Of course, NCLB isn’t designed like this because it yields the best educational results. It’s optimal politically. The law is structured to make federal politicians appear both tough on failing schools and dedicated to cherished local control.
But NCLB isn’t the only problem. Many people simply don’t trust the states, and reasonably so. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a longtime national standards supporter, has repeatedly documented, even before NCLB, state standards were all too often light and fluffy, not meaty and rigorous. In 2000, the Institute gave state standards an average grade of C minus, and concluded that only five states combined solid standards with strong accountability.
Like NCLB, politics explains this pitiful performance. As Fordham wrote, “Some people seem quite content to let it [establishing strong standards] take forever. … That will allow all the standards setters, enforcers, testers, monitors and analysts to maintain full employment, and will enable elected officials to continue to claim that they and their states are fully engaged in standards—based reform.”
In light of dismal state and federal track records, why should anyone expect national standards to miraculously avoid crippling politics and end up with anything better than what we’ve seen so far? No one should. Knowing that only a few states have occasionally gotten standards right, trying to nationalize them would be at best a high—risk game of Russian roulette.
Just think about how education politics works. Because their very livelihoods come from the public schools, the teachers, principals and bureaucrats who are to be held to performance standards exert outsized influence over them, and strongly resist being subjected to tough accountability. Meanwhile, politicians do whatever is easiest for them, trying to be all things to all people while keeping on the good sides of powerful interests such as teacher unions and administrator associations.
Political reality simply offers no support for national standards. Likewise, national standards supporters offer no convincing arguments for their proposal.
Randi Weingarten claims that “the countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards.” But most of the countries that do worse than we do also have national standards, making the correlation between national standards and academic success at best pretty weak.
How about the unreasonableness of states having “50 different goal posts,” as was cited by Secretary Duncan?
Certainly no child should be legally condemned to a bad school, but the fundamental problem isn’t that standards differ. Indeed, since all children are unique, differentiation at the individual level is critical to success. No, the fundamental problem is the “legally condemned” part. Unless their parents can afford private schools on top of taxes, children are forced to attend government schools that, by their very one—size—fits—all nature, stifle specialization and are powerfully inclined to low standards.
The last thing we need are government—driven national standards. We must not play Russian roulette with our kids. Indeed, we need to take the political revolver out of education completely. We need to let parents control education dollars, let autonomous schools freely set their own standards, and allow competition to continuously drive standards higher. We need universal school choice.