You Always Lose with Top-Down Standards

Yesterday, Andrew Coulson and I wrote a bit on President Obama’s little talk with the nation’s governors about potential changes to federal education policy. The root of the President’s proposal – and we’ve probably only seen fragments of what will eventually come out – is a requirement that states adopt common “college- and career-readiness standards” to qualify for large chunks of federal money.

This certainly puts in place the “standards” part of  “standards and accountability” reform, which has dominated education for roughly the last fifteen years. But where’s the “accountability” part?

So far, nowhere. Yes, a state would have to adopt common standards – or, interestingly, somehow work with universities to certify its standards as college- and career-ready – but the administration has offered nothing by way of accountabilty for academic outcomes. Indeed, it has emphasized a move away from the “corrective” actions that No Child Left Behind imposes on laggard schools and has instead pushed getting extra resources (of course!) to those institutions.

This must be alarming to reformers who think the only way to fix education is to have government “get tough” on its schools. And the no-accountability approach certainly doesn’t make much intuitive sense. Without potential punishments or rewards for outcomes, what incentives do districts and schools have to meet standards, national or otherwise?

The answer, of course, is none. But don’t fret: Whether there are accountability measures for performance or not, in government-run schooling the outcome will be the same. Unfortunately, “the same” always means “poor.”

Why inevitably poor? Because the people employed in education – teachers, school administrators, bureaucrats – have hugely disproportionate power over education politics, and hence a tremendous ability to bend the system to their will. And what do they prefer from the system? The same thing you or I would ideally get from our jobs: as much money as possible with no accountability for what we produce. The impotence of NCLB is exhibit A of this.

With that political reality firmly in mind, the final result for any potential combination of standards and accountability becomes clear: No meaningful improvement. The handy matrix below lays it out:

So let’s give this to President Obama: His move to further federalize education authority is very troubling, but at least he doesn’t see the need for the accountability charade. Or so, anyway, it seems for the moment.