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Common Core Salesman Michael Petrilli: *Economics Affect NAEP, but Stay the Ed-Reform Course*

October 16, 2019

On October 15, 2019, I read a report produced by Thomas B. Fordham Institute (TBF) president, Michael Petrilli, entitled, “Fewer Children Left Behind: Lessons from the Dramatic Achievement Gains of the 1990s and 2000s.”

This 2019 report builds on a 2017 report by Petrilli in a TBF commentary piece prior to release of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] scores, in which Petrilli et al. concluded the following:

  • There have been [NAEP score] gains almost across the board since the 1990s.
  • Most of the gains happened in the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • Progress in math has been especially remarkable.
  • Children of color are reading much better in the early grades than before.

Right out of the starting gate, I took issue with the likes of Michael Petrilli issuing such a report because of his history as an ed-reform salesman.

Before proceeding with discussion related to TBF’s “fewer Children Left Behind” report, I’d like to brief readers on what comes to my mind when I think of Petrilli and TBF.

TBF: Common Core Opportunists

Michael Petrilli and former TBF president, Chester “Checker” Finn, accepted $2 million dollars (see here and here) from billionaire Bill Gates to promote the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and in that position, these two had no qualms about shaping the image of CCSS into a marketable product, despite the fact that TBF itself did not even rate CCSS as better than all other state standards. It did not matter. These two rode the “standards experts” wave right into statehouses, with the specific goal of selling CCSS. On December 26, 2013, I wrote a pointed post in which I highlight TBF’s slanted, pro-CCSS language. An prime example is how TBF redefined letter-grade terminology in referring to state standards that were not CCSS, which was obvoiusly meant to demean standards other than CCSS and favor CCSS. Some excerpts:

In 2010, in an effort to promote the “clearly superior to standards in most states” CCSS, Fordham assigned letter grades to CCSS and to all state standards.

They gave CCSS an A-minus in math and a B-plus in English Language Arts (ELA). Fordham notes, “Neither is perfect. Both are very, very strong.”

The Great Propaganda of the Fordham “Bottom Line”

The central element of the Fordham “bottom line” is its biased judgment of what its letter grades mean. Traditionally, the A-F letter grades hold the following meanings:

A = excellent or outstanding

B = very good or above average

C = average or satisfactory

D = below average or needs improvement

F = failing or unsatisfactory

However, in Fordham’s “bottom line,” traditional meaning is replaced with the following biased terminology (or not discussed at all):

A = Letter grade not included in “bottom line.”  (A-minus, B-plus, and sometimes B are also not included in “bottom line.”)

B = “decent”

C = “mediocre”

D = “among the worst in the country”

F = “among the worst in the country”

Fordham’s “bottom line” letter grade setup allows for no state to outdo CCSS– not even California, Indiana, and DC– which Fordham gave A’s in both ELA and math in the body of each state’s report but did not dare list those two A’s in the “bottom line” discussion. Instead, CCSS is compared to California, Indiana, and DC in a manner that makes CCSS appear comparable.

(Massachusetts’ ELA standards are the exception: Fordham includes no letter grade in its “bottom line” for Massachusetts and also does not state any “on the other hand” for Massachusetts’ ELA. However, this is a safe bet since CCSS “outscores” Massachusetts’ math standards.)

In other words, what California, Indiana, and DC need according to Fordham’s own assessment is to go backwards, trade those two A’s for Fordham’s A-minus and B-plus, in order to “take one for the pro-privatizing team” and enable complete national standardization of American public education.

In April 05, 2014, I wrote a post about TBF’s marketing CCSS even in states that with standards that TBF had graded as better that CCSS. From that post:

And, perhaps that for which Fordham is best known: It loves grading state standards and even giving some states higher marks than the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)– and still promoting CCSS in statehouses across the country.

In promoting CCSS, Fordham is only doing what Bill Gates has paid it to do: “track state progress towards implementation of standards….”

Fordham takes its CCSS “tracking” seriously– to the point of manipulating states with standards that it graded as “superior” to CCSS into clinging to CCSS.

Recall that 2010 Fordham report in which Fordham graded all state standards as well as CCSS and compared all state standards to CCSS.

CCSS did not receive the highest marks, yet it is continuously pushed by Fordham in statehouses around the country (see here and here and here and here for examples). …

In January 2013, Petrilli testified in Indiana and offered these points to talk Indiana out of any return to their CCSS-superior standards and into retaining CCSS:

1. First, you have already invested time and money into implementing the new standards. They have momentum. Calling for a do-over would waste the millions of man hours already invested—and potentially cost the state of Indiana more money than proceeding with the Common Core. …

2. Second, it’s not clear that returning to your old standards would put Indiana on a path toward higher student achievement. For while you had some of the best standards in the country for over a decade, you also had one of the worst student achievement records on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Indiana was a classic case of good standards not actually having an impact in the classroom. You need a different way forward.

What a crock this point is. “A different way forward”?? Is “forward” higher test scores? Petrilli assures Indiana’s Senate education committee that “forward” is the direction CCSS will take them– even though Indiana’s “superior” standards did not take Indiana there. It is not clear that putting any state on the CCSS path will improve achievement– yet here we are, a nation on the unproven CCSS path… and Petrilli doing his best to sound knowledgeable as he talks unresearched, unanchored nonsense.

In its 2010 grading of standards, Fordham ignored comparing state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) with its state standards ratings. The result was no logical connection whatsoever between NAEP scores and Fordham’s ratings of state standards. Indeed, some states with standards that Fordham rated poorly actually had high scores on NAEP.

The mention of NAEP brings me to another critical point:

Prior to promoting CCSS, TBF did not bother to address the fact that their 2010 state standards grades showed no connection to state-level NAEP scores.

Is there or isn’t there a connection between NAEP scores and a common standards push? If not, then why the push? What is the justification? If so, then why wait until 2019 to produce a report on two decades of NAEP scores and conclude that economic conditions impacted those scores?

About That “Fewer Children Left Behind” Report

And now, to the heart of TBF’s October 2019 “Fewer Children Left Behind” report:

That message– that economic conditions impact NAEP scores– is the major message of the October 2019 TBF report– and one that would have been addressed by a responsible, unbiased, organization that really wanted what the best for the American K12 classroom prior to TBF’s 2010 CCSS promotional.

If TBF truly desired to do right by K12 education in the US, it would not have chosen to go the market-based, ed-reform route and actively work to sell the CCSS product. But that is what Finn and Petrilli did.

And selling ed-reform positions is what Petrilli continues to do.

TBF’s “Fewer Children Left Behind” report examines NAEP scores from the mid-to-late 1990s to 2010 (the year CCSS was released) for various subgroups of students, including Black, Hispanic, and low-achieving students.

The report includes a number of graphs (graphs that include NAEP scores up to 2017), and what is clear in the 4th and 8th grade math and reading NAEP scores is that NAEP scores had been increasing prior to “test and punish” No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and prior to the CCSS that followed it.

Petrilli weakly offers the suggestion that in addition to the influence of improved economic conditions, rising NAEP scores can also be attributed to the pre-NCLB standards push, the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA):

Though No Child Left Behind gets all the attention, 1994’s Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) put most of the key pieces in place for the “consequential accountability” policies that we now associate with NCLB. It required states to set uniform standards in reading and math; to develop statewide tests to assess students against those standards; and to report the results for all schools. While annual testing, disaggregated data, and a federally mandated cascade of sanctions came later, they came as enhancements, as an evolution. The real revolution began with IASA.

That sounds good, and it serves as a fine “uniform standards” save, except that NAEP scores had been rising for Black students since (and the Black-White NAEP score gap closing) since the 1970s— long before IASA, and NCLB– and CCSS.

Moreover, for as much as Petrilli pushed CCSS in its 2010 – 2013 heyday, he is notably silent on the CCSS lack of connection in his October 2019 NAEP score analysis. Petrilli only mentions CCSS one time, and there is certainly no encouragement to further examine any connection between his Gates-purchased CCSS push and NAEP subgroup scores.

Petrilli had yet another opportunity to do so in his 2017 “Lost Decade” piece about NAEP scores from 2007 to 2017, which Petrilli links to in his October 2019 report. No mention of CCSS at all.

It is noteworthy that Petrilli’s “lost decade” begins with 2007, the year that NCLB was supposed to be reauthorized, but lawmakers could not seem to make that happen; the bipartisan honeymoon that produced NCLB had apparently ended.

NAEP scores soared prior to NCLB and continued to do so for several years after NCLB authorization in 2001, but then came a leveling off, and for all of TBF’s selling of a CCSS, the NAEP “lost decade” continued.

Petrilli does not bother to consider whether the standards-and assessments push has negatively impacted NAEP scores. Instead, he assumes that pre-NCLB IASA was the beginning of “the real revolution.”

No word why that standards-and-testing “revolution” has not continued to raise NAEP scores even though standards-and assessments continue to be the end-all, be-all of American K12 education.

However, in convoluted and contradictory fashion, Petrilli does include standards and assessments in the NAEP-subgroup-score-raising “secret sauce,” even though he has already spent the bulk of his argument justifying the mid-1990-to-2010 NAEP subgroup-score rise as related to improved economic conditions for school children.

So, NAEP subgroup score rises appear to be correlated with socioeconomics, but a slice of credit must also go to the standards-and-assessments push, but not beginning with NCLB, sooner than that– 1994– but let’s ignore rising NAEP scores of Black students in the 1970s and 1980s.

But let us not forget the ed reformers, because they must be the reason for some improvements, right?

That doesn’t mean education policy or reforms like charter schools or Teach For America and the like don’t matter. Some states have consistently beaten the socioeconomic curve. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the states that made more gains than one would predict over this past quarter-century—like Florida, Indiana, and Massachusetts—are the ones that embraced education reform. They weren’t immune to the larger social and economic trends. But thanks to strong leaders and smart policies, they did better than expected.

Indiana and Massachusetts– two states with standards that TBF graded as better than CCSS– but that TBF sold CCSS to anyway.

No mention of that. Instead, Petrilli goes CCSS milquetoast, with his single, CCSS honorable mention and soft-boiled mea culpa:

I’m chagrined to admit that I really believed, back in the heady No Child Left Behind days, that it was policy that was leading to those test score gains among the neediest kids. And to be sure, solid research indicates that NCLB and similar state policies do deserve some credit. But only some. Somehow I—we?—missed what was happening in society at large— the declining poverty rates, the increasing supports for needy families, the plummeting crime rate. Of course those things would affect student learning.

And we did it again when the progress stalled around 2010. Some of us claimed that
happened because we took the foot off the gas of accountability reform. Others said it was Common Core’s fault, or the flaws in new teacher evaluation systems. Those are all reasonable hypotheses, deserving of analysis. But what if it was mostly about the Great Recession, the spike in the unemployment rate, the increase in child poverty, and the decline in school spending? In other words, fellow reformers, it’s not all about us!

TBF is a think tank. Petrilli is regarded as an expert, and he used that label to his advantage in promoting a Common Core that Gates paid TBF $2M to promote.

That is why he can end the likes of his “Fewer Children Left Behind” report with a shrug and still collect over $300K per year in total compensation.

And it is way he can continue to push accountability. It is his product.

Once a Salesman…

Here’s Petrilli again, this time from September 23, 2019, Phi Delta Kappan, in a piece entitled, “Stay the Course on Standards and Accountability”:

So what kind of changes do we now hope to see in practice?

Here’s how we might put it: By raising standards and making the state assessments tougher, we hope that teachers will raise their expectations for their students. That means pitching their instruction at a higher level, giving assignments that ask children to stretch, and lengthening the school day or year for kids who need more time to reach the higher standards.

Gotta love the “we.” Must be the royal “we” because it sure is not “we” as in “we who work directly with children.”

For all of his promotion of “accountability,” Petrilli is accountable to no one– a hypocrisy with which he is apparently comfortable enough to *stay the course.*



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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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  1. Petrilli is so full of it. Here are average NAEP scale scores over time. After billions of dollar spent and total distortions of devolution of our curricula in ELA and Math, NAEP scores have remained, in all areas, at all grade levels, essentially flat. The testing and standards Deform Movement has been an abject failure. NCLB became law in 2002, Race to the Top in 2004, ESSA in 2015. These, and all the damage they did, changed nothing significant. All along the way, essentially no change.

    Grade 4 Reading
    1998 215
    2005 219
    2011 221
    2017 222

    Grade 8 Reading
    1998 263
    2005 262
    2011 265
    2017 267

    Grade 12 Reading
    1998 290
    2005 286
    2011 288
    2017 287

    Grade 4 Math
    2000 226
    2005 238
    2011 241
    2017 240

    Grade 8 Math
    2000 273
    2005 279
    2011 284
    2017 283

    Grade 12 Math
    2000 na
    2005 158
    2011 153
    2017 152

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    And do not forget the economy tanked in 2008 and with that came increases in poverty and in many states, decreases in school spending. Petrelli and TBF have no credibility as authorities on education. Thank you for this post, about Petrelli and TBF. They have a history of being wrong and learning nothing.

  3. Fred Collins permalink

    Thank you for this. NAEP Scores staying flat means we (students and teachers) are doing as well as we can in spite of these “reforms”. Imagine what we could be doing for our kiddos if we didn’t have this garbage to deal with.

    • Exactly. It’s the teachers who ignore the deforms and teach anyway who have kept the puerile “standards” and the testing from having been even worse disasters. Petrilli spent decades pitching his magic elixir. Now, it’s so clear that it didn’t work that even he must admit this. His answer: double up on the magic elixir. Idiotic.

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  1. Mercedes Schneider and I Review Mike Petrilli’s Claims About “Dramatic Progress” | Diane Ravitch's blog

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