It’s a Little Late to Be Discussing National Standards Governance

What do you do when you’re asked your opinion about how to implement something you don’t like? Do you use the opportunity to say why you think implementation will fail, and how to minimize the damage, even if doing so might make you look like a collaborator? Or do you say nothing and just let bad stuff happen?

A couple of months ago, I was presented with that dilemma by the people at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – you might have seen me discuss them once or twice – who were putting together a report on how to govern national standards and tests. They asked me, along with several other people who’d thought long and hard about national standards, to send them answers to several questions to help inform their thinking. Today, Fordham is releasing that report, and I have just a few notes about it.

First, you will see me quoted twice in the paper, and from those quotes you could get the impression that I’ve gone all Vichy on national standards. I don’t think Fordham authors Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli intended to do that, nor do the context of the quotes necessarily support that conclusion, but one could get that impression nonetheless. Fortunately, Fordham kindly posted my entire questionnaire – as well as those of several other respondents – on the report’s Web page, and you can go there for my complete thoughts. If you don’t want to do that, though, I’ll summarize (stop me if you’ve heard this before): As long as government runs and funds schools rather than giving parents control of education money and educators full freedom, standards-and-accountability regimes, no matter how strong they start off, will ultimately be rendered meaningless by politics.

My second note is that the overall report is aggravating because it is impossible to concretely discuss the governance of standards that almost no one knows about, and accountability systems that don’t exist. The Fordham authors acknowledge this problem, but acknowledging it doesn’t make it any less enervating. It also highlights that we’ve skipped a critical, much more fundamental debate: Even if you think centralized standards are a good idea – and almost everything we know about markets, competition, and innovation says they aren’t – how do you, really,  keep politics from gutting standards and accountability? It’s a debate we needed to have long before states started to adopt national standards, largely in the pursuit of federal dough.

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.