National Standards — Taking Names and Answering Questions

Mike Petrilli seems concerned that I haven’t answered his questions about how to address certain problems without resorting to federally-imposed national standards.  I thought I had.  I said: “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 also thought I answered his questions when I said:

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.

But perhaps the problem was that I didn’t apply my answers to each of the questions he raised, so I’ll do so here:

Mike asks:   If not through common standards, how else should we address the problem of vague, content-free state standards?

I answer:  Focus political pressure on states with weak standards and assessments.  Using NAEP to shame weak states, as Paul Peterson and Rick Hess have been doing, is helpful.  Choice and competition among states should also help to some degree.  States with lousy standards and assessments will have a harder time attracting (and developing) skilled labor and will attract less capital investment, job-creation, and, as a result, generate less tax revenue.  Lastly, centralizing the standards and assessment process at the national level does nothing to address this problem and may well make things worse, as I’ve been arguing.

Mike asks:  Laughably low cut scores?

I answer:  See the answer to the last question.

Mike asks:  Tests that are poorly designed and can’t possibly bear the weight being placed on them, from value-added demands to merit pay to teacher evaluations, etc.?

I answer:  See above.  Also, there are several high-quality, for-profit testing companies.  States could be urged to contract with one of them.  Frankly, most states already do and most tests are technically reasonable, so I don’t see this as a big problem.  I do see moving the development of assessments to the national level as a big problem because then you are liable to get the Linda Darling-Hammond test focusing on project-based learning, measuring collaboration, etc…

Mike asks:  Small state departments of education that don’t have the resources or capacity to get this technical stuff right?

I answer: Name me a state that does not have the resources to hire a decent commercial testing company.  Even the small state departments of education have more money than Croesus.  And as we know from Caroline Hoxby’s research, the cost of testing is trivial.

Mike asks: Textbook and curriculum and professional development and teacher training markets that are fragmented into fifty pieces?

I answer:  I’ll answer with a question.  What’s bad about having 50 textbooks, curricula, professional development, etc…?  We have more than 50 different restaurants, book publishers, etc… and the expanded choice and competition in those sectors helps improve quality.  It’s odd to hear someone call for a monopoly when the government normally tries to break those things up.

(edited to correct typos)

16 Responses to National Standards — Taking Names and Answering Questions

  1. concerned says:

    Spurring Innovation Through Education: Four Ideas


  2. concerned says:

    My favorite part –
    Link K-12 Curricula to Comparative Effectiveness

    Little attention has been paid to choice of curriculum as a driver of student achievement. Yet the evidence for large curriculum effects is persuasive. Consider a recent study of first-grade math curricula, reported by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in February 2009. The researchers randomly matched schools with one of four widely used curricula. Two curricula were clear winners, generating three months’ more learning over a nine-month school year than the other two. This is a big effect on achievement, and it is essentially free because the more effective curricula cost no more than the others.

    Yu can find it here:

    The federal government should fund many more comparative effectiveness trials of curricula, and schools using federal funds to support the education of disadvantaged students should be required to use evidence of effectiveness in the choice of curriculum materials. The Obama administration supports comparative effectiveness research in health care. It is no less important in education.

    There are similar results for middle school math here:

    The question is…
    Why are these programs in our schools?

    If you read the Open Letter to Richard Riley, our country’s great mathematicians and scientist tried to stop NSF from promoting this junk.


  3. Greg Forster says:

    “Markets that are fragmented into fifty pieces”?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but having a market means having more potential buyers, not fewer. As the number of potential buyers (and sellers) declines, the designation “market” becomes less applicable. When you have only one buyer, you have no market at all, n’est-ce pas?

  4. Patrick says:

    I’m worried that the national standards will prevent us from achieving a class size of 0 – The Matrix style:

  5. Joe says:

    “States with lousy standards and assessments will have a harder time attracting (and developing) skilled labor and will attract less capital investment, job-creation, and, as a result, generate less tax revenue.”

    Here’s the question. Having a bad education system is clearly not in a state’s interest. Not only does a good education system provide a skilled workforce, it also reduces lots of bads, such as crime and welfare dependence, that are a drain on state budgets. But this is not a new thing; it’s always been like that. So if states have only incentives to do the right thing — and they’ve had those incentives for a long time — why have they not done the right thing and we do we bad schools? Or do we not, in fact, have such bad schools?

  6. Hi Joe,

    The competitive pressure states feel is relatively weak because there are high transaction costs for individuals and companies to move and limited attractive alternatives. While this weak competitive pressure doesn’t do much to make schools good, states would fare somewhat worse if even that weak pressure were eliminated.

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, this is why Nevada did so well for so long with a public school system that can barely beat out California.

      Times are a changin though…

    • Joe says:


      I don’t quite buy that. Maybe not companies, but individuals are relatively footloose. It seems like no matter how you look at it, an educated, productive population would be in a state’s best interest. Besides their higher tax contributions, they require less social services, commit fewer crimes… So it is really a puzzle. Giving the amount of money they spend on education, why aren’t states doing a better job of it? Are they just stupid? Or, more charitably, since they are relatively inexperienced at it (historically speaking), they haven’t yet figured out how to do it well?

      • allen says:

        Why aren’t states doing a better job of educating kids? Because they don’t have to. Who’s hurt if the state does a lousy job? The kids? The parents? The taxpayers?

        The kids won’t understand what they’ve lost for fifteen or twenty years if ever. Parents, beyond moving to another district don’t have much of a say.

        Taxpayers can only make changes at long intervals and even then have to contend with the influence of highly-motivated groups, i.e. teachers, administrators, boards, who will certainly have different, if not contradictory, agendas.

  7. Greg Forster says:


    I’ll give you $100 to permanently move your whole family to another region of the country.

    No? How about $1,000?

    The transaction costs are pretty steep.

  8. I agree completely with Jay Greene on his views about national standards. Some of the arguments for centralized, federalized standards seem especially weak in the current environment of overspending, overborrowing and underperforming at all levels of government.

    There are two main reasons, in my opinion, why there hasn’t been as much effort in states to make more “competitive” changes in public education.

    One reason is that there are many more forces that produce economic results in any givern state than can be effected by costly K-12 reforms: Fiscal and regulatory policies; demographics; geographic and weather factors; and variations in the commercial, agricultural and industrial legacy base. Community response to change is an important qualitative factor.

    The second reason is that the educational system is clearly antiquated and essentially dysfunctional, especially when considered in financial terms. The public knows this intuitively and their policy makers respond to that. Taxpayers don’t get much for their money and many “reforms” are tinkering around the edge of a public monopoly which protects the adults. We get it. Why bother?

    One would not expect public education alone to improve the outlook for an industrial state in the Northeast or North Central U.S. or in the agricualtural economic base in Iowa or Mississippi. In fact, why would any educated student want to stay where job prospects will be so limited? They don’t. They might get educated there but they’ll leave.

    It would take a concerted set of sound state polices, with high expectations of sustainability,to improve the economies of those individual states. It would take capital and risk takers—who today go any where in the world regardless of the level of education of the work force—being welcomed and encouraged. Of course the quality of the work force matters—so education could be a contributing factor— but even in that case labor force mobility and private business training compensates.

    Federalized standards sound like whistling past the graveyard in terms of the major economic policy overhaul needed almost everywhere. Now bring some heavy artillery to the education front…maybe that would be something seriously hopeful.

  9. Excellent points, Charles. The existing level of competition among states is nowhere near strong enough to fix our schools. At the same time, loosing what amount of choice and competition we do have by nationalizing standards and assessments would be a negative development.

  10. […] 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 students? […]

  11. […] Of course, there’s been a terrific back-and-forth between the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene. […]

  12. […] of federal money will somehow end up being federal and, as a result, bad. Well it seems that Jay Greene and I — the two paranoiacs Finn identified by name — are not alone. Here’s a […]

  13. […] They have weighed in on the issue AGAINST national standards here, here, here, and especially here.  Their position can best be summarized with these remarks from Jay Greene: The answer is not to […]

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