Commentary

Let’s Not Play Standards Roulette

Whether it’s blind hope that Washington can fix anything, a lack of ideas for reforming our crummy schools, or some other reason entirely, calls for national academic standards are increasingly loud and frequent. And while President Barack Obama stopped short of explicitly advocating for them in his first major education address, there have been several high—profile calls recently by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, the National Governor’s Association and Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan.

But instituting national standards will not solve the problems facing our schools. Indeed, it would be like playing Russian roulette with our kids — with only one empty chamber.

What’s driving this bandwagon?

The No Child Left Behind Act is a big part of it. NCLB requires schools to bring all students to math and reading “proficiency” by 2014, but leaves it to states to define what that means. This practically begs states to set weak standards in order to stay out of trouble, and has led to standards that vary markedly from state to state but are almost always very low.

[I]nstituting national standards will not solve the problems facing our schools.”

Of course, NCLB isn’t designed like this because it yields the best educational results. It’s optimal politically. The law is structured to make federal politicians appear both tough on failing schools and dedicated to cherished local control.

But NCLB isn’t the only problem. Many people simply don’t trust the states, and reasonably so. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a longtime national standards supporter, has repeatedly documented, even before NCLB, state standards were all too often light and fluffy, not meaty and rigorous. In 2000, the Institute gave state standards an average grade of C minus, and concluded that only five states combined solid standards with strong accountability.

Like NCLB, politics explains this pitiful performance. As Fordham wrote, “Some people seem quite content to let it [establishing strong standards] take forever. … That will allow all the standards setters, enforcers, testers, monitors and analysts to maintain full employment, and will enable elected officials to continue to claim that they and their states are fully engaged in standards—based reform.”

In light of dismal state and federal track records, why should anyone expect national standards to miraculously avoid crippling politics and end up with anything better than what we’ve seen so far? No one should. Knowing that only a few states have occasionally gotten standards right, trying to nationalize them would be at best a high—risk game of Russian roulette.

Just think about how education politics works. Because their very livelihoods come from the public schools, the teachers, principals and bureaucrats who are to be held to performance standards exert outsized influence over them, and strongly resist being subjected to tough accountability. Meanwhile, politicians do whatever is easiest for them, trying to be all things to all people while keeping on the good sides of powerful interests such as teacher unions and administrator associations.

Political reality simply offers no support for national standards. Likewise, national standards supporters offer no convincing arguments for their proposal.

Randi Weingarten claims that “the countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards.” But most of the countries that do worse than we do also have national standards, making the correlation between national standards and academic success at best pretty weak.

How about the unreasonableness of states having “50 different goal posts,” as was cited by Secretary Duncan?

Certainly no child should be legally condemned to a bad school, but the fundamental problem isn’t that standards differ. Indeed, since all children are unique, differentiation at the individual level is critical to success. No, the fundamental problem is the “legally condemned” part. Unless their parents can afford private schools on top of taxes, children are forced to attend government schools that, by their very one—size—fits—all nature, stifle specialization and are powerfully inclined to low standards.

The last thing we need are government—driven national standards. We must not play Russian roulette with our kids. Indeed, we need to take the political revolver out of education completely. We need to let parents control education dollars, let autonomous schools freely set their own standards, and allow competition to continuously drive standards higher. We need universal school choice.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.