Tag: national standards

Fordham Criticized Again

Great stuff by Jay Greene this morning on yesterday’s Fordham Institute victory dance. Greene rips into the notion that conservatives should support standardization of every American kid, and even dares attack Fordham’s calculation that on “the right” only about six government-loathing libertarians have fought national standards.

Perhaps most important, while I explained (yet again) why the Fordham folks and other big-government conservatives will never get the sustained high standards they want out of a government monopoly, Jay nailed the even more fundamental point:

The real divide here is between people who think that policies are best when decisions are decentralized and choice and competition are enhanced versus people who think that there is a “right way” that should be imposed centrally and should constrain choice and competition.

Unfortunately for Fordham, whether we’re comparing the U.S. to the Soviet economy, or educational freedom to government schooling, choice and competition win every time. Every time, that is, except in political decisions like adopting national standards.

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.

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.

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.

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.

Fed Ed on the Move

There’s a lot to learn about what’s going on in federal education policy today, and none of it is good.

First, Steven Brill offers a revealing look at the Race to the Top evaluation process in a piece that can be added to the ever-growing pile of evidence that Race to the Top isn’t even close to the objective – or, I’d add, powerful – catalyst for meaningful reform that the Obama administration insists it is.

Second, it appears that congressional Democrats are preparing to pass a Harkin-proposed, Obama-endorsed, $23 billion bailout for teachers by attaching it to an “emergency” appropriation for the war in Afghanistan. (Passing major – and highly suspect – education legislation by attaching it to something totally unrelated? Sound familiar?) And what’s the nice thing about “emergency” legislation? No need to worry that the outlay would add to our already insane federal deficit; that can’t be allowed to interfere with saving the world (or public schooling lard).

Finally, looming on the horizon is the release of final standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Obama administration is trying to coerce all states to adopt the standards by linking adoption to Race-to-the-Top competitiveness and, potentially, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding.

The good news is that on June 2 – potentially the very day the standards will be released – you can catch what has sadly been a rarity so far in the push for national standards: a real debate about whether national standards will actually improve educational outcomes.  My answer is that there is no meaningful evidence that national standards drive superior results, but joining me to debate that right here at Cato will be the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, Sandra Boyd of Achieve, Inc., and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli. It will be a debate that must be replicated across the country before we make any further move to adopt one standard for every public school in America. You can register here to see our debate live, or catch it online at Cato.org.

The feds are on the move in education, and the more we learn about their plans, the more obvious it is that they must be stopped.

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.