Is Education Nationalization Falling Apart?

While the fight against nationalizing education has focused primarily on the Common Core, the nationalization offensive seems to be falling apart on the testing front; a classic, it’s-the-one-you-don’t-see-that-gets-you situation. Yes, several states have seen recent, serious resistance to the Core–I just testified about this in Arkansas–but no state that officially adopted the Core has unadopted it.

Then there’s the testing.

Two days ago, Georgia declared that it would be leaving the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers–one of the two testing consortia chosen by the U.S. Secretary of Education to receive big federal grants–and would pursue its own tests. Georgia joins Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma and Utah heading out the exits, with strong rumblings that Indiana and Florida will be joining them. (I wrote about Florida “padding” school assessments yesterday.) Why is this important? Because as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has written, for standards-based reform to work, there must be a “tripod of standards, testing, and accountability.” And for national standards to work, there must be a national tripod: all schools must use the same standards and tests to compare how all kids are doing, and there must be uniform punishments for schools that do not do well. As Finn is quoted in the Washington Post as saying, if states use their own tests, “We won’t be able to compare their test scores—it’s almost as simple as that.”

This raises the crucial question: who must be in charge of constructing and maintaining the tripod to get everyone uniformly on board? It’s a question nationalizers have been loath to tackle because the answer is obvious (at least if you ignore that no level of centralized government is likely to maintain high standards and accountability): Washington. Only the federal government has the ability, by taking taxpayers’ money then offering it back with rules attached, to coerce all states into doing the same things. See, for instance, drinking ages. Or adopting the Common Core, which Washington got almost all states to do very quickly through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program.

Ironically, it is perhaps because Common Core supporters have devoted huge amounts of their time and resources to denying that Washington had a major role in advancing the Core–a role they quietly called for–that may have caused them to miss the cracking in the tripod’s testing leg. Or perhaps they knew, because most states wouldn’t do so on their own, that they would need Washington to force states to adopt uniform tests, while understanding that openly stating that necessity would prove toxic to their cause. They knew that Americans, largely, do not want overt federal control over what their schools teach and how their kids are tested. So they continued to downplay the need to establish any sort of governing structure to keep their tripod together, lest simple logic make clear to the public that only Washington could accomplish what the standardizers need.

In other words, the need to stay hush-hush about the federal role–in order to protect national standardization–ultimately may be what kills it.