March 23, 2010 4:48PM

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.