Coming Soon: The Federal Department of Standardized Minds

Jul 5, 2011 by

Neal McCluskey – The story of federal intervention in education is one of abject failure. Coming in large supply only since President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” The story of federal intervention in education is one of abject failure. Coming in large supply only since President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Washington’s educational undertakings first resulted in billions of misspent dollars, then billions of misspent dollars coupled with increasingly rigid “accountability” rules. The result of both phases has been squandered funds and academic stagnation. But rather than accepting the lesson that centralized control of education is doomed to failure, inside-the-Beltway educationists are doubling down, pushing for a single national curriculum.

The proximate impetus for the current national standards push is the failure of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law—a bipartisan 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—is intended to be all things to all federal politicians, a “no excuses” hammer against academic failure that also protects state and local school control. So the law demands that all states have standards and tests in mathematics, reading, and science; test all students on a regular basis in those subjects; and have all students make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward 100 percent math and reading “proficiency” by 2014. However, it leaves it to states to write their own standards and tests and define “proficiency” for themselves.

The incentives for states are obvious: Set the lowest “proficiency” bars possible so they’re easy to vault and in so doing, stay out of trouble under the law, which institutes a cascade of punishments for schools or districts that fail to make AYP. It’s a structure that makes little logical sense but gives federal politicians the ability to simultaneously claim to be unforgiving on educational futility while also being staunch defenders of state and local control.

That these perverse incentives have been prevailing has been borne out in comparisons of state standards with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal testing regime that, in contrast to state testing under NCLB, is unlikely to be gamed because how a state or district performs on NAEP carries no rewards or punishments. Federal comparisons have shown that states had either set very low proficiency levels before NCLB or lowered them in response to the law. Indeed almost all states have set their proficiency marks equivalent to “basic” or below on NAEP tests.

This standards bottom-scraping, coupled with significant variation between states in their standards and proficiency measures, has energized the current national standards drive, which has been spearheaded by the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A major rationale for imposing national standards, as enunciated in the 2006 Fordham report To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools, is to “end the ‘Race to the Bottom’” set off by NCLB. If states have to use the same standards, advocates reason, they won’t be able to hide their poor performances behind differing proficiency definitions.

The result so far has been the creation of so-called “Common Core” standards, grade-by-grade benchmarks in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) created by the NGA and CCSSO, which were released in June 2010. States have already been coerced into adopting them by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition, a $4 billion, stimulus-funded beauty contest in which the federal government selected winners based on what it considered the prettiest state promises to initiate preferred reforms including adoption of the Common Core standards. In addition Washington has awarded $330 million to two consortia of states developing tests to accompany the standards.

This is likely just the beginning of federal shoving and bribing. President Obama proposed connecting national “college- and career-ready” standards to much bigger pots of federal education money in his 2010 “blueprint” for reauthorizing NCLB. If this were to become law states would almost certainly be required to adopt national standards lest they lose far more than just a shot at part of $4 billion, including perhaps their entire share of the formula-apportioned $14.5 billion delivered under the law’s first title.

Despite the potentially huge transformational impact the national standards movement could have—most notably, Washington taking de facto control of the curricula of every government school in the nation—the drive has received scant media attention. Why?

The answer lies in a previous effort to set uniform curriculum standards for the entire country, one from which standards advocates learned valuable political lessons.

In the 1990s President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton each attempted to create and implement “voluntary” national standards and tests. Unlike the current initiative, the federal government openly commissioned and funded the creation of the would-be standards. The standards in some cases were highly detailed, and the effort was much ballyhooed by both presidents.

When the proposed national standards were eventually released they were quickly destroyed by vehement high-profile opposition from across the political spectrum. This was especially true for the U.S. history standards, the first released, which were widely seen as hopelessly



. The high degree of detail in the standards and their transparent federal origins were their undoing.

via Coming Soon: The Federal Department of Standardized Minds

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