Tag: curriculum standards

Fordham Study Shows “Common Core” Unnecessary

The Fordham Institute released today a (“groundbreaking”) study titled “What Parents Want,” which finds that:

nearly all parents seek schools with a solid core curriculum in reading and math; an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. But some parents also prefer specializations and emphases that are only possible in a system of school choice.

That summary could just as easily describe chapter 1 of my 1999 book Market Education, which reviewed 20 years of public opinion research on people’s educational goals and came to the same conclusion. So far so good.

Upon (re-)discovering that parents already share a “solid core” of educational expectations, do Fordham’s Michael Petrilli and Checker Finn reluctantly abandon their erstwhile attachment to the government-backed standards and testing known as “Common Core”? After all, in a free marketplace with lots of overlap in consumer demands, there will be substantial overlap in what providers deliverall voluntarily; no need for government nudging. [I am shocked, shocked, to discover that Apple puts a web browser on its iPhone, similar to the one on my Android phone!?! Even without a government mandate!]

Strangely, but not unexpectedly, that is not what Petrilli and Finn elect to do. On the contrary, they conclude that the freely-occurring commonality among parents’ demands “bodes well for policy initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, which are designed to deliver much of that.”

Translation: families would pursueand educators would thus providea common core of studies voluntarily, therefore, governments should compel educators to adhere to a particular set of standards cooked up by a group of bureaucrats and arm-twisted into place by the federal government. Because, really, when has anything pursued voluntarily not been improved by the addition of government compulsion?

Paranoia Roundup

Last week, national standards super-advocate Chester Finn called me “paranoid” for arguing that “common” curriculum standards states adopt in pursuit of federal money will somehow end up being federal and, as a result, bad. Well it seems that Jay Greene and I – the two paranoiacs Finn identified by name – are not alone. Here’s a roundup of some recent rantings from other realists Finn would no doubt accuse of wearing tinfoil helmets:

  • The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall, cutting through the joke of “voluntary” national-standards adoption and dispelling several of the shallow arguments trotted out by national-standards supporters.
  • The Home School Legal Defense Association, warning that “as homeschoolers know, if the federal government funds something, the federal government is going to control it.”
  • The Pacific Reasearch Institute’s Lance Izumi nailing the voluntarism deception; noting that national standards will have to be paired with national tests (indeed, they’re already in the works); and pointing out that the proposed national standards are likely worse than some state standards.
  • Ben Boychuk of the Heartland Institute going after the big voluntarism lie and explaining how much worse a process national-standards setting is than was even the Texas Social Studies Standoff of 2010.
  • The Pioneer Institutes Jim Stergios exposing the State of Massachusetts’ national-standards trickeration.

It looks like national-standards paranoia is starting to run kinda deep.

Unfortunately, One Man’s “Paranoia” Is Everyone Else’s “Reality”

Finished with my woman
‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane
Because I am frowning all the time

- Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

According to the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, I and others like me are “paranoid.” So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I “frowning all the time?” Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that “common” curriculum standards won’t become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.

Finn’s rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he’s used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is “voluntary;” and note that we’ve got to do something to improve the schools.

Let’s go one by one:

First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn’s glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them – once the “accountability” part of “standards and accountability” is activated – they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system. 

This kind of objection, by the way, is called “thinking a few steps ahead,” not “paranoia.”

It’s also called “learning from history.” By Fordham’s own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers’ unions – the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members’ livelihoods come from the public schools – get them neutered. 

But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.

Next, let’s hit the the “voluntary” adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don’t have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is “voluntarily” give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not! 

So right now, if states don’t want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they’ll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.

Some voluntarism….

Finally, there’s the “we’ve got to do something to fix the schools” argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don’t work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.

The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work. 

Oh, right.  All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.

 

Sell Your Soul for What’s Behind Curtain #1?

Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards – to control their own educational souls – in those key subjects.

Alright, maybe they haven’t completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it’s not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.  So Maryland isn’t about to give up control of it’s educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million – a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.

Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington – with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it – is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.

With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.

Now International Curriculum Standards?

Mark Schneider, a former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner and current American Enterprise Institute scholar, has put together a very insightful – and disturbing – four-part blog series on the oft-cited Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and its creator, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Basically, Schneider writes, the much-hyped PISA figures very prominently in the “international benchmarking” of coming national curriculum standards – which the Obama Administration is coercing states to adopt – despite the paucity of meaningful evidence that doing well on PISA actually translates into desirable educational outcomes.

Now, Schneider throws out some debatable stuff himself. For instance, he emphasizes early-grade progress on the federal, National Asessessment of Educational Progress while ignoring utterly flat results for 17-year-olds. He also reiterates several things that I have already pointed out in “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curiculum Standards.” Still, his points overall are generally very fresh, and very important.  It is also heartening to see growing critiques, even if somewhat oblique, of the national standards that many on the left and right are hoping to impose on us in the coming months.

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.