Checker’s Case for World Government (and Common Core)

By 12/13/2011

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In the current issue of the Education Gadfly and on the Education Next blog Checker Finn offers an unusual argument for adoption of K-12 national standards.  He likens opposition to national standards to rooting for the Euro to fail:

If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira, drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education.

It’s odd that Checker should pick the Euro as a way to make the case for national standards since the Euro’s difficulties wonderfully illustrate the problems with national standards.  The Euro is in trouble because it was an attempt to impose a common currency on countries that were too diverse in their economic needs and political traditions.  The Euro is too strong of a currency for countries with un-competitive labor forces and undisciplined budget deficits, like Greece, Italy, and Spain.  But if the European Central Bank significantly loosens the currency to bail out these countries, it will create serious inflation problems in countries like Germany and others with more skilled labor forces and reasonable deficits.

The Euro is not in trouble because some people “hope the Euro crashes.”  It’s in trouble because it is a centralized institution that does not fit the diversity of its members.

Similarly, national standards will fail because it is not possible to have a centrally determined set of meaningful standards that can accommodate the legitimate diversity of needs, goals, and values of all of our nation’s school children.  To have an effect national standards inevitably drive the assessments that are used to measure student achievement as well as the methods of instruction that are used to produce that achievement.  ”Tight-loose” is just an empty slogan (or part of a drinking game).  In reality standards, assessments, and instruction are closely connected unless they are just irrelevant things.

In a country as large and diverse as ours there is no single, right set of knowledge for all students to possess, no single, best way to assess that knowledge, and no single, best method for teaching it.  The attempt to impose a nationalized system onto this diversity is doomed to fail just as the Euro is doomed to fail in imposing a common currency on such diverse economies and political systems.

The fact that the Euro is in such trouble and creating such political and economic turmoil ought to scare us away from trying to impose a centralized solution on too much diversity.  The Euro crisis is an argument against national standards, unless we are eager to have similar difficulties here.

No one is rooting for those failures, per se.  Some of us just recognize that reality is not created by repeating slogans to each other over catered lunches at DC think tank conferences.  Reality actually exists out there in the world and no matter how many chardonnays I’ve had while listening to the keynote speaker and no matter how many grants the Gates Foundation sprinkles on me and my friends, centrally imposing institutions on too much diversity is doomed to fail.

Of course, there is a way to overcome that diversity and improve the chances for centrally imposed institutions to succeed — force.  If European countries relinquish power to make their own budgets to a central authority, the Euro might work.  Similarly, if individual schools, school districts, and states relinquish power over daily operations to a central authority, the nationalized education movement might succeed.

But achieving that type of centralization in the face of diversity requires an enormous amount of coercion.  People who disagree have to be suppressed, or at least denied the ability to do anything about their dissent.  Local folks no longer get to make the meaningful decisions.  They can just implement the decisions that are centrally made.

This could work but it would be awful.  Some people say they would favor a World Government if only it were possible to do it.  I’m not one of those people.  World Government would be awful because it would require an enormous amount of coercion to overcome local diversity.  To a much lesser degree, a nationalized education system in the US could be done but it would run roughshod over the needs and legitimate interests of many individuals.

But some people are nevertheless attracted to centralized solutions.  I think Tears for Fears has a song that might explain why.

Comment on this article
  • Anne Clark says:

    I think there is a “single, right set” of mathematics knowledge that students should possess even if there is not one single way to assess or teach it. I think a lot of parents would agree with me. We want our kids to know math, and get rid of the excuses.

    The CCSS are just setting the minimum. Let’s end the lies the current sets of state standards perpetuate.

    An example: Why give National Merit scholarships to kids in Mississippi with lower math/critical reading/writing scores than many NJ kids?

    “Legitimate diversity of needs, goals, and values”?

    I don’t think so. Just nonsense. Kids need to know their math if they really want to be college and career ready – and it doesn’t differ from Mississippi to New Jersey.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Anne — Since you restrict your comments to math standards, would you agree that there is no single, right set of knowledge in ELA, social studies, and other subjects? I ask because the national standards movement does not restrict itself to math.

    If you think there is a single, right set of knowledge at least for math, would you be OK with having global math standards? Why should math be different in Belgium than it is in the US? Of course, you might think that the level at which math standards are decided, local, state, national, or global, might be related to the likelihood that good standards would be selected.

    And if there is an obviously correct set of standards for math, why aren’t the 50 state standards identical? How do you so clearly see the truth while others cannot?

    Lastly, a small clarification — the National Merit Scholarship is based on performance on the PSAT, which is not based on state standards and does not vary from state to state.

  • Anne Clark says:

    You know, pragmatically, whether you or I agree with them or not, each state has already individually determined a “single right set of knowledge” for every subject area – their state standards. Right? So the answer to your first question, pragmatically, has to be no. All we’re debating is whether states can agree to one set – with some additions allowed – to use as a nation.

    There is something I was taught when studying engineering under Dr. Carberry called the principal of optimum sloppiness – finding the sweet “value” spot between pure science and empiricism.

    From a “pure science” standpoint, perhaps you think that individual state standards will foster innovation, and will prevent the inevitable decline towards the lowest common denominator – something kids don’t seem to be taught these days, I’m afraid. But from an “empirical” standpoint, I’d say that individual state standards have produced sub-optimal outcomes. Too many states – especially my home state of NJ – have written terrible sets of standards. So using the principal of optimum sloppiness, I’d say we have a better outcome with CCSS than with the previous approach. I’d say we would have had an even “sloppier” – in a positive sense – outcome if we had all just adopted MA’s standards and focused on implementation! Perhaps “pure science” would have said we would eventually get great individual state standards – but the “optimum sloppiness” of the CCSS got us 85-90% of the benefits in a shorter period of time.

    Does the level at which standards are agreed upon impact their quality? My son is doing the IB program at his high school. My nephew and niece did the IB program in Greece. What’s the problem with common international standards? The answer to your second question is yes.

    Also, from all the college admissions information sessions I have attended, the colleges don’t seem to care whether a student follows AP standards (national) or IB standards (international) because they are both high quality. They don’t care if they took the ACT or the SAT. Colleges don’t feel a need to develop individual admissions tests. They’re OK with 2 testing consortia.

    Even Fordham’s reviews of state standards implies a single right set of knowledge by which to judge each state’s choices, right? How does Fordham so clearly see the truth? Now it seems the majority of states can see the “truth” too.

    So I think pragmatically we aren’t that far from an agreed upon minimum set of knowledge for each subject area.

    I know my analogy with the PSAT is not perfect – but the cut scores to determine who is named a Semifinalist vary by state. So a student in Wyoming only needs to get a 204 to be a semifinalist, while a student in NJ, MA, or DC needs to get a score of 223. This reminds me of the definitions of proficiency that vary dramatically from state to state that is seen when the cut scores for state assessments are compared via NAEP. So how a student is judged on the PSAT does vary from state to state wrt scholarship opportunities. No more sense to this than there is sense to different definitions of proficiency for 8th grade math from state to state.


    We really aren’t that far from a single set of knowledge in the US. I think the Governors and CSSOs saw this. Hopefully more and more people will see this as the CCSSs are implemented and we achieve optimum sloppiness.

  • David N. Cox says:

    Anne, if we have 50 different “standards,” some will be poor because of the choices of those in that state, but more will be better than with a nationally agreed upon “standard,” because it has to be agreed upon by so many. It becomes the “lowest common denominator.”

    My district had much better standards than what the state forced us to adopt, and I believe our state’s current standards are better than Common Core. I don’t want to be held down to what can be agreed upon nationwide.

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