National Standards Nonsense is Still Nonsense

Over at Flypaper Mike Petrilli has finally tried to address the problems we’ve raised regarding national standards.  Despite Mike’s best efforts, I’m afraid that national standards and assessments still sound like a really bad idea.

I raised doubts about the rigor and soundness of the proposed national standards, citing the fact that many credible experts have denounced them as lousy.  His response is simply to repeat that Fordham has given the standards good grades and thinks the latest revisions have been positive.  This is not a substantive response; it is simply a reiteration of their initial position.

Why should we find Fordham’s grading of the proposed national standards any more credible than that of the experts who have denounced the standards?  The fact that Fordham issued a report with letter grades is just a marketing exercise for Fordham’s opinion.  There is nothing scientific or rigorous about Fordham hand-picking their friends experts to repeat the opinion Fordham already holds — especially when we know from past experience that Fordham might exclude experts or change the grades if it does not come out the way they want.

Yes, the national standards may be better than those in some states, but everyone seems to agree that they are also worse than the standards in some states.  Why should we hurt the excellent standards in MA or CA to improve the standards in AR or MS?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to focus our energies on pressuring states with bad standards to improve them?

It is true that the Edublob dominates the standards and assessment process in many states, but the existence of choice and competition among the states places constraints on their ability to impose nonsense through that machinery.  If the standards and assessment process is centralized at the national level, the Edublob will be able to impose nonsense on everyone with no “exit power” to constraint them.

Rather than rely on market mechanisms to constrain nonsense, Mike places his trust in devising national political systems that he thinks can develop and maintain good national standards and assessments.  In particular, Mike thinks that it is “more likely that the good guys will stay in charge at the national level, where all of this stuff will operate under the bright lights of the national media, than in the states, where decisions get made behind closed doors.”  The national government also regulates off-shore drilling and the financial system.  How well did those bright lights work at ensuring a sensible regulatory framework?

The hard reality is that regulation tends to be captured by the regulated industry (unless there are competing, well-organized interests, which in education there are not).  Education regulations, like national standards and assessments, are at least as likely to be captured by the Edublob as the oil industry is to capture off-shore drilling regulations or the banking industry is to capture financial regulations.

The answer is not to have bigger, more centralized regulations.  The answer is to maintain the proper incentives by empowering market forces, which also serve to keep the regulatory framework honest.  I’m not advocating against all regulations.  I’m saying that there need to be market checks and balances to keep regulatory frameworks reasonable.  If we centralize the standards and assessment process, we have eliminated some of the few market checks and balances we have in education.  The fact that Linda Darling-Hammond is part of the leading bid to develop national assessments to go along with these national standards should make clear the dangers of nationalizing this process.

And make no mistake.  The Obama administration has signaled that it intends to link federal money to adoption of a Linda Darling-Hammond test or whatever other nonsense this centralized process may produce.  Just because Mike thinks  “the Administration erred and gave national standards opponents an opportunity to raise concerns about federal overreach” doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to do precisely what they have declared they will do even if he thinks it is mistaken.

But the most telling comment of Mike’s faulty thinking on national standards was when he asked: “Does Jay oppose voucher programs because they might get hijacked by shady for-profit providers who just want to make money off the backs of poor kids?”  The fundamental difference between the potential for “hijacking” of national standards and assessments and the “hijacking” of a voucher school is the mechanism by which one can control (or hijack) them.

Voucher schools are controlled primarily by the market choices of parents.  You can’t “hijack” a voucher school because parents can choose to go to another school if they dislike what the school tries to do.  But you can “hijack” national standards and assessments because they are controlled politically and not by market forces.  People who dislike what the national standards and assessments do are still compelled to send their children to schools operating under that national system.  You don’t need parental or even popular buy-in to hijack national standards and assessments.  You just have to be better politically organized and motivated to dominate the process by which those standards and assessments are developed and maintained.

This all leads to my question that Mike never answered:

“If there really were one true way to educate all children, why stop at national standards? Why not have global standards with a global curriculum?

We would oppose global standards for the same reasons we should oppose national standards. Making education uniform at too high of a level of aggregation ignores the diversity of needs of our children as well as the diversity of opinion about how best to serve those needs. And giving people at the national or global level the power to determine what everyone should learn is dangerous because they will someday use that power to promote unproductive or even harmful ideas.”

The reason Mike and other supporters of national standards and assessments don’t advocate for global standards and assessments (even though the logic for doing so is essentially the same as national standards and assessments) is that they imagine that they’ll be the ones controlling the national process.  Someone else would dominate the global one and that would have to be bad.

As much as I like Mike, I don’t want him or (more likely) the Edublob dominating national standards and assessment, which would have profound effects on how every classroom in the country operates.  Even though it is messy and imperfect, we need to decentralize power in education rather than centralize it.  We need to do so for the same reason the Constitution decentralizes power — to prevent abuses and tyranny that inevitably arise when power is unchecked and concentrated.  We need to decentralize power in education to allow market mechanisms to operate.  We need to decentralize power to recognize the legitimate diversity of needs and approaches that exist in our educational system.

Benevolent dictatorships are always attractive on paper but the benevolent part never works out in practice.

11 Responses to National Standards Nonsense is Still Nonsense

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Dude . . . you got some . . . Petrilli . . . on you.

    UPDATE: For those who missed the reference. I think the only thing this post needed to become the Platonic form of a JPGB post was a Lost reference.

  2. One point I left out… Mike argues that we need a national assessment more powerful than NAEP because regular people are fooled by state assessment results with low cut scores. My response is that a weak national assessment will just fool even more people. The only way to prevent that is to have a benevolent dictatorship control the national standards and assessment to ensure their rigor. But as I concluded my post: “Benevolent dictatorships are always attractive on paper but the benevolent part never works out in practice.”

  3. MOMwithAbrain says:

    What amazes me is, how these Governors got away with passing off low standards. Now they want to punt their responsibilty to the National level and no one says a bad word about them? Sorry, it was THEIR responsibility to forumlate quality standards and they failed miserably. Some states stepped up to the plate and drafted quality standards but many did not.
    I live in NH where our Governor has yet to be criticized for the lack of leadership in offering quality academic standards. My goal now is to vote him out of office in Nov.

  4. Patrick says:

    If California’s standards are so great, why do Nevada’s students beat Californians on every NAEP test except writing?

  5. Patrick G.,

    Frankly, I have no idea whether CA’s standards are good or not. Some experts tell me that they are, but I can’t tell whether I should trust that any more than I should trust the Fordham experts.

  6. allen says:

    To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail and to a policy wonk who lives and works in Washington D.C. every problem looks like it has a federal solution.

    I dinged Checker Finn on Bill Bennett’s radio program with roughly the same question, why wouldn’t national standards end up as a political football the tool of those with the most influence? He didn’t have much of an answer but then there isn’t much of an answer possible. National standards would inevitably be politicized by virtue of the source from which they’d issue and not to the benefit of the educational function.

    The problem for D.C. policy wonks is that the solution is decentralization of the genuine sort. Not the overtly politicized decentralization built on the district model. That injects an unnecessary, even counterproductive, layer of control which completely obviates the benefits of decentralization.

    The reason pushing for charters, charters everywhere is a problem for D.C. policy wonks is that the politicians whom the policy wonks seek to influence are, as a function of human nature, more interested in ideas that put more power in their hands as opposed to ideas that relieve them of power.

  7. Student of History says:


    In fact this is part of a global standards movement. That’s Sir Michael Barber’s contribution. Under the auspices of raising literacy and numeracy in the UK, he actually brought in sustainability and citizenship education. He is quite busy over here now.

    He gave an interview in 2005 to Education Sector where he said the separation between the executive and legislative at the federal level and the autonomy of the states on education hampered comparable reform in the US.

    Guess this Administration has found a way around those constraints.

    People who are “promoting education for a just and sustainable world” and want “primary age children to think critically about the major global challenges of the 21st century: global poverty, climate change and sustainability, and community cohesion” think Michael Barber is their visionary leader.

    And he’s just opened a Wash DC branch of EDI to push these standards as part of this global education reform. Or giving speeches at the Education Trust’s April Access to Success Meeting in Baltimore.

  8. concerned says:

    Another great post! Thank you for giving this topic the urgent analysis it so badly needs!

    You asked, “Wouldn’t it be smarter to focus our energies on pressuring states with bad standards to improve them?”

    Such a simple question that no one will answer! The entire process seems to have much more to do with pressuring states to relinquish control over education that it does with improving educational outcomes for students.

    Great reference to David Klein’s experience at Fordham. I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out what happened with the analysis of CC mathematics standards. Every high school teacher I work with thinks they are junk. If/when Common Core is widely accepted, the they’ll be pressuring colleges to offer a for credit course well below college algebra before long.

    So much for our nation’s competitiveness… Fordham should do a study on the percentage of students in US colleges and universities who are citizens and STEM majors or PhDs over the last 20+ years.

  9. […] Standing in stark contrast to most of his national-standards brethren is the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, who graciously came to Cato last week to debate national standards and is now in a terrific blog exchange with the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. Petrilli deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to answer such crucial questions as whether adopting the standards is truly voluntary, and if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right here. […]

  10. […] Jay P. Greene calls the idea of national standards “nonsense,” in this essay. He writes, “Yes, the national standards may be better than those in some states, but […]

  11. […] if CCSSI standards are protected from special interest group capture (see Jay P. Greene on that here and here) and set high standards for academic achievement, does that make any difference for the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: