The Political Possibility Delusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – a neo-con education think tank – released The Proficiency Illusion, a report detailing how low many states have set their “proficiency” standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As discovered before, Fordham finds that many states set “proficiency” at surface-scraping levels, most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions under the law, or even more likely, just so their leaders can continue to tell their citizens “don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch’s assault on NCLB in the New York Times, and took major issue with only one thing that she called for: national standards. Well, the Fordham folks make the same proposal, suggesting that it’s insane that we have no, single, curricular standard:

First, it’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement—stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable. That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.

Now, forget for a second that the Fordham folks are saying that Uncle Sam needn’t set national standards but that it should set them all the same. What’s more important is that Fordham fails to address the same unavoidable problem that Ravitch missed: As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet. It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act and consistently bankrupt state standards prove this beyond a doubt, yet some conservatives still push for national standards, ignoring political reality and forgetting all the progressive educator, teacher union, and other special interest domination of education conservatives have been complaining about for decades.

The history of American education proves one thing: When government runs education, education works for the people in government, not parents and children. That’s why any national standards adopted by government – whether Uncle Sam or some consortium of states – are doomed to failure, and why the only way to get high standards – and critical competition and innovation to boot – is universal school choice.

It’s time for big government conservatives to accept political reality, forget about hopeless national standards, and put all their energy into giving parents – not politicians – the real power in education.