that are aligned with standards. Who thought of such an idea? Andy: That’s right. So this is…for the folks that follow this
too closely, Common Core, it’s the stuff of what are kids supposed to know and be able
to do in key grades and subjects as they progress in the school system. And then the tests check whether or not kids
have learned the stuff by the end of the school year. Peter: Right, and I think history would tell
us that in New Jersey, as well as many other states, those expectations were too low. So there was a false sense of folks being
prepared for the next step after high school. So the idea of, by having standards that were
agreed upon by 40 to 50 states, right,at some point, probably 37 or so still left, and thinking
about then assessments that marry them, the last piece is accountability and transparency. How are we actually going to put some stakes
in this and saying, you know, “What does this mean for a student in terms of graduation? What does this mean for a teacher in terms
of evaluation? School, in terms of what is now ESSA, in sort
of federal accountabilities?” In New Jersey, we have a district report called
QSAC. So thinking about how these pieces are aligned
and saying, “You know what? We’re going to delve into this and getting
statute regulations passed is enough.” You actually got to work on the ground with
districts, learn from them because they’re the practitioners that are doing this work
and they’re able to tell us, “You know what, Pete, this isn’t working. We need to tweak this or we need flexibility
here.” We’ve given out hundreds of equivalency waivers
so, I think this is… You know, I gave you a long answer to your
very good question is, you know, the fortitude to stay the path, but understanding how you
can make adjustments along that path along the way for the needs of students. Andy: Let’s back up a little bit because we
do want to talk about implementation, but what is, I think, interesting about this era
and let’s loosely call it the Race to the Top era. President Obama gets elected in ’08. 2009, he goes into office and then starts
to roll out this plan of a bunch of different reforms. So what’s interesting is we’re talking about
implementation, which is often a pretty conservative way about going with things. You make course corrections, you do things
small-scale, you learn along the way. But what people have to remember is on the
front end before all this implementation, there were some pretty dramatic policy changes. Peter: Yes. Andy: And you made this very good point, which
I think a lot of people forget is, President Obama, a very progressive Democrat, was actually
aligned with a bunch of Republican governors at that time like Governor Christie. So why don’t you walk through some of the
maybe two or three or four big policy changes that New Jersey and other states adopted at
that time that were groundbreaking in a lot of people’s eyes? Peter: Sure, I mean you being a student of
history much more than I, we would all agree that, sort of, No Child Left Behind, and sort
of the bipartisan elements of No Child Left Behind, those were the roots that sort of
grew Race to the Top, the SEA waivers, eventually, ESEA, and there’s some elements of No Child
Left Behind in terms of putting data on the dinner table, understanding what data means
and pointing out inequities in different student populations. All that stuff is good stuff. So I really want to make sure as we think
about this, it isn’t like there was a static or lack of presence of the federal government
and then Race to the Top came along. I know you know that, but I think it’s contextually
important. Andy: In terms of history, No Child Left Behind
passed in 2001, enacted, the same law, in 2002. So from 2002 until 2008, 2009, the federal
government was saying a whole lot more about standards and assessments and accountability. So right, it’s not like the Obama administration,
they weren’t the first ones to get Uncle Sam involved. Peter: All I’m saying is you could argue and,
again, trying to be somewhat of a positive or somewhat of an optimist is they
learn from some of the challenges of No Child Left Behind. So then when they came in, they said, “You
know what? Well, these are some things that we’re seeing
in terms of ‘What do standards mean?'” So the idea is, of No Child Left Behind, of
saying, “Hey, we’re going to set proficiency rates and hurdles for every state to go over
because we want to drive transparency into what’s going on and accountability.” But if they’re not predicated on standards
that have high expectations for kids, all right, that’s a lesson learned. We have to think about standards. So to answer your question is, we moved forward
with the Common Core Standards in 2010. They were later reconfigured through input
of some local New Jersey educators and sort of rebranded it a little bit and improved
upon it a little bit. Andy: Okay, so for people watching, what this
means is in 2010, New Jersey and a bunch of other states decided we’re going to try to
get more rigorous in what we’re expecting kids to learn, especially in reading and math,
in elementary school through about high school. Peter: Exactly, and the idea is, and I think
that it’s when we think it’s a better hypothesis, that’s the whole idea. It’s that we came and said, “You know what,
the old standards based on every metric we had in college remediation, lack of two and
through, and just saying there was a misalignment. So we think these standards are better. Let’s adopt them and let’s think about implementing
them.” While if you think about standards, well,
you have to measure them, right? How are you going to measure them? You need an assessment. So the prior assessment we had was more along
the lines of the typical bubble tests that you would take, that probably you and I grew
up with, that basically didn’t get into this idea of problem-solving, critical thinking
skills. Certainly, the days of memorization and filling
out a bubble test, we know that’s not the type of skills that are needed to succeed
in the 21st century. So as we think about the standards which play
upon that, we needed a test that was commensurate. So as we thought about this test, and PARCC
came along with SBAC, again, pushed a little bit by the federal government, funded initially
by the federal government… Andy: You used two acronyms there, PARCC and
SBAC. Can you tell people what that is? Peter: So, PARCC is the Partnership for College
Readiness assessment and SBAC is Smarter Balanced. Andy: So these are two types of assessments
that states pretty much picked and chose between. About half of states originally were going
PARCC, half going SBAC, but all these tests were aligned with Common Core. Peter: All of these tests were aligned by
Common Core. The two testing consortiums were financially
seeded by the federal government, so they were given that initial jumpstart and with
the idea to be driven by states that, again, though it may seem they were nudged per se,
but they made the choice. They said, “You know what? This is what we think is best.” And yes, there were financial incentives,
the Race to the Top and other things that may have incentivized them, but they jumped
in, right, and over the course of time, let’s talk about continuity, many states have left. Many of the states that have left have had
massive failures in terms of what their assessment looked like operationally, pedagogically. And that’s well documented. There’s a handful of states that have stayed
the course with PARCC and stayed the course with SBAC, and for us, having an assessment
that measures standards in a commensurate level makes common sense. Then talking about accountability. When you think about accountability, I think
there’s a little misnomer of this big hammer that’s out there. That if you are not meeting certain standards,
we’re coming in and we’re taking over your school and so on. I mean, that’s an era, that’s prior years. That’s sort of an NCLB, prior, you know, fire
50% of the staff. Everyone realized that top-down, “four sizes
fit all” type of thinking was not probably the most appropriate. So as we think about right now is where schools
and districts are struggling, they’re going to get more money. more support, more attention. Right? I’ve had district leadership come to me and
say, “Hey, you know what? It won’t be that bad if we’re a targeted or
comprehensive school because we’d actually get some dollars and some more resources to
attack this issue.” Andy: So targeted and comprehensive schools
are schools that are identified as being low-performing based on these tests that the state adopted? Peter: Yes, comprehensive being sort of overall
whole school performance, targeted being a certain subgroup. So if my Latino students are commensurate
with their peers across the state, the bottom 5%, they will be targeted. So all of this is meant to sort of identify,
spotlight, say, “You know there’s an opportunity here.” But more importantly, we should have mentioned
this about the test. Tests are not just in the sense of being aligned
to standards, they’re better tests because, one, they’re giving data back to teachers
and I wanted to say this is probably the most important thing that we’ve done. It’s not talked about because it’s not sexy,
it’s actually hard, hard work, is NJS was a test where teachers would receive the results,
but they were flying blind. They didn’t really know at a student granular
level, at a standard granular level where students were struggling, where they were
succeeding and then how to differentiate instruction off that. Andy: This is the test that preceded the PARCC
test? Peter: Preceded the PARCC test. Now, with PARCC, the level of granularity
in terms of clusters of standards, standards themselves, evidence statements, data coming
back sooner than it had before, all of a sudden, we have districts telling us, “This data is
great. This is what we’ve needed for our PLCs or
professional learning communities, for years. And to me, when we get in sort of some of
the questions, I know you’re going to ask it, but why do we think we’ve had the success
we’ve had? I think that one of the primary drivers that
we see consistently across all the schools we visit is a concerted effort to use data
to understand a pedagogical approach. Andy: Okay, so if you don’t mind my interrupting,
I think a lot of people listening to this will probably think a lot of this is intuitive. Okay, great, New Jersey decided, “We’re going
to adopt rigorous standards. We’re going to stick with those standards. We’re going to adopt rigorous tests and we’re
going to stick with those tests. We’re going to make sure that those tests
are used to identify schools that need attention and we’re not going to bludgeon schools. We’re going to try to make sure they get the
attention that they need. We’re also going to make sure that these tests
generate data so teachers can use it to make sure that their kids are getting the resources
they need, getting the interventions they need.” All of that makes sense. But a lot of people will also say, “Yeah,
that might make sense, but Uncle Sam got involved in a bunch of this stuff that he just shouldn’t
have. He forced states to do things.” So can you just respond to this? What was the federal government helpful? Peter: It’s a fair response, it’s a fair concern. So zooming up and I’ll zoom in here first. Zooming out is, I’m someone who believes that
there’s a role for the federal government, a role for state government and a role for
local government in public education. And I’m going to put that out there because
not everyone who believes that, right? So in my mind, as we think about this, the
role of the federal government over the Race to the Top era, it aligned philosophically
where we were going in New Jersey. Many times, we were already moving to where
they were going. We think about things like educator evaluation
in the tenure law. We were moving in that direction before we
ever won Race to the Top, right? So as we think about this, there’s certainly
an element to say, “Was that the right role?” I think it sort of, it depends. For certain states, they might say, “You know
what? That was not the path we wanted to go. And we thought they were too heavy-handed
or too technocratic in pushing that specific policy.” And I think that’s a fair criticism because
I think in some ways, the topography of every state in sort of how they’re approaching this
work is going to vary, and that’s certainly the role of the states. Where I feel like the federal government is
very helpful, and you think about the foundational principles of the regional ESEA law, right? Elementary Secondary Education Act, right,
right. [crosstalk 00:14:14] You know, you think about
poverty and equity and the things that it was… So, to me, as we think about standards, high
standards, we think about meaningful assessments. We think about transparency and data, understanding
inequities. There’s a role there for the federal government. To me, to leave states to their own devices,
to say, “Hey, we’re going to tell you what we believe are high standards for every kid
and we’re going to allow the kids in Camden to have a bar here and the kids in Princeton
to have a bar here,” that’s not going to sit well with me. The federal government also gives us a lot
of money, right? For New Jersey, you’re talking about $900
million or so. The majority of which is going to economically
disadvantaged students and special needs students. Well, from that standpoint, from a return
on investment, they want to make sure those students are succeeding and they’re being
given not only the resources, but expectations are high for them. I think as, certainly, President Bush talked
about the soft bigotry of low expectations, unfortunately, I think that exists today in
a lot of places. So I do think there’s a role for the federal
government. I think with regard for the Race to the Top
era. I’m extremely appreciative of the work of
Secretary Duncan and Secretary King. I think these are great individuals. I think they pushed hard. I do know that in this work, you don’t know
if you’re going to have another four years or another two years or sometimes even another
day. And I think the avenues they were pushing
were the right avenues for the state of New Jersey, and that sort of, that ellipsis, I
think, is really important for the state of New Jersey. Andy: Okay, so I guess I’ll have to play just
to play devil’s advocate more and more here because I think a reasonable person could
say, “Okay, even if they were directionally correct in some of the reforms that they wanted
or at least the outcomes that they were shooting for,” this is the leaders of the previous
administration, “they made a bunch of mistakes.” So for example, the two testing consortia
that you named. SBAC and PARCC, the federal government made
a big bet, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on them. As it turns out, now six, seven years later,
very few states are actually using PARCC anymore. The number of states that are using SBAC is
way smaller than people expected. So a reasonable person would say, “Yeah, the
federal government thought they had the answers, they built something and a bunch of states
decided, ‘We just don’t want this.'” Peter: So, I mean, a couple caveats in defending
it. So first and foremost is there are more states
using PARCC items who are not using the full form of the full blueprint that I talked about. When you think about Massachusetts and Rhode
Island, and Louisiana and Colorado, you have a number of states that are recognizing this
is the best content. And as I mentioned before, many of the states
that moved away from that and I think they didn’t do it necessarily for reasons that
they didn’t think the content was good. Politics and other things, we have to realize,
come into play and they moved away. So would I say, yes, when you think about
the return investment, it was a big bet. I wouldn’t say that they rolled snake eyes,
right, certainly. But I would also say that…in my mind, as
we think about public education, as we think about the stagnation in public education,
as we can think about the lack of innovation, sometimes you’re gonna try something that’s
not going to come out perfectly. So as we think about this and you think about
other programs, and I know, you know, we’re both critical of CIG and sort of what that
investment, which is a massive $6 billion, $7 billion investment or what have you. I mean, I think there’s a degree where it’s
right to criticize and saying, “Is that the role for them?” But conversely is, I do think there is the
need to push because I think that we’re in a…we’re in an inflection point in this country
as we see from our political discourse on the way down. And I think that we need action. Andy: Hey, everyone. Thanks for watching part one of our discussion
with Peter Shulman. If you enjoyed what you saw, remember to like
the video or leave us a comment and if you want to see more, please check out part number

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