The Best Defense against National Standards? Hearing about National Standards

I’ll admit it: When I go to an event intended to tout an idea I think is wrong, I get a little nervous. What if I hear an argument that’s so convincing it forces me to totally reevaluate my position? All my work will have been for naught! Well, I had just such worries as I headed toward the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “International Evidence about National Standards” conference yesterday.

I needn’t have worried. What I heard made me even more certain that imposing national academic standards – whether through state compacts, or worse, “incentivized” with federal dollars – is doomed to failure, just as I have been saying for years.

First, there’s likely political failure. Yes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other high-profile education folks have recently been talking about the need for common standards – or at least the folly of having 50 different state standards – and many people think national standards would be great. But though people may love the idea of national standards, when it comes to actually creating and implementing them, love quickly turns to anger.

The second panel of the day, featuring Dane Linn of the National Governors Association and Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers – whose organizations are working together to create national standards – made this abundantly clear. While people at the conference might have agreed that national standards are peachy in theory, they couldn’t agree at all on who should write them. Indeed, they couldn’t even agree on their general shape: While Linn and Wilhoit stressed the need for higher and narrower standards, the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who moderated the panel, said that his group, the conference convener, could very well find itself opposing narrow standards that include too little.

If you can’t get people who really believe that we need national standards to agree on even their basic shape, why would anyone think that they could get a majority of Americans to agree on a single standard?

Of course, this was a conference supposedly about the international evidence concerning national standards. Even though the domestic political outlook for national standards appears poor, surely the evidence from abroad would conclusively demonstrate the need for national standards.

Hardly. If anything, the international evidence panel was the least persuasive part of the conference.

The hub of the panel was Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, who argued energetically against the illogical, weak standards of most American states – certainly a valid point. But he offered no compelling reasoning or evidence whatsoever to suggest that national standards would be any better than state standards. Indeed, moderator Ben Wildavsky knocked out Schmidt’s entire argument with just two punches, asking if there is empirical evidence that national standards produce better outcomes, and why Canada – which doesn’t have national standards – does very well on international comparisons. Schmidt’s answers: Almost every country participating in international exams has national standards, so it’s impossible to credit those standards with either good or bad outcomes, and Canadian provinces are kind of like countries.

If that’s the best evidence one can muster for national standards – essentially, no evidence – then there is absolutely zero good reason to support national standards.

Unfortunately, that really does seem to be all the evidence. At least, it’s all that was brought out yesterday. Which is why, though the conference didn’t force me to change my views, it did make me reach some very disheartening conclusions. Primarily, that many people support national standards simply because they are easier to conceptualize than multiple standards, and because they think that they – not people they dislike – will get to write the new, inescapable, standards for all.