We Want Better Answers

I want to thank Mike Petrilli for trying to answer the big national standards question: Why would national academic standards be any less vulnerable to political forces dumbing them down than currently rock-bottom state and local standards? Unfortunately, Mike’s answer is far from satisfying, but since he wrote it while playing Jim McKay, he can probably be excused…for the moment.

Mike kicks off his response by pointing out that Fordham actually addressed this question two years ago in To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools. He even takes a snarky dig at Eduwonk—who recently asked the big politics question—for acting like he didn’t know the answer even though he was an expert voice in Impossible Dream

Mike will be glad to know that I read the report when it came out (despite my outrage at its exploiting a favorite inspirational song). I did not, however, really get an answer to my question from it, either the first time I read it or in my dutiful re-reading. The report was more a heavily excerpted roundtable discussion on national standards and tests than a rigorous analysis of specific proposals, and it offered thin treatments of the special-interest-power problem.

While we’re on the report, by the way, I need to stand up for the currently vacationing Eduwonk (he’s had guest bloggers for the last couple of weeks) because it seems that not only he, but Mike himself, may not have read Impossible Dream.

In the report, the Fordham authors, including Mike, endorsed the second model discussed, dubbed “If You Build It, They Will Come.” (Sappy movies and musicals really take a beating in this thing.) That model would have the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—a quasi-independent entity that currently runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—create national standards, exams, and accountability metrics in reading, mathematics, and science, and would encourage state adoption either by offering states more money or regulatory relief.

Despite the endorsement of model #2 in the report, Mike points to the third proposal—“Let’s All Hold Hands”—in his blog post as the model to embrace. This Kumbaya little number would have Washington possibly provide financial or other incentives to get states to adopt common standards and tests, but the standards and tests would be created by consortia of states or other non-federal entities. This, Mike says, would evade teacher unions and other standards-sinking interests by furnishing “political cover for governors and state chiefs who want higher standards but can’t easily sell it to their local constituents.”

Since Mike seems to be presenting us with two favored national-standards scenarios, we’ll explore why neither offers anything akin to hope. Let’s start, though, with an assessment of the likely effects of all possible standards-and-adoption combos in a system in which those to be held accountable have outsized influence over the policies that would do the holding:

1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
2. Challenging standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
4. Challenging standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will face constant political pressure to make them easier. The outcomes will ultimately be poor.

The conclusion here is clear: When schools are controlled by government, the incentive structure always leads to poor outcomes because the people who would be held to the standards — and who have the greatest incentive and ability to affect policy — have every natural incentive to keep standards low while maximizing their freedom and income. So, make the standards tough and they’ll either be ignored or pushed down. Make ‘em easy, and they won’t matter. Roughly a century of public schooling has shown this, and Mike seems to agree that, at least so far, neither the states nor Washington have disproven it.

So would “If They Build It, They Will Come” curb the scenarios above? Nope. If the feds—which includes the NAGB—were to set truly demanding standards and strong incentives to adopt them, serious pressure would be put toward easing the standards.

What could counter it? Fordham rests its hopes on two things: NAGB’s independence, and voluntary participation.

The former, frankly, seems worthless, predicated largely on the fact that the NAGB is currently insulated from politics. But currently there isn’t a dime connected to how well states or schools do on NAEP — it carries no tangible consequences. Attach real regulatory relief or money to adopting the standards and doing well on them, however, and it’ll be sayonara to political insulation. Indeed, Fordham concedes in Impossible Dream that the NAGB “could be compromised by the changes and added burdens here.”

Voluntary adoption is an even flimsier defense. Make the standards too high relative to the rewards of volunteering and states won’t sign-on. In contrast, couple high standards with big rewards and, well, re-read what I just wrote about the NAGB. 

How about “Let’s All Hold Hands”? Mike asserts that this lateral, state-consortia approach is seeing the most traction, with groups like Achieve getting states to sign onto common standards and assessments. But experience with these consortia so far gives little indication that if the groups were to create challenging standards that students struggle to meet, the standards wouldn’t soon be hollowed out. Most states in Achieve’s American Diploma Project, for instance, have only just started aligning their standards and graduation requirements with common benchmarks, and there’s been no time to see what happens if lots of kids or schools can’t hit the standards and are punished as a result.

As for “political cover” for state policymakers who would impose tough but unpopular standards and accountability, I see no reason why a consortium couldn’t just as easily furnish cover to weaken standards or accountability as raise them.

I can just hear it now:

“Mom! Washington State and Maryland are making things easier on themselves! Why can’t we?”

“Be quiet and finish your homework! What? You don’t have any…”

Make no mistake: I’m grateful to Mike for trying to answer my burning national-standards question. Really, I am. But harsh reality just seems to eclipse impossible dreams.