Who’s Fickle?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new Gadfly opens with Mike Petrilli’s article “Fickle on Federalism.” At the head of the article he juxtaposes these two quotes:

“[This plan] will fundamentally change the federal role in education. We will move from being a compliance monitor to being an engine for innovation.”

–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 17, 2010, before the House Education and Labor Committee


“In coming weeks and months…we will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities.”

–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama

Good one!

But I’ve got a better one. Scroll down to the next article in the Gadfly and you’ll find Checker’s NRO piece, in which he twists himself into even tighter pretzel knots on the new national standards train wreck. Here’s what he was writing about that on Feb. 23:

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 in the March 10 New York Times, he was singing a different tune:

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.

Now, in the new Gadfly, he’s careful to weasel around without actually taking a clear position. He opens by saying “conservatives should take seriously the potential” of the standards. “Take seriously the potential”? What does that even mean? Should we support or oppose?

And at the end he concludes that the standards are “light years better than we had any right to expect.” So’s the health care monstrosity currently winding its tortuous way through the House; compared to what I thought they’d get, I’m shocked at how little they’ve ended up with. But that doesn’t mean passing it wouldn’t be a huge disaster; it just means it wouldn’t be as huge a disaster as I had feared (or, more likely, that the huge disaster will be longer in coming to fruition).

In between, he lists five surprisingly weak reasons to support the standards – and then four even weaker warnings about “risks” involved in the enterprise. Check out this howler:

Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it’s now using.


Or take the example of hijacking. The Dr. Jekyll Checker from February sounded warnings that the standards, once imposed, could subsequently be hijacked by the Dark Side. The Mr. Hyde Checker in the Times seems to have forgotten all about this. Here’s the new, pretzel Checker in the Gadfly:

Third, the long-term governance of these standards–and of the assessments to follow–is unknown. Something more durable will need to be found or created than the consortium of states that produced the present draft. (Fordham is developing ideas and options for this, and others will surely weigh in as well.)

So yes, hijacking is a danger. But don’t worry, Checker’s clarion call for somebody to do some sort of something that will do something about this problem will no doubt be heeded and acted upon with dispatch!

What really galled me was the closing line:

Remember, it’s liberals who believe that people should be held to different standards.

Right. Because if Johnny learns long division in fourth grade and Suzy learns it in third grade, that’s the moral equivalent of a racial quota.

Let’s be clear. Conservatives believe that everybody should play by the same rules. That’s different from saying everybody should be forced to conform to the same model of life. It’s liberals who believe that – as Jonah Goldberg has shown so clearly in Liberal Fascism.

Personally, I agree with Checker that too many children have not had access to a solid academic education. The solution to that is not to impose the One Right Way on every child, but to smash the oppressive power structure that has stood in the schoolhouse door for a hundred and fifty years, preventing those children from getting the education they need. Checker wants to make the oppressor even bigger and more powerful, in the hope that he can bend it to his will. Good luck.

5 Responses to Who’s Fickle?

  1. Brian says:

    Good stuff Greg. And, contrary to Petrilli’s efforts, you have actually found a quotable inconsistency. Petrilli takes two quotes out of context (one about academic standards and one about civil rights) and misleadingly acts as if there is a tension between them.

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    I just want to have a voice in the history competency standards so that students can answer questions like: (True/False) Prior to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini’s fascism was almost universally admired by American Progressives.

    Surely we could arrive at a consensus on how to test students on such an important chapter of history.

    Of course, any schools I might start in the future will use Goldberg’s book as a standard text (thanks for reminding me, Greg) which, of course, would likely cause our students to score low on a standardized test influenced by Chomsky. But hey, regardless of who we end up trusting to finalize the standards for us, the middle ground we all arrive at will be blissfully diverse.

  3. Mike G says:

    Hmm. I’d ask you about 2 areas.

    1. You cite Checker’s 2 quotes as an inconsistency.

    But he wrote “Nobody yet has any idea whether these standards will be solid” before the Common Core released some of those proposed standards. Then he reads em. Likes em. Decides they look “solid.” Defends em.

    You can certainly make the case that he’s making a bad judgment (i.e., not solid). Or that even solid national standards are a bad idea. But that is consistent. And why omit mention of the key interceding event?

    2. You wrote: “Because if Johnny learns long division in fourth grade and Suzy learns it in third grade, that’s the moral equivalent of a racial quota.”

    Is that a fair characterization of this debate? Deciding whether long division is presented to kids in 3rd or 4th grade?

    I thought the national standards seem to be a way to ultimate get a national test. And that’s what Checker seems to be signing onto. Because in some states, Johnny can NEVER learn long division and still get a high school in diploma.

    Seems like Checker is fighting against states setting low cut marks on tests, thereby deceiving Johnny and fooling his parents into trusting the schools that all is okay.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    1) The quality of the standards themselves is only one of about a half dozen major issues Checker raised in his February piece, and it was not even his main focus. Go back and read that piece; his main worries are elsewhere. Now, nothing whatsoever has changed on any of those other worries. The issue is not whether Checker has been fickle on each and every issue without exception but whether he’s been so on the whole. Perhaps the best evidence here is that he’s now talking in such vague, weasely language that you can no longer tell where he stands at all.

    2) On this “national test” you pine for, will long division be on the third grade test? Yes or no? If yes, Johnny will have to learn it before he’s ready. If no, Suzy will waste a year of math classes waiting for Johnny to catch up. Or do you plan to custom-build a test for each student? It was Checker who invoked the comparison to race quotas, not me.

  5. Robert Enlow says:

    The most effective way to smash the oppressive power structure is to pass universal school choice in every state in America. This could be done by instituting a student centered funding formula that allows students to use the funds at any school. Of course Checker already thought of this (weighted student funding) but his idea didn’t include or allow for children to attend private schools. Hmmm…..

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