June 4, 2010 3:44PM

Education Standards Throwdown!

On Wednesday, Cato hosted what turned out to be a very animated — and informative — debate on the likely effects of the drive for national education standards. The video of that throwdown is now online, and watching it will greatly reward viewers on any side of the national standards debate. Moreover, with states having to decide if they will adopt proposed national standards released the same day as our forum — and having to make that decision by August 2 to help compete for Race to the Top funds — Americans can no longer wait for this debate to go national.

And now, a little extension of our Wednesday debate. While it is perhaps a tad unfair of me to do this considering that the forum is technically over, this point is crucial: Protest to the contrary all they want, since at least December 2008 the primary Common Core State Standards Initiative members — the National Governors Association, the Council Of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. — have said that the federal government should be involved in paying for and implementing “common core” state standards. As stated on page 7 of Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World‐​class Education:

The federal government can play an enabling role as states engage in the critical but challenging work of international benchmarking. First, federal policymakers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above [including “adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”] At the same time, policymakers should boost federal research and development (R&D) investments to provide state leaders with more and better information about international best practices, and should help states develop streamlined assessment strategies that facilitate cost‐​effective international comparisons of student performance.

As states reach important milestones on the way toward building internationally competitive education systems, the federal government should offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements and providing more resources to implement world‐​class educational best practices.

In case that doesn’t make clear that CCSSI proponents have long wanted federal money and power to help drive creation and adoption of national standards, there is also this contradictory, but nonetheless damning, final entry from the FAQs page of the CCSSI website:

The federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation.

However, the federal government will have the opportunity to support states as they begin adopting the standards. For example, the federal government can

  • Support this effort through a range of tiered incentives, such as providing states with greater flexibility in the use of existing federal funds, supporting a revised state accountability structure, and offering financial support for states to implement the standards.
  • Provide long‐​term financial support for the development and implementation of common assessments, teacher and principal professional development, and research to help continually improve the common core state standards over time.
  • Revise and align existing federal education laws with the lessons learned from the best of what works in other nations and from research.

So there is no federal role in development or implementation of national standards. Oh right, except for providing “incentives” for states to “implement” the standards, and furnishing “long‐​term financial support for the development and implementation of common assessments.” In other words, there IS a federal role in developing and implementing national standards.

Finally, one last thing left hanging in Wednesday’s debate needs clarification: States knew very well that they would essentially have to sign on to the national standards effort to compete for Race to the Top money, which explains the seemingly widespread state support for the effort. Indeed, as early as February 2009 (registration required to read this and the next article) U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that he was contemplating using “stimulus” dollars to drive adoption of national standards, and the CCSSI didn’t even formally launch until April of that year.

So again, please watch Wednesday’s debate — it really is entertaining and informative. But make no mistake: The move to national standards is anything but truly voluntary and state led. It is very much a federal campaign.