National Standards Nonsense is Still Nonsense

By 06/09/2010

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Mike Petrilli has finally tried to address the problems we’ve raised regarding national standards.  Despite Mike’s best efforts, I’m afraid that national standards and assessments still sound like a really bad idea.

I raised doubts about the rigor and soundness of the proposed national standards, citing the fact that many credible experts have denounced them as lousy.  His response is simply to repeat that Fordham has given the standards good grades and thinks the latest revisions have been positive.  This is not a substantive response; it is simply a reiteration of their initial position.

Why should we find Fordham’s grading of the proposed national standards any more credible than that of the experts who have denounced the standards?  The fact that Fordham issued a report with letter grades is just a marketing exercise for Fordham’s opinion.  There is nothing scientific or rigorous about Fordham hand-picking their friends experts to repeat the opinion Fordham already holds — especially when we know from past experience that Fordham might exclude experts or change the grades if it does not come out the way they want.

Yes, the national standards may be better than those in some states, but everyone seems to agree that they are also worse than the standards in some states.  Why should we hurt the excellent standards in MA or CA to improve the standards in AR or MS?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to focus our energies on pressuring states with bad standards to improve them?

It is true that the Edublob dominates the standards and assessment process in many states, but the existence of choice and competition among the states places constraints on their ability to impose nonsense through that machinery.  If the standards and assessment process is centralized at the national level, the Edublob will be able to impose nonsense on everyone with no “exit power” to constraint them.

Rather than rely on market mechanisms to constrain nonsense, Mike places his trust in devising national political systems that he thinks can develop and maintain good national standards and assessments.  In particular, Mike thinks that it is “more likely that the good guys will stay in charge at the national level, where all of this stuff will operate under the bright lights of the national media, than in the states, where decisions get made behind closed doors.”  The national government also regulates off-shore drilling and the financial system.  How well did those bright lights work at ensuring a sensible regulatory framework?

The hard reality is that regulation tends to be captured by the regulated industry (unless there are competing, well-organized interests, which in education there are not).  Education regulations, like national standards and assessments, are at least as likely to be captured by the Edublob as the oil industry is to capture off-shore drilling regulations or the banking industry is to capture financial regulations.

The answer is not to have bigger, more centralized regulations.  The answer is to maintain the proper incentives by empowering market forces, which also serve to keep the regulatory framework honest.  I’m not advocating against all regulations.  I’m saying that there need to be market checks and balances to keep regulatory frameworks reasonable.  If we centralize the standards and assessment process, we have eliminated some of the few market checks and balances we have in education.  The fact that Linda Darling-Hammond is part of the leading bid to develop national assessments to go along with these national standards should make clear the dangers of nationalizing this process.

And make no mistake.  The Obama administration has signaled that it intends to link federal money to adoption of a Linda Darling-Hammond test or whatever other nonsense this centralized process may produce.  Just because Mike thinks  ”the Administration erred and gave national standards opponents an opportunity to raise concerns about federal overreach” doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to do precisely what they have declared they will do even if he thinks it is mistaken.

But the most telling comment of Mike’s faulty thinking on national standards was when he asked: ”Does Jay oppose voucher programs because they might get hijacked by shady for-profit providers who just want to make money off the backs of poor kids?”  The fundamental difference between the potential for “hijacking” of national standards and assessments and the “hijacking” of a voucher school is the mechanism by which one can control (or hijack) them.

Voucher schools are controlled primarily by the market choices of parents.  You can’t “hijack” a voucher school because parents can choose to go to another school if they dislike what the school tries to do.  But you can “hijack” national standards and assessments because they are controlled politically and not by market forces.  People who dislike what the national standards and assessments do are still compelled to send their children to schools operating under that national system.  You don’t need parental or even popular buy-in to hijack national standards and assessments.  You just have to be better politically organized and motivated to dominate the process by which those standards and assessments are developed and maintained.

This all leads to my question that Mike never answered:

“If there really were one true way to educate all children, why stop at national standards? Why not have global standards with a global curriculum?

We would oppose global standards for the same reasons we should oppose national standards. Making education uniform at too high of a level of aggregation ignores the diversity of needs of our children as well as the diversity of opinion about how best to serve those needs. And giving people at the national or global level the power to determine what everyone should learn is dangerous because they will someday use that power to promote unproductive or even harmful ideas.”

The reason Mike and other supporters of national standards and assessments don’t advocate for global standards and assessments (even though the logic for doing so is essentially the same as national standards and assessments) is that they imagine that they’ll be the ones controlling the national process.  Someone else would dominate the global one and that would have to be bad.

As much as I like Mike, I don’t want him or (more likely) the Edublob dominating national standards and assessment, which would have profound effects on how every classroom in the country operates.  Even though it is messy and imperfect, we need to decentralize power in education rather than centralize it.  We need to do so for the same reason the Constitution decentralizes power — to prevent abuses and tyranny that inevitably arise when power is unchecked and concentrated.  We need to decentralize power in education to allow market mechanisms to operate.  We need to decentralize power to recognize the legitimate diversity of needs and approaches that exist in our educational system.

Benevolent dictatorships are always attractive on paper but the benevolent part never works out in practice.

Comment on this article
  • Peter Meyer says:

    I like both Jay and Mike. Both are smarter than the average 5th-grader — and probably a lot smarter than the average 5th-grade teacher. And they may even be smarter than the average principal and average superintendent. That’s a chain of command that is now writing and implementing our national standards and curricula. Why? Because, for all practical purposes, we already have the anarchic (i.e. decentralized) system that Jay says he wants. The problem with Jay’s argument is that it is the arguendo ad absurdum that has created the public school system we now have: the inmates running the asylum. Every day teachers impose standards and curricula on kids; every day administrators and state level educrats work tirelessly to keep the public from understanding what’s really going on; and every day the unions are helping ensure that the system keeps on keeping on. And with all due respect to our hard-working teachers, much of what goes on in the classroom is pretty lousy stuff. I appreciate Jay’s decentralization ideas, but to impose them within a monopoly like the one our children now suffer through is a bit like opposing traffic lights in Manhattan…. But I do think we can harness Jay’s free market instincts and yoke them to Mike’s desire for a system of National Standards and Curriculum by having several Blue Ribbon panels and several different sets of voluntary standards and curricula — and promote them and sell in the marketplace. Let States and local districts choose — or not choose — among them. But let’s spend more time and effort striving for excellence and then shining the light on schools and districts that prefer mediocrity….

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    I agree with much of what Peter has to say, especially the parts about how smart Mike and I are. : )

    But there’s a theory underlying Peter’s argument that is also central to Mike’s: “inmates” will be less likely to run the asylum if decisions are made at the national rather than the state, local, school, or parental levels. I think the empirical evidence clearly contradicts this theory (see off-shore drilling or financial sector regulation). It’s telling that banks prefer national over state regulation — it provides them with one-stop shopping for their successful lobbying activities. The fact that the Edublob also backs national standards should tell you something.

    I do agree, however, with Peter’s compromise policy suggestion — let’s have multiple national organizations promulgating a variety of standards and assessments. States, localities, schools, and parents can then voluntarily choose to embrace one of those approaches and advertise that fact.

    But to work this has to be truly voluntary — not the false “voluntary” system where the federal government effectively fines you for not doing what it wants by handing your tax dollars to others who are compliant with federal wishes.

  • concerned says:

    Common Core Standards have very weak high school mathematics content.

    “These proposed national standards are vague and lack the academic rigor of the standards in Massachusetts and a number of other states,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios. “The new report shows that these weak standards will result in weak assessments. After so much progress and the investment of billions of tax dollars, it amounts to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of excellence.”

    WHY IS THIS SUCH A HUGE PROBLEM FOR OUR COUNTRY? (check out the Toolbox Study at this link)

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