The Stealth Strategy of National Standards

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.

In the past I suggested that the reluctance of nationalization supporters to make an open and straightforward case was part of an intentional 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.

24 Responses to The Stealth Strategy of National Standards

  1. Sandra says:

    Any “big, open discussion” must also include parents, community members, and taxpayers. We are weary of educational policy experts who are so distant from interactions with children that they see human beings as data points.

    • I believe that before the Feds starting coercing adoption with Race to the Top only one state had adopted the national standards. The fact that this was driven by the U.S. Department of Ed with assistance from the Gates Foundation is unambiguous.

  2. Peter Meyer says:

    Hi Jay,

    Sorry you didn’t find many good arguments for a national curriculum at the PEPG conference. Though perhaps there are advocates of “nationalizing” the curriculum, there are others who believe that a common curriculum — whether schoolwide, districtwide, statewide, or nationwide — is, as E.D. Hirsch has shown time and time again, better for student learning, especially those students who do not get the background knowledge needed for further learning at home. A consistency of comprehensive content is a key to learning and there’s no reason that we (you, Gates, Ravitch, states, feds, whomever) can’t develop some good K-12 curricula that schools, districts, states, whomever, can’t adopt. Insisting that such a belief is nationalizing is whacky.


    peter meyer

    • Hi Peter,

      Standards that are coerced by the U.S. Department of Education with the assistance of the Gates Foundation (via Race to the Top and selective waivers on NCLB requirements) are nationalized. To describe these standards as “common” and “voluntary” is simply an abuse of the English language.

      I should be clear that I have nothing against people in schools, districts, and states adopting a common set of standards. In fact, I think much of the American education system has already been standardized without any central authority ordering it. Schools start in the fall and end in the spring, just about everyone teaches Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, etc… (see )

      But you and Fordham have to decide if you are willing to endorse the use of the coercive power of the federal government to achieve even greater standardization. If you are opposed to this coercion, then you have to come out against the current national standards drive, which have been irrevocably tainted with federal coercion.

      As Greg put it: “I get the sense that conservatives who like Common Core want a do-over. They want to disengage from their former allies among the nationalizers and reposition themselves as champions of high state standards.

      Fine! Step one to getting a do-over is to actually do it over.

      Common Core is irreversibly associated with nationalization. It already was before the latest word about NCLB waivers; that news doesn’t create, but merely confirms, the permanent link between CC and nationalization of education.

      You want genuinely state-driven common standards? Create some.”

      • Student of History says:


        When Dane Linn goes to international education conferences, he brags about how the US now has national standards. It is a travesty for him to come back here and insist then that they are not national.

        Plus both CCSSO and most state Departments of Ed are largely financed with federal dollars. Voluntary or we will cut off funding is an odd definition of the word. A DC definition.

  3. Bridgette says:

    Can you answer a question I cannot find an answer for? Did the Governor’s Association really start the common core standards on their own and then it was taken over by the feds and RttT? Or was the Governor’s Association given the idea by the feds? I have never been able to figure out what came first. Thank you!

    • Student of History says:


      This is a rehash of School to Work/Goals 2000/New Standards Project from the 1990s. Just renamed and broken up between federal initiatives under ARRA and RTT and through the states. The hope seems to be that the state legislators and their staffs are unfamiliar with the controversies that stopped full implementation before.

      The primary drivers are the Education Commission of the States plus whatever vehicles LDH and Marc Tucker are involved with at any given time.

  4. Donna Garner says:

    Jay, you have been active in pointing out the flaws with the nationalization of our public schools through Common Core Standards/Race to the Top for a long time. I appreciate your courage and your ability to question this takeover of our nation’s public schools.

    I also have published widely on this same subject and began doing so almost the day after Obama was elected because whether we want to get “political” or not, we have to look at the obvious.

    I, too, blame Gates/USDOE; but we have to be truthful and put the real blame where it needs to go. It is Obama and Arne Duncan who are the “captains of the ship.”

    Obama chose Duncan; both came from Chicago where they shared close relationships and close political and philosophical bonds; both have shown through their actions that they are Big-Government-growth supporters.

    The overreach of the federal government under the Obama administration has been breathtaking, and it has occurred in every part of our economy and society. No one can deny this.

    Therefore, I have to put the blame for the federal government’s overreach of the public schools through CCS/RTTT right at Obama/Duncan’s door. Yes, Gates has helped to drive this initiative with his money; but the CCS/RTTT initiative itself was carefully designed by Obama/Duncan to reflect their political beliefs; and it is the taxpayers who unwittingly paid for the Stimulus funds that started the implementation process of this illegal endeavor.

    Indeed, the USDOE is forbidden by law to dictate standards, curriculum, and testing; but the Obama administration has chosen to ignore the law.

    Obama/Duncan simply used Gates as a convenient partner to bully even more people to get on board, but it is Obama/Duncan whom we must hold accountable for usurping state/local control of our public schools.

    Again, Jay, I appreciate you for being a voice of reason and for questioning strongly this stealthy initiative.

    Donna Garner

  5. I listened to a number of panel sessions, since they were live streamed, and was startled by the amount of group think in the room. it’s like trading one set of Kool Aid drinkers for another….

  6. […] The Stealth Strategy of National Standards August 22nd, 2011    Jay P. Greene’s Blog 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. […]

  7. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:


    “The Gates/USDOE juggernaut is intended to create the impression that nationalization is inevitable, so you might as well get on board.”

    This concept is related to two points:

    1 – Death is inevitable, and while I realize that as a fact, I’m not going to hasten it nor am I going to stop living to the fullest until it occurs. But the Gates/US DOE alliance does not carry through to the same inevitability. So is this a case of True Believers ala Eric Hoffer or personal gain in some form for the participants?
    2- The money, power and influence being wielded by Gates/US DOE and shared amongst supporters of CCSS begs the questions: Who benefits? and Who pays for all of this: the feds and ed elites know best mumbo-jumbo?

  8. Sandra Stotsky says:

    We could have far more focused discussions about Common Core’s standards or teacher quality if we distinguished K-6/8 from high school, and elementary/middle school teachers from high school teachers. Other countries do, and they don’t tie themselves into knots as many speakers at the PEPG conference did (e.g., Mona). They give incoherent talks based on make-believe data.

    Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum is for K-8 and stops there. Common Core goes to 12 because its main goal is getting lots more kids into college based on tests to determine “college readiness” that will be linked to credit-bearing post-secondary courses that have been watered down. Hirsch’s CK program cannot change the watered down high school curriculum for all students that Gates/Duncan want as the basis for “college-readiness tests (and that the two testing consortia are producing. Did anyone at the conference even ask for “released” items after the “common tests” are given so we can see what is meant by a grade-level exam? I was surprised at how clueless most of the audience was about the details that matter.

    The Gates/Duncan experiment with almost all of America’s children will fail because it is focused only on teachers for accountability. No accountability for parents or the kids themselves (does any CC document expect kids to do homework?). And as long as our elementary teachers come from the bottom third of their college cohort (not so with our high school teachers), our kids will become the janitors of the world. East Asian countries ensure that their prospective elementary teachers come from the top 10% of their cohort, supply roughly matches demand, and their education is cost-free (Singapore, S. Korea, and Finland, e.g.).

    There is much that can be learned from international experts, but I don’t think most of the audience in Boston last week learned what that was. I heard all the talks and talked to a few people on the side. A commissioner of ed told me in a personal conversation that content isn’t very important, but critical thinking is. I was told he’s already signed his state up for the forthcoming science standards when they haven’t even been written.

    Sandra Stotsky

  9. matthewladner says:

    Ed Week is reporting that Secretary Duncan will not require CC participation to get an NCLB waiver:

    • Jay P Greene says:

      This is not a change in his position. He says that you can adopt national standard (I refuse to lie and call them common) or you can prove to the Feds that your alternative is career and college ready. Since no one has ever defined what that means and given the burden of proof what he is saying is equivalent to requiring national standards. The sliver of ambiguity is pure to provide political cover.

  10. Jenni White says:

    Although you have focused with laser beam accuracy on the problems surrounding the CCSSI, another portion of the whole Race to the Top initiative – the P20 database – gets no attention and is even MORE intrusive than the whole federalized curricula contraption. Our organization has been extremely concerned about the amount and types of data state governments will be collecting on CHILDREN and then disseminating to entire arrays of other governmental and sub-governmental bodies, often times without parental consent.

    We are so disgusted in fact, that we put together an ExtraNormal video describing one of the P20 meetings in Oklahoma on our YouTube channel. The reason I bring it up here is that the video makes your point in stark relief, Jay.

    They (the reformers – whom I liken to Christine of Stephen King fame) believe we MUST have a database to collect information on students from preK to age 20 in order to get students to graduate high school college ready. Sounds good (I guess) until you really THINK about that.

    Last week, I’m telling my local school board member about P20 – and all the other horrifying nuggets we’ve uncovered in our paper on CCSSI and RTT. I spent nearly the entire time focused on the face of a woman looking at an oncoming car (Christine) without a clue of why it was about to hit her and what would actually happen if it did.

    “But Jenni, we need to collect data on kids to make sure they can graduate high school college ready.”


    “Because kids are dropping out right and left and we need to track them to see where they go.”


    “Well, they need to be in class so we can get them college ready.”

    “What’s college ready?”

    “A rigorous curriculum that promotes Critical Thinking.” (The same stuff Christine runs on)

    “How can you promote critical thinking when you don’t teach them facts to ‘think’ about? And how does collecting birth marks and voting status and blood type help them get facts?”

    Long pause…

    “Um. Well. Good question.”

    Yup. Pretty much.

  11. George mitchell says:

    I can just imagine people at such conferences saying to themselves: “Here comes that pesky Jay Greene. So many questions. So obsessed with evidence.” The national standards issue
    illustrates in so many ways the ongoing and longstanding drift of the supposed “school reform” effort.

  12. Niki Hayes says:

    I was selected to serve on the TX math review committee (for rewriting our state math standards). My selection came as a surprise to me since I am an avowed Saxon Math supporter. (I wrote and self-published Saxon’s biography last year.)

    I was stunned by Texas Education Agency staff’s constant encouragement for us to look at the Common Core standards, while also referencing Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Singapore Math during our May and July meetings. I kept telling my committee colleagues (for grades 3-5) that TX is one of two states (Alaska’s the other one) that did not buy into Common Core and we should not model anything after CC in our standards. I finally wrote a detailed report of what I was hearing after our second committee meeting and sent it to an individual who forwarded it to some state decision-makers.

    One of my greatest concerns, for example, is the refusal of the TEA staff members (and my committee members of teachers and mostly district administrators) to consider the inclusion of “standard algorithms” in the our new standards. They are willing to include “partial products and quotients,” a mainstay of the reform elementary crowd, even though standard algorithms are stated specifically in Minnesota’s standards and called by a different name in Massachusetts.

    As a retired teacher and principal (Seattle) who was always castigated by district leaders because of my support and use of Saxon/traditional math, I have long been unwilling to sit back as our leaders succumb to politically-based garbage and power plays.

    My attendance at the October, and final, committee meeting should be interesting.

    • Student of History says:


      Do you think the disregard you are describing is a result of the Dana Center and Uri Treisman’s prominence at the national level in radical ed reform? Their term, not mine.

      • Niki Hayes says:

        Yes. There is a cadre of groups and individuals who have built reputations, professional prominence, and income/grants by joining the reform movement with its huge political connections with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Public education, sadly, appears to be far more about adult advancement than children’s.

    • Robert Scott says:


      First, I appreciate your service on our mathematics standards review committee. I believe that when developing standards it is important to consider diverse points of view.

      As you know, you are participating in the initial phase of our standards development process by providing a recommendation to the Texas State Board of Education. The draft that you develop will be vetted through a very public process that often results in substantial changes to such a proposal.

      I share your desire for the draft proposal to be the best set of math standards in the country. That is why I asked my staff to ensure that the draft proposal was superior to the common core standards and those of other states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, which before adopting the common core were widely considered to be among the best in the nation.

      I look forward to the continuing dialogue as we move through our standards adoption process.

      • niki hayes says:

        Thank you, Mr. Scott. I do know your integrity as TEA’s Commissioner is highly respected and that you are dedicated to the development of a set of math standards that will help us be a top performing state in math education. I also know this process is long and tedius and that, at some point, someone has to pull our weeks of what seem to be uneven work into a solid document for the next round of vetting. I must remain resolute that the results of the complete process will produce math excellence for our students, teachers, and Texas. How can we, the adults, accept anything less?

  13. Brian Rude says:

    I have a hard time keeping up with these things but it seems like a couple of years or so ago that there began to be a strong call for national educational standards. At that time I didn’t understand what was behind this call. It seemed all the educational blogs were full of criticisms about state standards. States were designing standards, and maybe adopting them, but they seemed to cause mostly frustration or disappointment. So why, I wondered, would we want national standards? If state standards had caused frustration and disappointment then it seemed to me that the last thing we would want is national standards.

    But a little more reflection made it pretty clear, unfortunately. What seems illogical and counterintuitive to me can seem very logical and intuitive to others of a different mind set. People in education tend to be what I call “groupers”, and I have concluded over the years that the “grouper’s mindset” is indeed different than my mindset. People in politics also tend to be groupers.

    I think the call for national standards in spite of a lot of frustration and disappointment with state standards is a very good example of what I have lately come to call the “grouper’s fantasy”.

    The grouper’s fantasy is the scenario of people coming together in order to solve a problem. It’s an idealized scenario, apparently very appealing to some people. We’ll have discussions, define our problem, propose solutions, decide on a course of action, and carry it out. By coming together in a united effort we can do together what we can not accomplish alone.

    Well, sometimes we do work together and accomplish what we could not accomplish alone, and that is good. It’s a part of being civilized. But sometimes things don’t work out so well. The grouper’s fantasy envisions success, when in reality the grouper’s fantasy can easily turn into a nightmare, and sometimes does. Working together is often not easy, and sometimes extremely difficult and frustrating.

    The grouper’s fantasy always seems to assume that good intentions are enough to guarantee success, and groupers always have plenty of good intentions.

    The grouper’s fantasy seems to have no sense of history. It is a fantasy that will confidently expect to solve problems that have resisted solution repeatedly in the past. Remember when Bill Clinton called for a “national conversation on race”? The fact that we’ve been having a national conversations on race for centuries just didn’t seem to enter the thinking of proponents of the proposed conversation.

    And there is another phenomenon I see at work here, that I will call the “grouper’s method”. That method is that group members are expected to intuit what they are expected to do, and to fall into line. Groupers always think they are egalitarian, non-coercive, mindful and respectful of differing opinions. Well, sometimes they are. But sometimes they are not. Sometimes the group’s egalitarian rhetoric is simply that – rhetoric. Sometimes a group member discovers that he or she is taking the group’s egalitarian rhetoric too seriously, that in reality he or she should simply fall in line, do what’s expected, even if the group refuses to spell out what that is. By refusing to spell out expectations the fiction of egalitarianism is maintained, at the psychological expense of the non-dominant members of the group, of course, but that seems of little consequence in light of the warm fuzzy feeling that groupers get from their wonderful good intentions.

    In other words the “stealth” approach comes very natural to people, groupers anyway. It doesn’t seem underhanded, apparently. It’s just that people should do things together, they should subordinate their individual ends to the greater good of the group. At least that’s what I surmise the grouper thinks.

    So what is a “grouper”? That’s a little hard to define, but I have made an effort. It’s on my website, with the title “Let’s Do It Together” at's-do.htm. A very important point in this article is that groupers and non-groupers have a great deal of difficulty understanding each other. Indeed groupers and non-groupers are largely blind to each other’s perspectives. They don’t realize there is a different perspective to understand, much less to accommodate to.

  14. charlie plant says:

    I am in RI where a high stakes test component for high school graduation has been adopted. During the debate, I asked for all the studies and data that RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) was using to support the proposed policy. I was given a stack of hundreds of pages of studies. I read them all and summarized their key points. I was astonished to find that there was not one enthusiastic nod to high stakes testing among them all. The studies actually ranged in findings from neutral to extremely negative and cautionary about high stakes testing for graduation. It became obvious to me that RIDE hadn’t even read the studies and was proceeding with the mindset described above, namely “of course tests are the way to go. Isn’t it obvious to everyone?” When I pointed this out to The Board of Regents here, it became clear we were dealing with a group at RIDE operating under the modus operandi, “don’t confuse me with the facts, I know how I feel.”

    Charlie Plant, Principal, The Paul Crowley East Bay Campus of The Met School, Newport RI

  15. […] August 22, 2011             THE STEALTH STRATEGY OF NATIONAL STANDARDS “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.” >>read more>> […]

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