Robert Scott: One Voice against Federal Overreach in Education

Robert Scott: One Voice against Federal Overreach in Education

AUSTIN, TEXAS–“The system left unchecked will become the tyranny of evil men,” is the dire warning former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said to audience about public education at the SXSWedu 2014 conference in Austin this week. Scott tackled complex issue of education reform gone wrong in a cautionary conversation, starting with his own experiences dealing with the overreaching federal arm in Texas.

“We had just spent three to four years developing our own college and career readiness standards,” Scott said referencing the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills) as the main reason Texas was not interested in adopting the Common Core State Standards. However, there was still tremendous pressure being applied for something that, according to Scott, he was told was voluntary and state led. 

“We said no to Common Core and they said, ‘you want Race to the Top money?’ That was $700 million. They said, ‘do it.’ Well, we still said, no thanks.” Scott recalled. The feds also asked if Texas wanted an No Child Left Behind waiver and again, the state said no.  

Scott was education commissioner until late 2012. It was his successor, current commissioner Michael Williams, who applied for a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver, which Texas was granted. Both RTTT and the NCLB waivers are tied to federal accountability mandate, which means testing. Education Week reported, even though Texas took the waiver without adopting the Common Core State Standards, the state still “had to scrap its own state accountability system in favor of one that aligns with federal requirements. It also had to redo student achievement goals.” Even Politico reported that Texas made concessions, buckling and giving into political coercion.

According to Education Week, “Previously, Texas had shunned anything with even a whiff of federal involvement in the K-12 arena, from competing in the Race to the Top contest to adopting the federally supported Common Core State Standards.” That was the decision of Robert Scott.

Scott said his decision to reject RTTT and the Common Core came from reading the federal laws, despite a tremendous amount of pressure to adopt the standards. Those federal laws stated the U.S. Department of Education could not be involved in creating standards or curriculum. Another law said they couldn’t create a national test unless Congress specifically authorized it.  

Scott, an attorney and self-admitted policy geek, paused to point out to critics who say Common Core is a set of standards, not curriculum, “I know the difference between standards and curriculum.”

To support Scott’s point, in the pro-Common Core community there is always a compelling need to demonstrate the difference between standards and curriculum. However, Dr. Terrence Moore, a fierce Common Core critic and the author of The Storykillers, cheekily addressed these differences when speaking at the Educational Policy Conference in January. Asked how he would differentiate “standards” from “curriculum,” he said “with satire.”

According to Scott, the federal government knowing their limitations went around the law, creating the two testing consortia — Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that ultimately drive the curriculum.

Scott said he felt the sting of Texas rejecting Common Core pretty quickly — $800 million in federal education funding was withheld from the state through the Doggett Amendment. According to Scott, this was all about money and control.

Surprisingly, though, Scott said he was never against Common Core, in theory. As education commissioner, he was open to looking at the standards once they were written. He even offered to take them to the Texas State Board of Education to see if there was something in them that Texas didn’t already have or if there was something worthwhile to incorporate into Texas education.

Now, there are so many issues associated with all this Fed Led Ed that everything but the original intent is addressed. He said, “The whole purpose behind standards based reform, accountability and assessment was to drive instruction, not teach to the test,” he said, worried what’s on the other side of education reform may be a chaotic system that if left unchecked will transform into teaching to the test, endless benchmark testing and meaningless formative assessments.  

According to Scott, this kills the classroom and the love of learning. What is in school now is “fewer, deeper, higher.” That’s the mantra of the Common Core, which Scott called a great concept for education but in practice has gotten us to the place we are now. That place is highly polarized. Proponents love Common Core; it’s a reformer’s dream. Opponents hate its nightmarish one size fits all approach, questionable content, overload of assessments and federal intervention.  

Also problematic are the education professionals who are unhappy or find themselves saying, the implementation was botched. Scott said, “What they mean is ‘we’re not ready,’ or ‘we didn’t know.”

Scott noted a reality — schools may not be ready to implement. Scott related experiences from implementing the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). He recalled teachers were calling his office saying no one ever told them about the new system. Scott also remembered a lot of memos had been sent out. He highlighted this point, not necessarily because he’s sympathetic to Common Core proponents as much as to illustrate similarities of pitfalls in the implementation process.  

Another trend Scott has seen is that schools don’t want to participate at all because of what they now know about the standards. Either way, it’s problematic.  

Technology may prove a pitfall, too. Scott commented that he hears from superintendents around the country that they are not prepared for the mass implementation of an online assessment. In 2012, Scott said Texas had 60,000 students who had to retake end-of-course high school exams they did not pass initially to graduate. He told how 60,000 students logged in on the computer all at once. The servers crashed. Scott worries when you plug in that many kids on an online assessment something’s bound to go wrong.

Then there are the even more far-reaching consequences of technology — the raw data itself. While other Common Core opponents have voiced concerns about the data-mining of student information house on a cyber-cloud, Scott raised the issue of data-manipulation as an equally troubling reality. 

He said, “If you look at SAT scores, Texas has always had the lowest in the country, but then when you talk to the College Board (who administers the test) they want to know the percentage of students tested and the economic status of the students. After you factor in these average demographics from around the state, Texas scores jump right up.”

Bottom line, numbers can be deceiving and be used to deceive. According to Scott, what often happens in aggregating data is Simpson’s Paradox. Simply put, raw numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Nor do data comparisons of states with low percentages of economically disadvantaged and minority students being compared with high-achieving SAT takers. Furthermore, Scott asserted that understanding the data and variations in the data are vital to using the data. However, his concern is the ignorance of those reading the data to understand what the data means.

Misinterpreting or manipulating data, according to Scott, can make or break whether a student is considered “college ready.” Scott called the data-driven age another slippery slope that needs to be further examined. Common Core critic Dr. Peg Luksik is already examining the ramifications of data-manipulation and behavior. 

Scott then raised more disconcerting questions — who is writing these assessments? He said, “We really need to have a serious discussion about who is providing the assessments and who is directing those day-to-day activities in the classroom. Who controls the instructional materials? Who controls the formative and benchmark testing? You can’t have them all be the same person. You end up with a system that is controlled by the test.”  

These results in a trend Scott said he saw in Texas – parents will revolt. He said,” It wasn’t a backlash, it was a tidal wave.” Scott referenced the state legislature’s recent move to shrink down from 15 end-of-course high school assessment to five in response to community outcry. He called this shift one of the most sweeping education reform pieces in Texas history. In Texas and across the nation, opting-out of standardized testing has become a movement.

Out-of-control testing is also problematic for teachers too. Scott described a Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) member, also a teacher, lamenting his entire instruction year revolved around these high-stakes tests. The complaint? A lot of administrative paperwork which took away from instructional time. Furthermore, Scott stated that the techno-heads crafting the online aspects of education do not understand the role of the teacher or the teacher/student dynamic. Teacher evaluations are tied to the federal accountability mandate. He said, this opens another can of worms.

However, Scott is not for getting rid of every test. He cautioned that the opt-out movement is the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction because the tests continue to morph and that is not good for education. Scott pointed out that 2015 will be the 20th anniversary of Senate Bill 1 which rewrote education entirely in Texas. 

He explained, “After that bill passed the thoughtful leaders in the house and the senate said, ‘we just reformed education, there will be no more reform bills for two to three sessions. We’re going to let the system work.’ We don’t do that anymore. Every year it’s a new thing and that’s why the test always changes.  Now we’re in our fifth generation of assessment tests in Texas – TEAMS, TAAS, TAKS, TEKS, STAAR.”

Scott credited these never-ending changes to the legislature and reformers who could not help themselves from tying a lot of other carrots to the tests – school district funding, teacher evaluations and even our kids’ futures — so the test loses its focus and original intent. He said it only creates more problems.

The real question Scott posed is where do we go from here?  He quipped, “If you like your Common Core, you can keep your Common Core. If you don’t, repeal. “He wouldn’t be the first to say this. Dr. Joseph Rella, Superintendent of Comsewogue School District in Port Jefferson, NY said last year, “Stop it, fix it, or scrap it.”

That, too, opens a troubling door, according to Scott. The federal government started to implement Common Core in 2008-09 so if they delay to 2018-19, there’s a whole generation of kids in K-12 school, lost in a standardized curriculum shuffle.

Another big question is what works? Scott recalled a visit to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s office and told him, “We’ve tried all four of these reform models in Texas for years, they don’t work.”  

He’d like to see dollars pumped into infrastructure and suggested moving education forward by exploring options without federal intervention. He said, “Maybe states should have been left alone to develop common idea banks that may have resulted in a more personalized state-by-state way to accomplish a very similar objective. It might have reduced costs, too.”

The federal government has overreached in education, according to Scott. He does see a supporting role they can better play by ensuring student civil rights and through assisting research and innovation.

“One of the greatest losses was the old Title 5 program that allowed states to use federal funds to innovate. All that money got cut away in favor of this new regime of federal interventions and sanctions. I think (in education) the state should say “what,” the locals should say “how,” and the federal government should monitor everything as a check using NAEP or whatever to make sure states aren’t denying competition.

For Scott, the current reformer path ends with education a slave to the age old rule of government — “the bigger piece of the pie you get, the bigger crap you have to put up with,” he concluded.

Robert Scott served as the Commission of Education in the Lone Star State from 2007-2012. He resigned following a lengthy career in education policy and is the only person to serve twice as interim commissioner prior to being appointed by Governor Rick Perry as acting commissioner. An education policy attorney, Scott is now with the Texas Star Alliance, a Texas-based bipartisan public affairs firm.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom


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