National Standards Nonsense

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.

30 Responses to National Standards Nonsense

  1. rse says:

    Could this change in attitude have anything to do with the ability of nonprofits to participate in the huge Investing in Innovation Fund?

    There are buzzwords in the drafts that make it quite clear that it was improved to be solid enough to avoid the worst of the criticisms while allowing project based learning to be the vehicle for all that math “understanding” and recognitions of other points of views and cultures.

    Classic Bait and Switch-national process and thinking skills standards under the cover of just enough content rhetoric to get political support.

  2. 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.

    • Ze'ev says:

      Checker, I cannot speak to the grumps (or cheerleaders) surrounding either you or Jay, but I did read the math standards. Similar to your taking a pass on the math, I’ll take a pass on the ELA standards. Regarding the math though, I disagree with you. In addition to numerous weaknesses described elsewhere, I will just say that the whole K-8 program presents a fundamentally distorted view of elementary mathematics with almost an exclusive focus on drilling (yes!) of the “understanding” of numbers and operations, but with little attention to practice or developing arithmetical fluency. Its strangely abstract focus reminds me sometimes of the 1960s New Math.

      And the fundamental misalignment between their concept of “college readiness”, and the actual college admission requirements, is still present there. Why, I can’t say. Perhaps NCEE’s machination; perhaps Gates Foundation’s; or both.

  3. […] at his blog, Jay Greene comments on the new set of uniform national education standards proposed by a panel of […]

  4. 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 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.

  5. Patrick says:

    I would disagree with any national standard no matter how good they were. There is simply no evidence to suggest national standards improve education – especially if it is the same broken system of education.

    We should go the opposite direction and decentralize schooling, not centralize it even more. We need a free market in education, not a Soviet-style command economy.

  6. Jay makes a good point about the staff car politics of national education standards. Standards advocates seem to imagine they’ll always be the ones in power, riding around in the flag adorned staff cars and making the decisions about what the standards will contain. In reality, “The other guys,” whoever they happen to be, will invariably come to power at some point and send things in quite a different direction.

    I’d add one other point: the whole idea that 50 million kids should progress through all their studies in every subject at a single pace based on their age, is foolish, cruel, and pedagogical malpractice. Yet that is the assumption underlying any system of national standards tied to our existing age-based grade system. (More on that point in an op-ed tomorrow at Pajamas Media).

  7. Fancy meeting you here, Andrew!

    Anyway, Patrick, you are exactly right, and it troubles me to no end that the evidence on national standards never seems to even enter into the debate. Moreover, Checker’s outfit just reviewed my new report (linked to through my name) on the national standards evidence and somehow made it sound like no research has been done on national standards. The reality, of course, is that research has been done — albeit it pretty sparse — and it shows no convincing positive effect, which is the main point of my paper.

    If we are going to attach billions of federal dollars to national standards in an effort to impose them on every state, we ought to at least discuss the research on them! Don’t we owe the taxpayers that much?

    • Checker says:

      I’ve got too much on my plate to keep this going but cannot let Neal have the last word. Anybody who wants to defend today’s motley array of state-produced standards as adequate for the United States of America in the year 2010, please raise your hand. Anyone believing that no standards at all are needed because the market will provide, please sit down.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Right, because of course, as we all know, those are the only possible choices.

  8. Thanks for you having the last word, Greg!

    Oh, and I’m sitting very comfortably…

  9. rse says:

    It used to be that states that wanted to keep the ability to use fuzzy math textbooks and whole language techniques kept their standards vague to deal with the consequences.

    Georgia seemed to show that you can juxtapose sufficient content with an inquiry approach and understanding language and thus garner a good Fordham review.

    When the actual implementation is all about an inquiry approach and project based learning towards encountering that lauded content and the parents object, the fordham review gets thrown in their face to cut off criticism.

    If that’s what is happening here and it’s national in scope and there will be new subjective tests to monitor “achievement”, won’t we simply be institutionalizing many of the failed approaches of the past? Are there any signs that this content will actually get delivered?

    Once again we advocate for something if there’s sufficient content language and ignore that there are frameworks for instruction that ensure that little content is actually available in the classroom.

  10. rse says:

    The Justice Department has announced it will use disparate impact analysis and the civil rights laws to review the proportion of minorities taking the college prep curriculum. The effect will clearly force nervous school districts toward one track for all in high school despite real differences in abilities and interests.

    That controversial approach will clearly impact how school districts and states implement CCSSI. They will be tempted to use the inquiry approach and project based learning models that are pushed for the inclusive classroom.

    Will everyone then be reading those nice books in the Appendix or just a few students who can explain it to the others who can then do a group poster or a video illustrating a scene from the book they did not read?

  11. I’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well.

    Ditto that.

    My husband and I had front-row seats for the effort to write voluntary national standards in the 1980s. See: History on Trial by Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree. Gary Nash, who wrote the history standards, was a close colleague and friend of my husband’s.

    Here is Chester Finn, writing in Troublemaker, on the history standards that rsulted:

    The dismaying results of those [standards-writing] efforts ranged from incoherent blather to left leaning political correctness (history) to immense, encyclopedic treatments (geography) that placed the authors’ discipline at the center of the intellectual universe and made everyone else revolve around it.”
    (p. 173)

    Speaking as parent and citizen, I want disciplinary specialists to write disciplinary standards. That is what occurred in the 1980s.

    The history standards Finn condemns in this passage were adopted by the state of New York.

    What grade does the Fordham Foundation award to New York state’s history standards?


    The State of State Standards 2006

    I’m a great admirer of Chester Finn’s; I don’t intend this as a personal attack.

    I do intend this comment as evidence that Jaye Greene is right: we’ve seen this movie before. If a long-time advocate of national standards publicly denigrates national history standards written by historians while, at the same time, the foundation he heads extols the excellence of the very same standards…..

    How are things going to be different this time?

    Here are the national history standards: National Standards for History Basic Edition
    SBN-10: 0963321846
    ISBN-13: 978-0963321848

    As to the current effort to write national standards, if they handed the whole project over to Core Knowledge, I would support it.

    Disciplinary specialists writing disciplinary standards.

    That’s what Core Knowledge is about.

  12. Greg Forster says:


    What do you think of the fact that Core Knowledge is lavishing praise on the terrible national standards movement that you think so poorly of?

    I don’t see why Core Knowledge would know the unique, particular needs of my daughter better than her teacher, her school and her parents do.

  13. Patrick says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Canada has no national standards and it does just fine…

    What about other variables? Cultural values, parental involvement, teacher quality, teacher training, pedagogy, curriculum, school choice and competition.

    I can’t imagine that putting national standards in place will magically improve education in the U.S. especially if we leave the same broken centrally controlled, bureaucratic, Soviet-style education monopoly in place.

    *By Soviet-style I mean how the central bureaucracies control the “commanding heights” of education finances – a reference to comrade Lenin

  14. Ze'ev says:

    I want to point out the problematic influence of Gates Foundation that stands very strongly behind the standards push and behind NCEE ( and also put money into Fordham (, Achieve ( and Core Knowledge (I remember reading about it recently, but I can’t readily find a web link).

    I am NOT saying those organizations have necessarily sold their souls for the money, but it does become awfully difficult to harshly criticize an issue that one has a significant financial stake in. One tends to milder and gentler criticisms in such cases.

  15. Hi Greg!

    We need to flag down Robert Pondiscio and ask him!

    I’m **guessing** that Core Knowledge, which is basically the ONLY organization we have advocating for a liberal arts education for all children, is attempting to get hold of the politics here and push through a commitment to the liberal arts: a commitment to ‘core knowledge.’

    If there are going to be national standards, Core Knowledge should be writing them (which is to say Core Knowledge should do what it does, which is to enlist disciplinary specialists to write them).

  16. What about other variables? Cultural values, parental involvement, teacher quality, teacher training, pedagogy, curriculum, school choice and competition

    Hi Patrick —

    For me, national standards of the Core Knowledge type, or of the type written in the 1980s, won’t in and of themselves improve the schools.

    National standards written by disciplinary specialists tell schools, parents, and the broader public what the essential body of knowledge and skills of each discipline are. The history standards also laid out a sequence in which this knowledge should be taught — which is essential. What comes first? What comes second? Which knowledge is foundational? These are questions public schools today essentially ignore. Who was it who said that “mile wide inch deep” curricula teach everything all the time?

    I like the 1980s approach, which was for the federal government to facilitate the difficult and costly process of writing national standards and vetting them with the public — but not imposing them on the states.

    A good set of standards should be a public document homeschoolers, private, parochial, and public schools can use.

    Disciplinary standards written by disciplinary specialists won’t bring you good teaching or school choice or any of the other things we need.

    They **will** give parents a means of evaluating whether his child is learning what he needs to learn in order to do college level work when he’s 17.

    • Patrick says:

      But who is to say a subject area historical order is better than a chronological order?

      Wouldn’t that kill different and innovative ways of teaching children?

      What is to say the market can’t create many standards that make many different people happy? Have you heard of Netflix. I rate movies I like and their formula finds movies other people like me like as well. After a year of Netflix, I found that it is usually spot on in making recommendations for movies I will enjoy.

      Won’t national standards kill virtual education? Virtual education can be quickly changed and adapted to meet the needs of the students. Students can learn at their own pace as swiftly or as slowly as they need to understand the material. National standards would retard the ability of virtual schools to provide an truly individualized education that is tailor made for each unique student.

  17. As to the current effort, I’ve read Wurman & Stotsky’s paper and of course I am aghast.

    <a href=""Why Race to the Middle?

  18. oh heck – bad, bad formatting

    sorry for the italics

    will try the title again:

    Why Race to the Middle>

  19. sigh

    will give parents a means of determining whether their children are learning what they need to learn in order to do college level work….

  20. There are buzzwords in the drafts that make it quite clear that it was improved to be solid enough to avoid the worst of the criticisms while allowing project based learning to be the vehicle for all that math “understanding” and recognitions of other points of views and cultures.

    Classic Bait and Switch-national process and thinking skills standards under the cover of just enough content rhetoric to get political support.

    I want the edu-world to bring back the words “know and can do.”

    What should students know and be able to do?

    The word “understand” should be stricken from standards documents.

  21. Jim Stergios says:

    A couple of points from the Massachusetts perspective, which will reflect on a number of states that have taken standards seriously.

    1. Standards are the lifeblood of student achievement in public schools; and that includes even those site-based managed schools that are based on parental choice. You all know the stories of charters and voucher programs that don’t deliver the kind of transformational improvement we all want. In MA, our charters for the most part are of a higher quality than elsewhere and far outperform their district counterparts. In part that is because of the great upfront business planning/vetting and accountability/closure processes (yes, regulation), but it is even more because MA has set really high academic standards, assessments, and teacher testing. Charters are effective at attaining goals but you have to set high academic goals for them to be good charters. Arizona, take note.
    2. The March common core academic standards drafts, notwithstanding improvements that we see on the math side and also on the ELA side, still fall way short of what Massachusetts or Minnesota have. We have systematically gone through the previous drafts ( and we have also gone through the latest drafts. No grumpiness here. The fact is we are not there. Not even close. There are lots of problems with specific ELA and Math standards, but there are also two larger points: (1) the wonderful lists included in the appendices are not binding, and (2) the end goal or frame for this whole exercise is the College and Career Readiness standards, which are skills-based gobbledy-gook. And the skills focus will govern the application of the ELA and math standards, and even more so the assessments.

    Three broader points:
    1. Checker is right to lament good-on-paper states, but the creation of new federal standards will not help move that any faster. In fact, the development of all new federal standards will likely slow or in fact reverse the process and gains in some states. Perhaps on that score some federal incentives to ensure implementation of state standards would be a more effective approach. After all, the changes entailed by standards are enormous, and they include local implementation by districts of the standards, assessments, and in most cases even teacher testing (which ought to be aligned with the new standards). After all, were the provisions of NCLB implemented so quickly and with such rigor?
    2. Why aren’t we moving forward based on an approach where the federal government sets a “floor” (basically minimum requirements, not “word for word” or 85% adoption of national standards as CCSSIers/ Duncan laid down) with, going forward, guarantees of flexibility for states to develop even higher standards? (See Sam Dillon’s comments in this regard in a New American magazine article: Or why not provide financial incentives for states to improve on NAEP scores and leave it to them to get it done? Massachusetts is not alone in finding that a much more comfortable fit, rather than letting decisions on standards move to Washington, where we know so much, ahem, good work goes on.
    3. There are many reasons to think this is going to die of its own weight, but I’ll stick to two reasons:
    a. There are so many jurisdictional trip wires on the path to moving forward that it is bound to blow up. The CCSSO, the NGA and USED have crossed into the jurisdiction of (1) Congress on the use of Title I funds in a coercive fashion; (2) many state legislatures which will want to review the intersection with key provisions of their respective statutory reforms of education; and (3) some boards of education, which will want to preserve their roles in education policy.
    b. A number of states that have focused on standards (VA, CA, MN, and TX) have begun peeling off. We certainly hope that we can list MA among them.

  22. Matthewladner says:


    As an Arizona resident, I’ll say that I would not trade charter school laws with MA. I understand where you are coming from on cautious authorization, but such a system would not have met the needs of Arizona well at all.

    Almost all of the top public high schools in the PHX metro area are charter schools. When low performing public schools are to be found on every other street corner and you are spending yourself silly to build new all too often low quality district schools, you ought not to fret about protecting children from a low quality charter school. Open them up and shut down the bad ones is a fine model for those circumstances.

    On your point about standards, however, I agree that Arizona’s standards and cut scores need a great deal of work, and that charter schools would benefit.

    Please return to your regular scheduled debate…

  23. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Everyone is focusing on the standards and ignoring the driving force behind national standards. Not only are we seeing national standards, we are also seeing a new “graduate your kids after 10th grade” program in different states. Who is behind that dumb idea? None other than Marc Tucker and his Utopian dream.
    He’s one of the biggest proponents of national standards and now he’s come up with graduating students after 10th grade when many of our 12th grade students aren’t fully prepared for college level work.
    Ze’ev commented in the NY Times on how absurd this idea was and how we lose our freedom and control to choose our own path in life. Some will be tracked into the workforce, the elites will still have access to colleges and universities.
    This is a planned workforce development and national standards is part of that utopia.
    It doesn’t matter if they are good/bad/ugly, what comes next? Should be your concern.
    I looked over the math standards, they are a compromise between the fuzzies and the traditionalists. This is not up to the level of Mass. if we are going to be honest, why didn’t they at least make them on the level of what we have as the “best” standards ??
    I think instead of focusing on the standards we need to be listening to Tucker and his agenda. Not only listening, but rejecting it!

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