Get Back to Me When They’ve Got Something to Launch

Over the past few days, it seems like every major state newspaper ran a story on the state’s governor signing onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to establish national standards in mathematics and reading curricula. The only holdouts are Alaska, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina.

I should probably be more worried, because national standards are a terrible idea.

First, there is nothing inherently better about having a single standard agreed to by numerous states than having individual states set standards for themselves. Either way, politicians – people inherently most responsive to mobilized, highly motivated public school employees who want as little meaningful accountability as possible – will be setting the standards, and the standards will therefore either start low or end up there pretty fast.

Second, the notion that national standards adopted by even just a few states will remain both voluntary for all states and non-federal is pure fantasy, like unicorns, or selfless bureaucrats. Once some version of national standards exist, Washington will tie money to adopting them, which is how the feds force states to “volunteer” for all kinds of odious stuff.

“Oh, sure, feel free to turn down the money, Mr. Arizona” Uncle Sam says. “But your citizens? Well, I don’t think we’ll be taking any volunteers on paying federal taxes…”

The Obama Administration has already got this in the works, suggesting that adopting some sort of national standard could make a state eligible for a piece of the Secretary of Education’s so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a $5 billion “stimulus” pot of gold controlled by the secretary.

Of course, the ultimate threat is that once standards go federal they never go back, and we’ll be stuck with one-size-fits-all standards for every state, district, and child in America, standards controlled by the National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and every other card-carrying member of the self-serving education establishment. And even though we’ll finally live in a utopia in which “the child in Mississippi is held to the same standards as the child in New York,” we won’t suddenly see test scores skyrocket or heretofore untapped genius spring forth across the land. We’ll just see an even worse version of the hopelessly moribund, socialist education system we have today.

So why, in light of all these dreadful threats, am I not too worried? Because what governors have agreed to so far is just to draft national standards, not to adopt them, and as I wrote last month, while the national standards crowd seems unanimously exuberant about having a single set of standards for every kid in America, they can’t even come close to agreeing on what those standards should be. And if they can’t agree on what the national standards should be, what are the odds that millions of other people will simply assent to having someone else’s standards foisted upon them?

Not very high. Indeed, when establishing national standards was attempted in the 1990s the real fireworks didn’t begin until proposed standards were published. Then, it seemed that everyone had a different reason they were outraged – outraged! – by the standards.  At best, there was only one point of broad consensus: that the wannabe national standards simply had to go.

So are national standards a serious threat? They sure are: Were they to be enacted, the educationally deadly government-schooling monopoly would be complete, with even the ability to escape to better districts or states cut off. But the news of states agreeing to develop shared standards doesn’t raise the threat level to DEFCON 1. It’s only if they complete the task – if they can somehow agree on how many fins to put on their missile, what range to shoot for, what color to paint it, where to target it, whose names to put on it, what fuel to use, and so on – that we should really become concerned. And making those decisions is, of course, the really tough part.