Do We Need National Standards to Prevent a Race to the Bottom?

One of the better arguments for the adoption of national standards is that it is necessary to prevent a race to the bottom among states and localities.  States wishing to look good rather than actually be good may be tempted to lower their academic expectations so that they can more easily declare victory without having to make any educational progress.  Imposing a national standard would prevent this race to the bottom because all states would have to compete on the same scale and could not manipulate the measuring tape to appear 10 feet tall.

There is some evidence that this kind of race to the bottom has been occurring.  Rick Hess and Paul Peterson, for example, have compared state cut scores for proficiency on their state tests to results on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to show that the level of achievement required to be declared proficient in many states has been dropping over the last decade. In his recent review of the Maranto and McShane book on Obama’s education policies, Nathan Glazer described how advocates for national standards see them as a fix for this race to the bottom:

 in Race to the Top, “the Obama administration tacitly gave its approval to a set of ‘Common Core Standards’ developed by a consortium of state school officers and tied Race to the Top dollars to participation in the program.” This may be a path to finally getting a set of national standards and overriding the standards the states set, which have in many states been pushed lower. This “race to the bottom” has made it easier to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) and avoid triggering measures required for schools that do not show AYP.

So does competition among states and localities really produce a race to the bottom or does competition motivate improvement and spark continual improvements?  The answer depends on what states and localities are competing for.  If states and localities are competing to receive federal funds and/or avoid federal sanctions, as Glazer describes states seeking to make AYP, then competition will produce a race to the bottom.  In competing for bureaucratic approval from the feds, states only have to appear good (satisfy the bureaucratic requirements), but they don’t have to actually be good.  Competing for the bureaucratic approval of the federal government turns education into a redistributive policy where the goal is to get a larger share of the federal largess.

But if states and localities are competing for residents and businesses to increase their tax base, then the incentive from competition is to increase standards and quality.  Millions of individuals are not so easily fooled and can distinguish between phony claims of progress created by lowering the bar and real progress.  Clever bureaucrats can also tell the difference but they are bound by the rules for dispersing rewards and sanctions and so are forced into encouraging a race to the bottom.  Individual face no similar constraints.  They want to move to the areas with the best schools to help their kids, enhance their property values, and have access to a quality labor force.  Individuals may make mistakes or have bad taste, but in aggregate they reward real educational progress not fake, race to the bottom, manipulation.

The history of U.S. education is filled with evidence of how this competition for residents and tax base has spurred improvements in quality and increases in rigor.  The economic historian, William Fischel, carefully documents how the development and spread of high school education in the United States was driven by localities seeking to compete for residents demanding a more rigorous education.  And the standards required for graduating high school have steadily increased over time.  Graduation requires more college-prep coursework.  In almost half of the states students now have to pass a state test to receive a standard diploma.  And 37 states instituted their own testing and accountability systems before NCLB was adopted.  The result of these state and local efforts was not always a rigorous education, but they clearly show a trend toward higher standards and quality in response to consumer demand.  Competition produces a race to the top as long as it is competition for individual taxpayers and business instead of competition for federal government handouts.

So, if a race to the bottom is fueled by the desire to satisfy federal bureaucratic rules, why would we think the solution is in the adoption of more federal bureaucratic rules?  National standards will just create a new regime of gaming, manipulation, and the appearance of progress without the actuality of it.  Expanding choice and competition for individuals is the solution to a race to the bottom, not more centralized control that stifles that competition.


10 Responses to Do We Need National Standards to Prevent a Race to the Bottom?

  1. allen says:

    Hmmm, I just wonder to what degree satisfaction with the local public education system informs residence decisions?

    I can understand some relatively well-fixed couples placing a high priority on school district quality but once the decision’s made and everyone’s all moved in, I wonder how likely those folks are to move if the discover they’ve guessed wrong?

    My guess is that, unless you’re middle to upper-middle income at least, once you make the decision on where to set up housekeeping it’d take a pretty awful school district to get most parents to up stakes. Competitiveness becomes less important when you’ve get a captive clientele and if the bars to moving out are high, which they are, the motivation to maintain high educational standards diminishes.

    At best it’s a war between the forces of mediocrity and the forces of excellence with the playing field tilted in favor of the forces of mediocrity.

    • Not everyone has to be an active chooser for markets to work. Districts and states, like firms, compete for the marginal consumer. And upper-income consumers are particularly desirable.

      I agree that this is a highly inefficient market, but it has facilitated progress. It would be a shame to obliterate it by centralizing education further.

      • allen says:

        Yeah, while there are folks who swoon at the thought of the federal government having a bigger role in K-12 and, in the privacy of an Obama fund-raiser entertain fantasies of a federalized K-12 system, that’s not the only direction in which the institution can go.

        In fact, I’d offer that there are more then a few signs and portents that public education is in the process of reversing the trend toward greater centralization. The last year’s been a heady one for those who see the salvation of education in the return of authority to parents hands but in percentage terms it hasn’t had much impact.

        But the forces that drove those changes aren’t declining.

        The economic downturn will, at some point, force the realization that a school district’s a fabulously inefficient mechanism for educating kids. As that realization starts to hit home, and I may be seeing signs of that here in Michigan, the inefficiency of school districts will become an issue.

        Someone, somewhere will reduce the issue to a choice between cops and fireman on one side and central office staff on the other. When you have an alternative to the central office, and times are tough, the old way of doing things has to give way.

        Michigan now has two districts in which the entire central office staff is on the block. Depending on which way the political winds blow we may see the first charterized districts before this year ends. I doubt they’ll be the last as the value of the idea starts to spread.

        Then there’s the centrifugal force of technology which undermines the need for the kids to be where the teachers are or to even have anywhere near as many teachers. Or to be gathered for the convenience of the professionals in purpose-built buildings.

        The folks whose eyes go all dreamy at the though of the federal government taking over public education may believe they’ve got a good chance of accomplishing their desire but they’re wrong and I’m of the opinion that one day they’ll blink and wonder how they lost it all, seemingly without much of a fight.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Better headline: nationalization of education causes a race to the bottom.

  3. Dave Saba says:

    So in the great switch in education reform, when it comes to standards you advocate to maintain the status quo.
    Texas just implemented new state testing with over 80% of students passing the new Algebra exams – which required you to get 37% right. A statistician told me you could answer 7 questions right and guess on the rest and be proficient in Algebra.

    Edreformers – the new defenders of the status quo!

    • The question is in which direction should we be looking to change the status quo. I say decentralize to expand choice and competition. Others advocate centralization through national standards.

      Do you think the national policymakers adopting a new national test and cut scores will be superior to those in TX and give families the bitter medicine of highlighting low performance? At least right now if TX creates a stupid test and cut score only TX is hurt. If you nationalize it, there will be no escape from dumb policies.

      • Dave Saba says:

        Actually, yes – having studied them extensively as we work with educators from 24 states on implementation, I do believe that they will very clearly put the bitter spotlight on low performance. (to properly mix the metaphors)

        Then the question is whether we have the intestinal fortitude to work on the instructional issues that are highlighted and not adjust the cut score like all states have done in teh past in the current race to the bottom.

        I do advocate for change and not for the status quo. Insanity is doing the same thing and hoping for a better result and in this case, states working together to create an assessment that ensures greater rigor in reading, literacy and writing and in going deep into math will be the difference we need to move forward.

        But enough calm discourse – let’s move into the name calling phase of education debate.

      • It depends on which doing the same thing over and over you mean — Doing the same thing as when local control facilitated choice and competition, which produced the gradual increase in rigor and quality over the first century of public education, or doing the same thing as when we increasingly centralized control and forced uniformity over the last five decades?

        I completely share your frustration, Dave, but be careful not to jump into making the problem worse just because you feel the need to jump. We have to know where we want to jump. Making this a choice between the status quo and national standards is a false choice.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    Lousy state standards and absurdly easy tests have been a problem for years, and competition between jurisdictions doesn’t seem to be addressing the problem at anything other than a glacial pace, if that.

    Most states also have lousy charter school laws and very little private school choice as well. The choice tribe made the decision to battle this problem state by state. This is a frustratingly slow process, but if the standards movement had taken the trouble to create a c3/c4 and 527 groups to beat the living daylights out of states with tests that the stock picking chicken could score out as proficient twenty years ago, I think matters would be much better now.

    Instead we have seen the standards tribe invest their efforts in a series of Goals 2000/NCLB/Common Core master plans. I hope that Common Core will prevent the stock picking chicken from passing tests in Mississippi, but if it doesn’t, a change of tactics will be in order.

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