As I previewed yesterday, I think the the tide has turned and the push to nationalize standards, curriculum, and assessments will fail. It’s impressive how far the current effort has gotten and the Gates/U.S. Department have a bunch of folks believing that their triumph is inevitable. But the drive for nationalization is doomed for the following reasons:
1) Every major Republican presidential candidate (and even the minor ones) have come out clearly against national standards. That means if the Republicans retake the White House, this federally-driven effort will fall apart. Even if Obama is re-elected, having the Republican standard-bearer come out clearly against national standards will raise the profile of this issue and signal to congressional, state, and local Republicans that this is something they should oppose. A louder and more partisan debate on national standards makes any big national change highly unlikely.
2) It’s true that forty-some states have signed on for national standards but that was largely a cost-free gesture in response to Federal offers of Race to the Top money and selective waivers from NCLB requirements. At this point the national standards are just a bunch of words on pieces of paper. To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy. Changing all of that will take a ton of money since it involves changing textbooks, tests, professional development, teacher training, etc… States don’t have that money to spend while the Feds don’t have any more to bribe them with and Gates itself can’t even come close to footing the bill. Up until now states have been paid to do something cost-less, but things will fall apart when state legislatures have to be asked to pay for the implementation.
3) The national standards effort has needed the feeling of inevitability to move forward. Once the juggernaut stalls people have some time to reflect and discuss the merits of nationalizing key aspects of our education system. Opposing groups in each state will have the time and ability to form and gain their own counter-momentum. And divisions among the disparate supporting groups will become more apparent, making some previous supporters turn against the effort. A lot of people, like Randi Weingarten, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Checker Finn, fantasize that they’ll be at the controls of this nationalized machine once it is built. Time will make more clear who will really be in charge (hint: it ain’t gonna be Checker) and the losers will rescind their support.
4) Digital learning supporters will have more time and experience to discover that achieving scale to provide virtual instruction across states will not require a national regulatory regime. The textbook industry has achieved incredible scale and sells nationwide despite 50 different state standards and even with less ability to customize their products for each state. Besides, when backers of digital learning discover who will be at the controls, they may recognize that a national regulatory regime could hinder their efforts in all states, preventing them from achieving beach-heads in more reform-minded states so that they can build and refine their business models. The digital learning supporters of national standards provide the strongest intellectual cover for nationalization on the right, so as they peal away from the nationalization effort the partisan nature of the debate will become even more severe (see above).
I honestly can’t see how the nationalization folks can prevail politically without slipping requirements into a re-authorized ESEA. The use of selective waivers by Duncan is so obviously abusive and manipulative that it will certainly backfire (to wit: Mike Petrilli’s denunciation of that tactic). Since ESEA re-authorization is going to take a while and since it will be virtually impossible to slip a nationalization of standards, assessments, and curriculum requirement into it, I see the whole nationalization project as doomed to fail. Rather than their victory being inevitable (as they would like people to think), I see their defeat as inevitable.