I just returned from another excellent conference organized by Paul Peterson and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance. At the conference I had a number of interesting discussions about national standards where I pressed advocates to describe the theory or evidence behind the push to nationalize standards, curriculum, and assessments. For the most part, people had a hard time articulating exactly why they favored this strategy.
… their entire project depends on stealth. If we have an open and vigorous debate about whether it is desirable for our large, diverse country to have a uniform national set of standards, curriculum, and assessments, I am confident that they would lose. Time and time again the American people through their political and educational leaders have rejected nationalization of education when it has been proposed in a straightforward way.
I continue to believe that the chief architects of the nationalization campaign at the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education are intentionally concealing the full extent of their nationalization effort to improve its political prospects. For example, repeatedly describing the effort as “voluntary” and led by the states is obviously false and misleading, especially as the primary impetus was financial rewards during Race to the Top and its persistence is the offer of selective waivers to NCLB requirements to those states that comply with federal wishes.
But most of the national standard supporters I spoke to at the Harvard conference were not trying to obfuscate. Instead, they were genuinely puzzled by the need to articulate a justification. They simply assumed that all right-thinking people would support the idea. The suppression of an open debate by the chief architects of the nationalization plan has prevented many of these people from ever hearing dissent or having to wonder about whether their initial inclination to support it was well-founded.
It was also interesting that once I pressed people to say why they supported nationalization out loud, the flaws and limitations of their arguments became apparent — even to themselves. Having to articulate your reasons can serve as a useful check on whether people have really thought something through.
For example, one person used the phrases “national standards” and “rigorous standards” interchangeably. Obviously he simply assumed that rigorous standards are produced at the national rather than at some other level. Once he said it, it was easy to press him on why the national level would necessarily be more rigorous. It was clear that he hadn’t really thought about that and had no quick response.
I have a theory (and evidence) to support my opposition to national standards, which I described at the conference and have described before on this blog. It comes from Paul Peterson’s book, The Price of Federalism, in which he explains how the national government is better at redistributive policies, while state and local governments are better at developmental policies. Education is mostly developmental, so it is best done at the state and local level.
If you want to learn more about this theory you can read my earlier post and the Price of Federalism, but the point is that I have clearly stated my reasons. Supporters of national standards often have not. Having to articulate one’s theory and muster supporting evidence is a very useful exercise to avoid policy mistakes. I’m not saying that there are no plausible theories and no supporting evidence that advocates of nationalizing education could offer. I’m just saying that virtually none of them have had to explicitly make their case — to themselves or anyone else.
If we are going to make an enormous change to our educational system by centralizing control over standards, curriculum, and assessments, I at least want to have a big, open, national discussion about the wisdom of doing it. If, after that discussion, policy and opinion leaders were still determined to proceed I would probably continue to dissent but I would feel a whole lot more comfortable. At least they would have thought of the various implications of this gigantic change.
The thing that is so irritating to me about the Gates/U.S. Department of Education juggernaut is their obvious disinterest in having a big, open national discussion. They prefer brute force over intellectual exchange. Of course, they seek to avoid the open discussion because they’ve already made up their minds about the right thing to do and are just trying to maximize the political prospects for success.
The Gates/USDOE juggernaut is intended to create the impression that nationalization is inevitable, so you might as well get on board. A number of the nationalization supporters with whom I talked at Harvard offered inevitability as a reason for why they were supporters.
Tomorrow I’ll explain why I think nationalization is far from inevitable. In fact, I think the tide is about to turn on the nationalization movement. The D.C. and other policy folks who just like to support the winning team might want to tune in tomorrow.