Coming Soon: The Federal Department of Standardized Minds

Neal McCluskey
Issue CCXCIII - August 14, 2011
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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 politically correct. The high degree of detail in the standards and their transparent federal origins were their undoing.

Sneaking In

From that experience, it seems, current advocates learned that national standards must look innocent and come in quietly through the back door. They have maneuvered carefully to adopt that strategy, keeping their efforts low-key and repeating ad nauseum that the movement is “state-led” and “voluntary.” In addition they have so far avoided the extremely contentious subject of history and prescribed almost no specific reading selections in the ELA standards. They have also assiduously avoided offering any specific content so people will have little that’s concrete to object to.

Specific content, however, is almost certainly coming. For one thing the tests being funded by Washington will have to assess something, and because under a reauthorized NCLB, performance on them is likely to drive rewards and punishments for schools, districts, and states, they will ultimately dictate what the real standards are. Unfortunately, what those tests will contain will probably not be cemented until 2014, when they are supposed to be completed. By then, if the standardizers get their way with a reauthorized NCLB, all states will already be locked into national standards and testing.

In addition to having the tests on the horizon, some standards advocates are putting together more detailed curriculum guidelines that they would like to see accompany the standards and, quite possibly, be pushed via the federal treasury. In March the Albert Shanker Institute—an arm of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—released a manifesto calling for the creation of curriculum guides that signatories recommended be coupled with, among other things, “increasing federal investments in implementation support.” Unfortunately in education “federal investments” are often synonymous with federal extortion using taxpayer money.

It’s not as if national standards have driven achievement, although that’s what their champions would have us believe. As such proponents as AFT President Randi Weingarten are fond of pointing out, most countries that beat us on international exams have national standards. Therefore, they argue, national standards must produce better outcomes.

No Link to Performance

The thing is, there is actually no correlation between having national standards and performance on exams like the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). Why not? Because almost all countries that participate in the tests have national standards, meaning that both the top and bottom ranks are dominated by educationally centralized nations. So while the eight countries that outperformed the United States on the 2007 eighth-grade TIMSS mathematics exam had national standards, so did 33 of the 39 countries that placed beneath us, as well as 11 of the 12 lowest performers. Meanwhile, whenever Canada—which has no national-level education authority—participates in international exams, it finishes near the top.

So the one piece of evidence that supporters cite to show that national standards are necessary to academic success is bunkum. Their problem might be, as I explain in Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards (2010), that there is very little research of greater rigor to draw on. Indeed what research there is has been conducted largely by one man—Cornell University economist John H. Bishop—and he has focused not just on national standards but national standards coupled with high stakes for students, such as grade-promotion and graduation decisions. Even that shows at best no meaningful positive effect on achievement, with any benefits disappearing when such variables as national culture are accounted for.

Of course even were national standards shown to have strong positive impacts on academic achievement, before the federal government could twist state arms to adopt them, it would be necessary to show that doing so is legal. At least it should be necessary.

The gateway question for the legality of federal action is whether or not the steps being contemplated are constitutional. In almost all things education—save striking down discriminatory provision of schooling by state or local governments and exercising control over education in the District of Columbia—the answer will always be, “No, it is not constitutional.” Education and schooling are nowhere to be found in the specific enumerated powers given to the federal government in Article I, Section 8, and as both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton made clear in the Federalist papers, the “general welfare,” “necessary and proper,” and taxation clauses do nothing to change what that means: Washington cannot govern education.

The Constitution Doesn’t Matter

Unfortunately, the Constitution ceased to be adhered to decades ago, as evidenced not just by federal education involvement but countless other things Washington does. Yet keeping federal hands out of curricula isn’t just required by the Constitution—it is also enshrined in federal law. Neither the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 nor the No Child Left Behind Act gives the federal government authority, as NCLB puts it, “to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction.”

In light of all this the national standards crusade clearly has crippling empirical and legal shortcomings. Those practical matters aside, though, the ultimate problem is that moving to even greater centralization of education is lurching education policy further in exactly the wrong direction. We know from experience both inside and outside of education that individual freedom is the key to sustained, dynamic success, both because it spurs competition, innovation, and efficiency and because government power tends to be taken over by narrow special interests who use it for their own advancement instead of the “public good.”

This latter reality is borne out brilliantly in education, with teachers’ unions having accumulated massive political power—the National Education Association almost single-handedly forced creation of the U.S. Department of Education—and having consistently used that power to enact laws and contracts that give them strangleholds over taxpayer money and government school employees. Administrators’ and school boards’ associations are also big political players.

Meanwhile, though not easy to see because most states and nations have embraced the same government-monopoly schooling model, the superiority of freedom in education is well established. Research from the United States and around the world—where there is often significantly greater educational freedom than in the United States, though nothing close to ideal—reveals that the more freedom there is in education, the better the outcomes.

Of course, the most compelling evidence of the superiority of freedom comes from outside the government-intensive realm of education. It is the lightning-fast evolving and improving computer industry. It is the incredible scaling up of in-demand products ranging from Starbucks coffee to iPads. It is the American versus the Soviet economy. And it is the huge productivity improvements we see in almost every market-based industry but do not see in American elementary and secondary education.

What we clearly need in education, but have had less and less of as the decades have passed, is freedom. Unfortunately, the most powerful drive in education today—the national standards movement—is taking us in exactly the wrong direction.
Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He is the author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples,and Compromises American Education.

This article was published in the July/August 2011 edition of The Freeman and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.  

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