Over at Jay Greene's blog, Sandra Stotsky riffs off an Education Week report about educators around the country not seeing the difference between their old state standards and new, "Common Core" standards. Stotsky offers a theory for why this is: Common Core -- as far as anyone can tell because the standards-drafting process was so opaque -- was put together largely by the same people responsible for the bad old state standards. As a result, maybe they really aren't all that different.
The general ignorance about the standards brings up an important point. As Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institute has pointed out, yes, the $4.35-billion federal Race to the Top pushed a lot of states to adopt the Common Core standards, but that doesn't explain states adopting the standards after RTTT had concluded. It's a reasonable point. So what else is at play?
Likely one part of the explanation is that many state education officials really don't know much about either the Common Core or their state's standards, so they've seen no big problem with switching over. This general ignorance has likely been exacerbated by Common Core advocates' strategy of keeping the whole national-standardizing process out of the public eye, whether it's been secretive drafting of the standards, or supporters' constant mantra of "don't worry, it's all voluntary" while petitioning for federal adoption "incentives." And let's face it: Just going with the flow and adopting national standards furnishes one less thing state officials have to take responsbility for. If the standards turn out to be a disaster -- or simply gutted by special interests in Washington -- all that state officials have to say is "sorry, the whole nation was adopting them. Heck, the feds were practically forcing us to adopt them. It's not our fault." Add to all this that No Child Left Behind likely had much of the public thinking we already had national standards, and it's little wonder that the Common Core was able to worm its way into so many states.
Whether it's been adoption in response to bribery, passing the buck, or just keeping everything under the radar, the national-standards drive has been a troubling affair. But there is still hope: Washington hasn't cemented national standards and testing by attaching them to the big federal dollars flowing through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka, No Child Left Behind. But efforts to revise the law are underway, and if the final version contains any connection between national standards and eligibility for federal taxpayer dough, then there will be no escape.
A Washington Post story from a couple of days ago touts survey results showing a majority of DC parents -- 53 percent -- finally giving the DC public schools a decent grade. That is, to be fair, a big story. But it certainly isn't the most overwhelming finding in the survey. That you find mentioned deep in the article:
This year, Congress approved an extension of a federal program that provides vouchers to help students from some low-income D.C. families attend private or parochial schools. The survey found that nearly 70 percent of parents with children in the system support such tuition aid. Overall, nearly two-thirds of residents back vouchers, with positive sentiment higher among African Americans.
Perhaps even more interesting is that support for charter schools -- the "it" choice reform because charters are still public schools -- is downright tepid in comparison:
Residents remain ambivalent about the rapidly growing public charter sector, which serves 28,000 students. Forty-one percent consider the independently operated charters better than regular public schools; 42 percent say they are about the same. The favorable rating rises to a slight majority, however, among residents younger than 30.
The people of DC overwhelmingly want real, private-school choice. That's the news about DC education that everyone should know!
On Monday, we took the word right to Capitol Hill: The federal government has been an abject education failure, and the only acceptable solution to the problem is for Uncle Sam to leave our kids alone.
At the briefing in which the word was issued, Heritage's Lindsey Burke and I also examined congressional proposals that could move us closer to the ultimate solution — especially the LEARN and A-PLUS acts — and explained why Washington, even if its interference were authorized by the Constitution, will never make education better by staying involved.
Unfortunately, lots of people couldn't make the briefing. That's why we are so happy to be able to present the briefing right here, to view in the comfort of your own computer chair.
A rabid fan of both Cato's Center for Educational Freedom and The Miss USA Pageant (some may know him as Jim Harper) just sent me a link to this YouTube video. In the vid, all the contestants in the just-completed, aforementioned pageant discuss whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.
I didn't tally their responses, but just listening to the contenders it seems their consensus answer represents America in microcosm: Most seem to have serious doubts about evolution, but support teaching it along with other viewpoints. It reflects both the overall split within the American public—40 to 50 percent of Americans are creationists, and roughly the same segment evolutionists—as well as the consensus view on teaching human origins: About 60 percent of Americans support teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools.
Of the most interest to us here at CEF is whether public schooling can even handle a hot-button issue like human origins. Is a government system of schools that all diverse people must support capable of dealing with a controversial subject like this, or will it spark conflict that ultimately ends with no side getting the view it wants taught?
The existing evidence shows that government schooling generally can't handle controversy, but that is almost never even mentioned in the seemingly endless war between creationists and evolutionists. And the same is true for the aspiring Miss USAs. While a few appeared to conclude that the nation is too diverse for public schools to deal with this topic—see Miss Kentucky at the 5:07 mark, and Miss Utah at 12:36—the majority made no mention of the problem. Fortunately, only one gave the answer libertarians should fear most: Miss Indiana ( 4:25 ) said "I think we should leave that up to the government." (In the Hoosier rep's defense, she did eventually conclude that we should "just leave that out of the equation" because it would be too controversial).
At least when it comes to the teaching of human origins in schools, Miss USA contestants really do appear to represent their country.
Over at the New America Foundation's "Higher Ed Watch" blog, Stephen Burd purports to know "the truth behind Senate Republican's boycott of the Harkin hearing." And what is that truth? Republicans are trying to "discredit an investigation that has revealed just how much damage their efforts to deregulate the industry over the past decade have caused both students and taxpayers."
Okay, it is possible that Republicans are trying to save themselves some sort of blame or embarrasment -- I can't read their minds -- but if so they've done a terrible job. Every time Harkin holds one of his hearings the bulk of the media coverage treats it like it has revealed shocking abuse by the entire for-profit sector. And don't forget the damage done by the now-discredited -- at least for those wonks who have followed it -- GAO "secret shopper" report that was baised against for-profits enough on its own, but Sen. Harkin abused even beyond what the GAO wrote was reasonable. So Harkin has defintiely gotten his message across, and he certainly hasn't hidden past Republican efforts to reduce regulatory burdens on for-profit schools.
The fact remains, however, that the whole Ivory Tower -- every floor and staircase -- is loaded down with luxurious but crushing waste, and the crumbling foundations are being propped up with huge amounts of taxpayer dough and student debt. Not addessing that, as the boycotting Senators have stated, is what has been blaringly wrong with Harkin's crusade. (Not that I think either party is likely to do what needs to be done: phasing out federal student aid.)
So absolutely, let's stop forcing taxpayers to prop up the for-profit part of the tower. But let's also stop pretending that that part isn't just one rotten level in a much bigger, buckling edifice.
Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) held his fifth -- and perhaps final -- Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee show-hearing lambasting for-profit colleges. As usual, it was a decidedly one-sided affair, with no profit-defenders apparently invited to testify, and Republican committee members boycotting. Perhaps the only interesting thing that occurred was Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who has never given any indication he doesn't support Harkin's obsessive whale hunt, saying the proceedings could have benefitted from more than one point of view. According to MarketWatch, Franken lamented that “it would have been nice to have someone here to represent the for-profit schools.” Now, he might have only wanted a for-profit rep there to receive the beating, but even that would have been preferable to no rep at all.
Could this indicate that even Senate Democrats are getting tired of Harkin's tedious grandstanding against for-profit colleges, especially now that the Education Department has issued its "gainful employment" rules? Maybe, and there are lots of Dems in the House who have opposed the attack on for-profit schools for some time. But don't expect this to be over quite yet: Harkin still gets a lot of negative media coverage for proprietary schools with each hearing, while the scandals surrounding people he's had testify; the decrepit GAO "secret shopper" report that turned out to be hugely inaccurate; and potentially dirty dealings behind the gainful employment rules seem only to get real ink from Fox News and The Daily Caller. And Harkin keeps indicating that he will introduce legislation -- doomed to failure though it may be -- to curb for-profits even further.
Of course, what should be the biggest source of outrage in all of this is that while Harkin fixates on for-profit schools, Washington just keeps on enabling all of higher education to luxuriate in ever-pricier, taxpayer-funded opulence. Indeed, as a new Cato report due out next week will show, putatively nonprofit universities are likely making bigger profits on undergraduate students than are for-profit institutions. Of course, they don't call them "profits" -- nonprofits always spend excess funds, thus increasing their "costs" -- but that's probably just plain smart. Be honest about trying to make a buck, and Sen. Harkin has shown just what's likely to befall you.
Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan "The United States of Energy." Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.
Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming's Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.
In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if "consensus" were synonymous with "absolute truth." What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.
Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don't just fail, they hurt everyone.
Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.