Reality, Reality, Reality…

This weekend I furnished an anti-national standards piece in a point-counterpoint of sorts in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. You can check out what the paper published here, but for my complete argument you’ll have to go here. Unfortunately, the Herald-Journal ‘s  editors  removed a few crucial paragraphs on the powerful evidence that school choice works better than any top-down government standards. This was done largely, I was told, because the paper had had a very energizing exchange on choice just a month or so ago.  C’est la vie…

My reason for writing today is not to complain about the excision of my choice paragraphs, but to take issue with a few things that South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex – my op-ed “opponent” – wrote in his defense of national standards.

The first bit I have to quibble with could certainly just be the result of imprecise writing, not an intentional effort to deceive readers or anything like that, but it bears a quick clarification:

In addition to setting “proficiency standards” on their tests, individual states also are empowered under the U.S. Constitution to define “curriculum standards,” the skills and knowledge that students should learn at each grade level.

Let’s just be clear: The Constitution does not give states any power over education. It gives the federal government limited, enumerated powers and leaves all others to the states or people with whom they resided to begin with. And contrary to possible appearances, the term “curriculum standards” does not appear in the Constitution.

OK, next:

Already we’re hearing concerns from some that this project will lead to a conspiratorial “power grab” by the federal government and that it will open the door to national standards and national tests. But South Carolina’s previous experience with similar state-led efforts suggests otherwise.

The obscure examples of previous efforts Rex identifies after this quote notwithstanding, there are very good reasons to be afraid that national standards – even initially agreed to by a consortium of states – will lead to federal control. Here’s just one: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just announced that Washington will furnish up to $350 million to create national tests connected to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the exact national-standards effort Rex and I were debating.

Finally, this can’t go without comment:

A few alarmists have even suggested that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative will ultimately produce “dumbed down” standards just to make schools “look good.” But that ludicrous idea ignores the stark reality of our world.

The U.S. economy has changed dramatically. American companies compete today not only with businesses on the other side of town but also with businesses on the other side of the globe. American schools compete with schools in Taipei, Bangalore and Beijing, and they must prepare students to meet challenges that can’t even be imagined today.

Have I been missing something, or isn’t one of the major drivers of the national standards push precisely that states, both before and under No Child Left Behind, have produced, well, ” ’dumbed down’ standards just to make schools ‘look good’?” And haven’t they been doing this despite drastic changes in the U.S. economy? And if so, what exactly is so “ludicrous” about thinking that state or federal politicians will keep on doing the same politically expedient things they’ve been doing for decades?

Nothing, of course. What’s ludicrous is thinking that political reality will change just because different levels of politicians are in charge.