April 6, 2011 2:10PM

Standards Overreach, or According to Plan?

Over on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess senses that the “broad but shallow coalition” of national curriculum standards true‐​believers and folks who just like the idea of a common academic metric might be fracturing. The cause: The Albert Shanker Institute’s national curriculum manifesto released last month, as well as lingering concern about impending national tests. Suddenly — and seemingly against the wishes of Common Core leaders — the national standards push is starting to appear much less “voluntary” and much more micromanaging than advertised. 

I hope that Hess is right that alarm is spreading over the oozingly expanding national‐​standards blob, but I disagree with how he seems to characterize what’s happening. Hess appears to see these developments, especially the Shanker manifesto, as overreaching by just some of the more zealous nationalizers, much to the consternation of the main Common Core architects and advocates. But as I have pointed out before, if you reach into the bowels of what would‐​be nationalizers have written, as well as the logic behind national standards, it is hard to see this as anything but planned.

At the very least, the main advocates haven’t wanted standards adoption to be truly voluntary, by which I mean states are neither rewarded nor punished for adopting or bypassing the standards. The Obama administration intentionally and openly coerced adoption with Race to the Top, for one thing, without eliciting any loud opposition from Common Core creators. But the administration was really just doing what the Common Core‐​leading National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., called for back in 2008. As stated on page 7 of their publication 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.

If you have federal “enabling” and “incentives” you cease to have truly voluntary state adoption — or movement to the “next stage” — of curriculum standards. And that is exactly what the core supporters of Common Core have wanted. 

But aren’t standards just, well, standards, not curricula?

This is largely semantics. True, you can pinpoint what you want children to learn and when they should learn it without identifying how that goal should be reached. But just by defining the goal you are driving curricula, stating what must be taught. Indeed, there would be no point to the standards if the intention weren’t in some way to affect curricula — what is actually taught in the schools.

Of course, there is another part to this: the two federally funded national tests currently under development, which Hess is hearing some in Washington would like to see become just one test. But whether we have a federally backed testing monopoly or duopoly ultimately won’t matter: For the tests to have meaning they will have to include concrete content, and assuming performance on those tests will impact how much federal money states and districts get — which appears to be what the Obama administration wants, and is the only thing that makes sense for people who back federal “accountability” — you now have a de facto required, federal curriculum.

I hope Hess is correct and the Common Core coalition is fracturing. I am dubious, though, that any major fissures are being riven by a faction of zealots that has just gone too far. Based on both the evidence and logic, going too far has been the widely held goal for several years.