Tag: education standards

The Trouble with Centralization

Jay P. Greene’s discussion of national education standards in the Wall Street Journal applies to more than just education:

Proposing that all children meet the same standards is essentially proposing a nationalized system of education. Some reformers may argue otherwise, but the truth is that standards drive testing, which in turn drives what material is covered, as well as how and when it is taught.

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are.

Those are good cautions to keep in mind when we discuss centralized and mandatory plans for anything, from subsidizing green energy to nation-building in Afghanistan.

The RTTT Made Me Do It!

Adopting national curriculum standards – the so-called “Common Core” – is voluntary for states. That is what we’ve long been told, and that is what the text of a new report looking at implementation of the standards repeats. But within that report is powerful evidence of how involuntary and federally led Common Core adoption has truly been.

According to the report, which furnishes results of a November 2010 survey of state education officials, the vast majority of states that had adopted the Common Core as of November had done so at least in part because of “the possible effect” of doing so “on success of our Race to the Top application.” Race to the Top, you might recall, was a $4.35 billion federal contest for education funding, and to maximize their chances of winning states had to adopt national standards.

The report tries to downplay this revelatory finding by emphasizing that a slightly larger number of states – 36 versus 30 – cited “the rigor” of the Common Core in their adoption decisions. But what state education official is going to say that adoption was only about money and not also at least some educational considerations? On the flip side, that officials in any, much less thirty, states were willing to concede the importance of ugly federal-dollar chasing says a ton. In particular, it says what reasonable observers have been stating all along: National standards have largely been bought by Washington, not “voluntarily” adopted by states.

New NAEP Scores Confirm ‘F’ in Feds

The recent elections made one thing very clear: Americans want a cheaper, smaller, more effective federal government. Today we have powerful evidence that a terrific place to start giving them that is education. New National Assessment of Educational Progress – so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – scores are out, and despite years of massive increases in federal education spending, as well as nearly a decade of No Child Left Behind “accountability,” stagnation is what we’ve gotten. Reading scores for 12th graders – our schools’ final products – are lower than they were in 1998 and 1992. In math all we have is a slight bump between 2005 and 2009, and no data before that because NAEP changed its math framework, making today’s results essentially meaningless. Looking at other NAEP tests – notably the long-term trends exam that tracks from the early 1970s – overall math achievement is almost certainly as lifeless as reading.

The Constitution gives Washington no authority to govern or fund American education, which is reason enough to get the feds out of our schools. If that doesn’t do it for you, however, that federal meddling has produced nothing but expensive failure should clinch it: It’s time to listen to voters and get Washington out of education.

The National Standards Debate Continues

Over at PublicSquare.net – a nifty debate site – you can catch another installment of the ongoing McCluskey-Petrilli national curriculum tussle. As always, I think the argument against imposing national standards – and, soon, tests – rules the day, but listen to the exchange and decide for yourself. Once you’ve done that, make sure to leave a note explaining why you think national standards offer no hope for improving American education.

Fordham Feeds the Paranoia

You might recall several weeks back when Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called people like me “paranoid” for seeing federal money driving states to adopt national education standards as cause for serious concern that (a) the feds will take over schools’ curricula, and (b) the new federal curriculum will be taken over by potent special interests like teachers’ unions. (You know, the kinds of special interests that can get Democrats to give them $10 billion by cutting food stamps.) Well, in last week’s Education Gadfly, Fordham published a piece by Eugenia Kemble, president of the union-dedicated Albert Shanker Institute, saying that national standards demand a national curriculum.

This interesting little happening – Fordham publishing a piece by a union stalwart arguing that a national curriculum must go with national standards – didn’t go unnoticed by fellow paranoiac Greg Forster, who is now in a blog dispute with Kemble. It makes for telling reading, especially Kemble’s rejoinder. It features an all-too-casual use of the charged term “balkanization” to seemingly describe anything not centralized, and utterly fails to mention federal funding when implying that the common standards push is state led and voluntary.

Unfortunately, Kemble mainly just sidesteps Forster’s primary point: Fordham has provided yet more evidence that national standards funded by the feds will lead to  a national curriculum that could very well be controlled by special interests. Heck, Fordham is in league with at least one component of the teachers’ unions here, which is fine if they share the same goals. All Forster is trying to emphasize is that it is ridiculous to call people crazy when they simply point out what so much evidence seems to show.

Fordham Institute 1, Education 0

On NRO today, the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli take a little time to gloat about the continuing spread of national education standards. In addition, as is their wont, they furnish hollow pronouncements about the Common Core being good as far as standards go, and ”a big, modernized country on a competitive planet” needing national standards. Oh, and apparently having counted the opponents of national standards on “the right,” they note that there are just “a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

Now, there are more than six conservatives and libertarians who have fought national standards. But Finn and Petrilli are sadly correct that most conservatives haven’t raised a finger to stop a federal education takeover – and this is a federal takeover – that they would have screamed bloody murder about ten years ago.  There are many reasons for this, but no doubt a big one is that too many conservatives really are big-government conservatives committed, not to constitutionally constrained government, but controlling government themselves. If they think they can write the national standards, then national standards there should be.

These kinds of conservatives just never learn. As I have explained more times than I care to remember, government schooling will ultimately be controlled by the people it employs because they are the most motivated to engage in education politics. And naturally, their goal will be to stay as free of outside accountability as possible!

This is not theoretical. It is the clear lesson to be learned from the failure of state-set standards and accountability across the country – not to mention decades of federal education impotence – that Fordhamites constantly bewail. Indeed, Finn and Petrilli lament it again in their NRO piece, complaining that “until now…the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement.” And why is this? Politics! As they explained in their 2006 publication To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools:

The state standards movement has been in place for almost fifteen years. For almost ten of those years, we…have reviewed the quality of state standards. Most were mediocre-to-bad ten years ago, and most are mediocre-to-bad today. They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums.

At this point, I really have nothing new to say. That political reality will gut national standards while making the public schooling monopoly even worse is clear if you’re willing to acknowledge it. Regretably, the folks at Fordham – and many conservatives – just aren’t.  So congratulations on your victory, Fordham. To everyone else, my deepest condolences.

Bad News for the Education Standards Crowd

Despite nearly two decades of state and federal standards-and-testing, as well as big increases in spending, today’s reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – continue to tell a tale of stagnation.  Nationally, the average fourth-grade score was 217 (out of 500) in 1992. In 2009 it was only 221. For eighth grade, the average score in 1992 was 260. In 2009 it was just 264. Oh, and eighth-graders had hit 264 by 1998, which means there hasn’t been even a smidgen of improvement since then.

“But,” will say the standardizers, “the problem is that we just haven’t set really high standards and been unrelenting in forcing schools to meet them.” You know, we haven’t been like Massachusetts, which has shown the rest of the nation the way.

Think again. It turns out there very well might be a Massachusetts Mirage.

The average eighth grade score in the Bay State went up just one, tiny point between 2007 and 2009, going from 273 to 274, and it has been stuck around 273 since 2003. Worse yet, in fourth grade the average score dropped from 236 to 234 between 2007 and 2009, and the Bay State had hit 234 as early as 2002.    

Now, can we tell definitively from either the national or Massachusetts scores that centralized standards-and-accountability regimes don’t work? Nope. There are far too many variables involved in education, from child nutrition to the weather on test day, to make such a pronouncement. But we can say that those who are trying to sell us centralized control of education had also better not point to national scores, or scores in the sainted state of Massachusetts, as any kind of evidence that centralized standards-and testing works.

I’m not getting my hopes up.