Policy Analysis No. 661

Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards

The argument for national curriculum standards sounds simple: set high standards, make all schools meet them, and watch American students achieve at high levels. It is straightforward and compelling, and it is driving a sea change in American education policy.

Unfortunately, setting high standards and getting American students to hit them is extremely difficult. Politically powerful interest groups must be overcome. Crippling conflicts between different religious, ethnic, and ideological factions must be avoided. And a culture that is generally averse to an intense focus on academics must be transformed. These challenges help to explain why the research on national standards is both very limited and inconclusive.

But what if the research were to clearly show that having national standards leads to superior performance on international tests? Still, there would not be compelling evidence that national standards produce optimal outcomes; economic growth, as well as personal fulfillment, could very well require an education focused on much more than just high test scores.

It appears that the route to successful education goes in the opposite direction of national standards; it goes toward universal school choice. Only a free market can produce the mix of high standards, accountability, and flexibility that is essential to achieving optimal educational outcomes.

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Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).