Expect the Worst

Yesterday, American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten had an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for national academic standards. Of course, union support for national standards is itself almost reason enough to fight any such move to the death, but over at The Corner Ramesh Ponnuru asks a critical question, wondering “why we should expect federal standards to resemble the best state standards rather than the worst ones.”

As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, especially to the standards zealots on the right, there is no good reason to expect quality to prevail. The people who would be held to high standards, such as teachers and school administrators, have huge incentives and political power to fight rigor, and given their political heft would almost certainly prevail. Indeed, based on what’s happened with standards to date, the odds seem hugely in favor of wimpiness. As I wrote in response to Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation a couple of years ago:

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”