Counsel of Sanity

If someone asked you to play Russian roulette and told you that you had only a 6 percent chance of not shooting yourself, would you play? Not if you were sane. Yet that’s exactly what some conservatives, led by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, are asking people to do with their children’s education.

On National Review Online today, writing in reply to a piece I had there last week, Fordham vice president Michael Petrilli argues that I was foolish to assert that standards set by government are doomed to failure, and that school choice is the only way to get meaningful standards and accountability in education.

Sure, he says, choice is valuable – critical, even – but so too is government standard-setting and measuring. “In order for any market to work effectively, consumers need good information,” he writes. “If we want to know whether schools actually ‘add value’ to their students, we need rigorous tests tied to meaningful academic standards, plus a sophisticated ‘value added’ analysis system – the whole standards-based reform kit-and-caboodle.”

Really? Consumers need government to set the standards and tell them whether the things they buy work? Is that really how the unwashed masses find good cars, fast computers, clothes that fit, newspapers to read, companies to deliver packages on time, and so on?

Of course not! Consumers are able to get a seemingly infinite array of excellent goods and services because the market assures it.

For one thing, suppliers of goods and services have to offer items that consumers want or they’ll eventually go out of business. But that’s just the beginning. In a free market, most people don’t have to know very much about the products they want in order to get something excellent because experts, such as those at Consumer Reports, Auto Week, PC Magazine, and so on, make money by evaluating the products for them. Plus, of course, consumers can talk to friends and neighbors about their experiences with different products and service providers, as well as use their own experiences, to inform their choices.

Unfortunately, their inability to understand how market standards and accountability work is not the most astonishing thing about Petrilli and other conservatives’ sudden faith in federal education standards. No, the most astonishing thing is that they are well aware of big government’s constant failures, but call for federal standards anyway.

Here’s Petrilli on the state standards movement: “Unfortunately, most states have botched standards-based reform by setting the bar too low.”

Here he is on No Child Left Behind: “The [low standards] problem is aggravated by No Child Left Behind, which demands that all students reach ‘proficiency’ by 2014 but lets states define ‘proficiency’ to their low levels. Hence, NCLB has created a race to the bottom.”

How about the voluntary national standards we tried in the mid-1990s? Here’s Diane Ravitch – who yes, I know, supports national standards – in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform: “The abortive attempt to create national standards revealed the deep fissures within academic fields, as well as the wide gap between avant-garde thinkers in the academic world and the general public.”

By Petrilli and Co.’s own accounts, it is obvious that the track record of government standards-setting has been pathetic. What’s to blame? Politics, pure and simple. Invariably, the people who would be held accountable by high standards – teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats – have fought ferociously to keep standards as low as possible, while parents have been ignored. It’s no wonder: Because their very livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo, education special interests spend oodles of time and money on lobbying and political campaigns, while parents, who have to worry about their own jobs, children, and countless other concerns, can’t possibly mount strong and sustained political efforts to get the standards they want.

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”

Looked at that way, Petrilli’s reliance on the success of three states to justify national standards is a little frightening. And, it turns out, even the three successes are at best cautionary tales: California only improved its standards after it had adopted disastrous ones that dumped it into the bottom of all states academically. Massachusetts’ standards are under constant political threat and could easily be dismantled. Finally, no matter how good Indiana’s standards are, between 2002 and 2005 the share of Hoosier 4th graders scoring at or above “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam dropped from 33 to 30 percent, and 8th graders at or above proficient fell from 32 to 28 percent.

In his op-ed today, Petrilli says I offered “counsel of defeat” last week when I told conservatives to give up on national standards and get back to fighting for school choice. In light of political reality, it is clear that he is wrong. Mine was not counsel of defeat – it was counsel of sanity.