National Standards Nonsense

By 03/11/2010

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The national standards train-wreck is pulling into the station, again.  This time it is a completely voluntary set of national standards in the same way that complying with a 21-year-old drinking age is completely voluntary for states to receive federal highway money.  States had to commit to a rushed and largely secretive national standard setting process as part of the Race to the Top application.

Well, now the draft standards have been released for a hurried public comment period before they try to cram them into place.  In the end they’ll probably fail to get all the states on board for anything meaningful, but it won’t be for lack of arm-twisting.  The Gates Foundation has sprinkled money on just about every education policy organization to ensure their support or at least muted opposition.

Even people and groups that should have no interest in these national standards and even expressed skepticism of them in the recent past are now embracing them.  Barely two weeks ago Checker Finn wrote:

This is enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic, since nobody yet has any idea whether these standards will be solid, whether the tests supposed to be aligned with them will be up to the challenge, or whether the “passing scores” on those tests will be high or low, much less how this entire apparatus will be sustained over the long haul.

But today he is quoted in the New York Times expressing his enthusiastic support:

I’d say this is one of the most important events of the last several years in American education… Now we have the possibility that, for the first time, states could come together around new standards and high school graduation requirements that are ambitious and coherent. This is a big deal.

What gives?  Nothing in the draft standards should have put Checker at ease about their rigor.  And nothing has happened that has addressed his earlier concerns about aligning tests, setting high cut scores, or sustaining rigor over time.

Similarly the folks over at Core Knowledge have decided to drink the Kool-Aid.  Just a few months ago I expressed frustration with national standards advocates:

Every decade or so we have to debate the desirability of adopting national standards for education.  People tend to be in favor of them when they imagine that they are the ones writing the standards.  But when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards.  What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone.  There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.  Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder.

At the time Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio linked to that post and added “I’m inclined to agree.”  But today he is the press contact for a statement from Core Knowledge declaring that the new draft national standards are a “not-to be-missed opportunity for American education.”

What’s even more amazing is that the draft national standards are being guided by the same 21st Century Skills nonsense articulated by Tony Wagner.  Core Knowledge supporters should recoil in horror at this approach unless they fantasize that they will “somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place” without the edublob noticing and blocking them.  Good luck.

I’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well.  The standards will inevitably be diluted and made even more 21st century skill-like to gain sufficiently broad support.  The standards-based reformers at Fordham and Core Knowledge will end up renouncing the final product, but will continue to believe that if only the right standards were adopted all would be well.  And we’ll start this all over again in about a decade.

Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Comment on this article
  • Education Next says:

    The following comes from an exchange between Checker Finn and Jay Greene on

    Checker says:
    Jay, try reading the draft standards yourself rather than listening to the grumps and crotchets that surround you. No, they’re not perfect (and some people now fill their days and earn their livings taking shots at them) but they’re pretty darned good, better than those of the overwhelming majority of states. States that don’t find them superior ought not adopt them. And maybe they’ll be better after repairs are made at the end of the current comment period. But no, I haven’t lost my mind. What I did instead was read the standards themselves rather than just reading peoples’ opinions about them.
    PS: Fordham’s experts’ detailed reviews will be out next week.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    The following comes from an exchange between Checker and me on

    Checker, let’s leave aside for now the quality of the draft standards. Even if the standards are acceptable, the issue as you noted two weeks ago is “whether the tests supposed to be aligned with them will be up to the challenge, or whether the ‘passing scores’ on those tests will be high or low, [and] how this entire apparatus will be sustained over the long haul.” Nothing has happened in the last two weeks that should reassure you on any of those issues.

    My biggest concern is how this plays out over time. Once you build a national standards machine, what makes you think that you will remain at the controls over time even if you are driving when the process starts? I can’t even understand your confidence that maybe the standards will get better over this three week comment period, let alone over the next three decades.

    The political reality is that the edublob and its taste for low and silly standards are much more likely to prevail than the good things that you or Don Hirsch may want.

    A more fundamental reality is that we have too big, too decentralized, and too diverse of a country to impose a single set of quality standards on everyone. To form a majority coalition those standards will inevitably be watered-down and distorted, if anything can be adopted at all.

    Nor is it persuasive to suggest that states shouldn’t adopt these standards if they aren’t really better. If it really were so voluntary, then the same forces preventing them from better standards now will prevent them from adopting quality national standards even if they are offered. The non-participants in a truly voluntary scenario (assuming good national standards) should be the bad states, not the good ones.

    But as we both know, this national standards push is not really voluntary. The feds already condition funds on states accepting the standards. And there is talk of expanding those conditions to include Title I or more. Everyone understands that more federal coercion is likely if these standards get off the ground.

    I’m not opposed to quality standards and my taste in standards largely coincides with yours. But the only way we’ll get those kinds of standards is if we allow standards to be set at the school, local, or state level with competition rewarding or sanctioning those who choose good or bad standards.

    I also suspect that I am more pluralistic about standards than you are. There are likely many different quality sets of standards that schools could adopt, and we will obliterate that diversity, choice, and competition if we impose too much from the center.

    I understand your attraction to having a set of quality national standards, but I think you are making political miscalculations about how all of this will turn out.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    I understand Jay’s reticence about national standards, but if you consider that states already have standards (mostly, poor), what’s the harm in raising the bar a bit, even if they fall back toward’s mediocrity (and worse)?

    That said, I don’t believe that the federal or state governments should be in the business of telling local districts what to do (or be offering huge incentives for policy change as in RttT). We need to keep opening the gates of choice and transparency at the local level and free our national and state Blue Ribbon commissions on curriculum and pedagogy from politics and policy.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    There is no assurance that national standards will raise “the bar a bit.” They are almost certain to lower the bar for some and may well lower the bar for most.

    It’s true that states already have standards, but if they are bad at least they aren’t imposed on everyone. And states with bad standards have to compete with (and can learn from) states that have better standards. If we have national standards there is no more laboratory of the states. There is only uniform banality.

  • Jacob says:

    For me the question is how dynamic these standards will be over time. If we put in place crappy standards and leave them there, that’s the worst case scenario. If we adopt mediocre standards, but improve them over time, it seems to me that we’d be a lot better off than we are at the moment.

    That seems likely since (in theory) the fed’s don’t have the same incentive to lower their standards over time. States on the other hand do have an incentive to waterdown standards since they’re the ones writing the tests and holding themselves accountable.

    Would love to hear your thoughts Jay.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    It’s true that the feds are immune from a race to the bottom, but they are quite likely (at some point) to be taken over by people with silly preferences. We can’t just assume that the feds are eternally benign. Just look at regulation in other arenas.

  • Susan Perkins Weston says:

    Kentucky’s legislature committed us to higher standards almost a year ago. Pursuant to that legislation, panels of Kentucky teachers and Kentucky professors have reviewed three drafts of the common core and found it sound. In light of their advice, our state board has committed us to move forward to implement the final edition. We’ll do that with or without Race to the Top funding, because we think it’s a smart way to equip our children for successful futures.

    Respectfully, I predict that the final draft will be out within two months, be very similar to what has already been released, and be quickly adopted by 25 to 30 other states–most of which will also not receive RTTT funding.

    The remaining states will go their own way–and most of them will set their sights much lower than Kentucky and the others who adopt the common core.

  • Kevin R. Kosar says:


    I too tend to have a jaundiced view of this most recent national education standards.

    It is not because I am against national education standards; no, it is because enacting such a policy would require overcoming incredible political, administrative, and legal hurdles. I’ve addressed some of the issues here:


    Kevin R. Kosar
    Author, Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Rienner, 2005)

  • MOMwithAbrain says:

    When you have the controversial Safe School Czar making public statements that indicates he wants to take his personal and controversial agenda and put them in the National Standards, you people better wake up.
    Politicians can’t help but indoctrinate the future generation. You just gave them the ability to do it.

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