Tag: national education standards

Plowing Through the Defenses of National Education Standards

Arguably the most troubling aspect of the push for national education standards has been the failure – maybe intentional, maybe not – of standards supporters to be up front about what they want and openly debate the pros and cons of their plans. Unfortunately, as Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios laments today, supporters are using the same stealthy approach to implement their plans on an unsuspecting public.

Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here.

I’m not going to leap into most of Jay and Mike’s debate , though it covers a lot of the same ground we hit in our forum last week, which you can check out here. I do want to note two things, though: (1) While I truly do appreciate Mike’s openly grappling with objections to what might be Fordham’s biggest reform push ever, I think his arguments don’t stand up to Jay’s, and (2) I think Mike’s identifying national media scrutiny as what will prevent special-interest capture of national standards is about as encouraging as BP telling Gulf-staters ”we’ve got a plan!”

Let’s delve into #2.

For starters, how much scrutiny does the national media give to legislating generally? Reporters might hit the big stuff and whatever is highly contentious, but even then how much of the important details do they offer? Think about the huge health care debate that just dominated the nation’s attention. How many details on the various bills debated did anybody get through the major media? How much clarity? Heck, sometimes legislators were debating bills that even they hadn’t seen, much less reporters. Of course, the health care bill was much bigger than, say, the No Child Left Behind Act, but remember how long after passage of NCLB it was before the Department of Education, much less the media, was able to nail down all of its important parts?

Which brings us to a whole different layer of policy making, one major media wade into even less often than legislating: writing regulations. How many stories have you read, or watched on TV news, about the writing of regulations for implementing anything, education or otherwise? I’d imagine precious few, yet this is where often vaguely written statutes are transformed into on-the-ground operations. It’s also where the special interests are almost always represented – after all, they’re the ones who will be regulated – but average taxpayers and citizens? Don’t go looking for them.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I keep hearing that daily newspapers are on their way out. Of course they might be replaced by cable television news, but those outlets almost always fixate on just the few, really big stories of the day – war, economic downturns, murders, golfers’ affairs, celebrity arrests – and education can rarely compete for coverage. And that seems likely to remain the case even if the education story is as scintillating as, say, federal regulators reducing the content of national standards by five percent. Indeed, education is so low on the reporting totem poll that the Brookings Institution has undertaken a crusade to save its life, and has noted that right now “there is virtually no national coverage of education.”

Wait, virtually none? Uh-oh. If national media scrutiny is supposed to be the primary bulwark protecting national standards from the special-interest capture that has repeatedly doomed state standards, the fact that almost no such coverage actually takes place really doesn’t give you a warm-fuzzy, does it? And if special-interest capture can’t be prevented – if standards can’t be kept high – then the entire raison d’etre of national standards crumbles to the ground.  

Which helps explain, of course, why national standards supporters are typically so eager to avoid debate: Their proposal is hopelessly, fatally flawed.

When National Standardizers Attack!

There’s just no pleasing some people who want to impose uniform curriculum standards on every public school in America.  Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that wasn’t even critical of national standards (save arguing that there are better reforms), yet Michael Petrilli of the standards-philic Thomas B. Fordham Institute still attacked.

What exactly did the WSJ have the temerity to write? That while there is “nothing wrong…with setting benchmarks for what the average child should know by a certain grade,” imposing national standards is not nearly as proven a reform as “school choice  and accountability.”

Petrilli was having none of this, declaring that choice is fine, but that people need national standards, set by government, to be able to make better choices.

His evidence? He offered almost none, and what he did cite was poppycock.

That curriculum standards set at any level of government will produce accurate and useful information for parents flies in the face of historical and political reality. Indeed, Fordham itself has furnished abundant evidence that standards-and-testing regimes, first under state control and then under No Child Left Behind, have repeatedly produced, essentially, lies about academic “success.”

National standards, on the other hand? In his response to the Journal, Petrilli simply proclaimed that they would provide “trustworthy information.”

Not only is there no evidence to support this claim, there are good reasons to conclude the opposite. The people employed by the public schools are the most motivated to be involved in education politics and the most easily organized, giving them outsized power. Couple that with their best interest being served by being held to low or no standards, and it is clear why standards and accountability mechanisms set by political, “democratic” means – as national standards would be – have almost always been rendered hollow.

This inconvenient political reality is one reason that there is no convincing research showing that national standards drive superior educational outcomes. But don’t expect a discussion of the national-standards evidence from the Fordham folks. They seem determined to avoid it. Except, that is, for citing one, isolated factoid.

Petrilli started his attack on the Journal by implying that the paper had actually acknowledged this homerun factoid: that the ”countries that outperform us on international assessments all have national standards in place.”


As I and many others have repeatedly pointed out – and as is obvious when you know the whole truth – this “evidence” is meaningless. Yes, most of the countries that beat us have national standards, but so do most of the countries that do worse! There is simply no meaningful correlation between having national standards and results on international exams.

Unfortunately, Petrilli didn’t just use the factoid to sell his national standards snake oil. He also invoked it to suggest that the WSJ editorialists had addled brains, that they had illogically acknowledged the factoid yet still soft-peddled national standards. But the Journal writers hadn’t embraced the factoid half-truth. They wrote the whole truth:

It’s true that some countries with uniform standards (Singapore, Japan) outperform the U.S., though other countries with such standards (Sweden, Israel) do worse. On the 2007 eighth-grade TIMSS test, an international math exam, all eight countries that scored higher than the U.S. had national standards. But so did 33 of the 39 countries that scored lower.

Unfortunately, this sort of evidence avoidance and distortion has been par for Fordham’s national-standards course. Indeed, in reviewing my new report that analyses the empirical evidence, Fordham’s Stafford Palmieri suggested that I simply failed to find proof that national standards work. She also concluded that that was no reason to avoid such standards. But what I actually found was that while the research is limited, what exists gives good reason to believe that national standards do not work. It’s a big difference.

Fordham’s refusal to systematically deal with the evidence is disturbing since the Institute is arguably the leading exponent of this  ”reform.” But whatever Fordham does, the nation must not ignore reality. If Fordham gets what it wants it will be imposed on everyone, and then it will be too late to “discover” that it was the wrong thing to do.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

Test Cheating by National Education Standards Agency

When you erase a test score and write in a new one for your own benefit, that’s cheating, right? So what is it when you do this several thousand times?

Ofqual, the British education standards regulator, “secretly downgraded the GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education test] results of thousands of pupils to avoid public fury over dumbed-down tests,” reports the Daily Mail. “Fearing a row over inflated results, Ofqual’s chief executive ordered all exam boards to cut the number of pupils getting top scores just two days before marks were finalized.”

The argument for national education standards is based on a host of unexamined and incorrect assumptions. One is the belief that the authorities overseeing such standards (and associated testing) will have truth and transparency as their only motivations. As the above example illustrates, that’s rubbish. Bureaucrats and politicians are as self-interested as the rest of humanity, and they do, in practice, consult their own interests in the execution of their duties.

The way to deal with this reality is not to ignore it – as national standards advocates and other statists are wont to do – but rather to adopt systems for structuring human action that take it into consideration. In the context of education standards, that means leaving the standards-setting process to the competitive marketplace: make it easy for all families to choose whatever schools they deem best, allow schools to administer whatever curriculum and whatever tests they want, and allow higher ed and employers to weigh the value of the various standards and certifications that arise. Lousy standards that don’t reflect real achievement won’t be valued, good ones that do will be.

National standards advocates are right that children should be encouraged to do their best and that every child’s diploma should really mean something. But that doesn’t mean that every diploma has to mean the same thing. A competitive marketplace for education standards and testing would ensure both quality and relevance, while also allowing for the fact that very different students heading toward very different futures may want to strive to excel in different areas.

For a detailed account of the evidence on national standards and its alternatives, see Neal McCluskey’s excellent recent policy analysis on the subject, linked here.

Remember When National Standards Were Going to be “Voluntary”?

In a speech today to the National Governors’ Association, President Obama proposed that states do exactly as he tells them regarding national education standards, or his government will take their people’s money and not give it back. The applause was… light.

Under the president’s preferred reform to federal education law, states would have to bring their curriculum standards into line with his administration’s wishes or they would be denied their share of the $14.5 billion education program known as “Title 1.”

But of course taxpayers in every state must pay for Title 1, whether or not the administration deigns to allow their children to participate. So the president wants to take their money and only give it back if they do as he says. The closest word I can think of to describe this arrangement is… extortion.

I’m fairly sure that’s not a central value underlying American greatness, but there’s another political entity that it does evoke.