It didn't get a lot of attention, but in last week's State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that's been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn't actually call them "national standards" because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:
Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.
Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes. Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It's an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.
Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics -- something that exists before standards and schooling -- has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:
The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.
They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.
The report said: "The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child's general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors."
In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn't it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn't it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?
Of course it does, but that would require "experts" of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what's best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.
Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical -- but power relinquishing -- solution.
On NRO today, the Fordham Institute's Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli take a little time to gloat about the continuing spread of national education standards. In addition, as is their wont, they furnish hollow pronouncements about the Common Core being good as far as standards go, and "a big, modernized country on a competitive planet" needing national standards. Oh, and apparently having counted the opponents of national standards on "the right," they note that there are just "a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with."
Now, there are more than six conservatives and libertarians who have fought national standards. But Finn and Petrilli are sadly correct that most conservatives haven't raised a finger to stop a federal education takeover -- and this is a federal takeover -- that they would have screamed bloody murder about ten years ago. There are many reasons for this, but no doubt a big one is that too many conservatives really are big-government conservatives committed, not to constitutionally constrained government, but controlling government themselves. If they think they can write the national standards, then national standards there should be.
These kinds of conservatives just never learn. As I have explained more times than I care to remember, government schooling will ultimately be controlled by the people it employs because they are the most motivated to engage in education politics. And naturally, their goal will be to stay as free of outside accountability as possible!
This is not theoretical. It is the clear lesson to be learned from the failure of state-set standards and accountability across the country -- not to mention decades of federal education impotence -- that Fordhamites constantly bewail. Indeed, Finn and Petrilli lament it again in their NRO piece, complaining that "until now...the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement." And why is this? Politics! As they explained in their 2006 publication To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools:
The state standards movement has been in place for almost fifteen years. For almost ten of those years, we...have reviewed the quality of state standards. Most were mediocre-to-bad ten years ago, and most are mediocre-to-bad today. They are generally vague, politicized, and awash in wrongheaded fads and nostrums.
At this point, I really have nothing new to say. That political reality will gut national standards while making the public schooling monopoly even worse is clear if you're willing to acknowledge it. Regretably, the folks at Fordham -- and many conservatives -- just aren't. So congratulations on your victory, Fordham. To everyone else, my deepest condolences.
As Massachusetts nears decision time on adopting national education standards, the Boston Herald takes state leaders to task for their support of the Common Core standards, which some analysts say are inferior to current state standards. But fear not, says Education Secretary Paul Reville. If the national standards are inferior, the Bay State can change them. “We will continue to be in the driver’s seat."
If only national standardizers -- many of whom truly want high standards and tough accountability -- would look a little further than the ends of their beaks.
Here's the reality: Massachusetts will not be in the drivers seat in the future. Indeed, states aren't in the driver's seat right now, because it is federal money that is steering the car, and many more DC ducats will likely be connected to national standards when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is eventually reauthorized. And this is hardly new or novel -- the feds have forced "voluntary" compliance with its education dictates for decades by holding taxpayer dollars hostage.
With that in mind, let's stop focusing on whether the Common Core standards right now are good, bad, or indifferent, and talk about their future prospects, which is what really matters. Oh, wait: Most national standardizers avoid that discussion like the plague because they know that the overwhelming odds are the standards will end up either dismal, or at best just unenforced. Why? Because the same political forces that have smushed centralized standards and accountability in almost every state -- the teacher unions, administrator associations, self-serving politicians, etc. -- will just do their dirty work at the federal rather than state level. Indeed, those groups will still be the most motivated and effectively organized to control education politics, but they will have the added benefit of one-stop shopping!
The tragic flaw in the thinking of many national-standards supporters is not the desire to create high bars for students to clear, but the utter delusion, or maybe just myopia, that allows them to assume that they will control the standards in a monopoly over which, by its very nature, they almost never hold the reins. It's fantastical thinking that would actually be pitiable were it not for the fact that, to realize their delusional dreams, they have take us all down with them.