National Standards, Welfare Reform and the Dream of the One True Way

March 16, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So why not national academic standards?  Many states, after all, have awful standards. Some with decent standards have nevertheless dropped their cut scores to the point of undermining those standards. Surely the states have proven that they cannot be trusted with this responsibility.  A set of high quality national standards could replace this balkanized mess and improve the sorry state of American education.

Actually, not so much.  First however we should consider the scale of the problem with state accountability tests.

Above is a table from a NAEP study which used an equating procedure to determine where the “proficiency threshold” for each state’s exam would compare to the NAEP 4th and 8th grade reading exam. As you see, many states have proficiency cut scores which would merit a child a “below basic” score on NAEP. No state makes the equivalent of proficient on a 4th grade reading test equivalent to the 4th grade NAEP, and only one state does so on the 8th grade exam.

In Mississippi, one can “pass” the 4th grade reading test with a score which is 25% lower than “Basic” on NAEP, never mind proficient. This is a c*r*u*e*l j*o*k*e to play on children.

American welfare policy provides an insight into why it is not however a good idea to have the federal government take this over. Political scientists have established a strong relationship between shifts in public opinion and trends in federal spending. When the public decides they want more of something, like defense spending, they get it. Two exceptions had been foreign aid and welfare (AFDC). This spending endured despite widespread public hostility as a result of a Burkean elite consensus that this spending had to go on despite the fact that the people providing the funds, by large margins, didn’t want the money spent.

Much ink was spilled back in the late 20th century regarding whether the American public ought to have hated welfare as much as they did. Welfare queens- myth or reality…etc. etc. etc. Ultimately, this didn’t matter other than as a justifying myth to those who wanted elites to continue to ignore public opinion on the subject. America had a welfare program run out of Washington, and lacked a consensus about what to do about it, even after it was widely viewed as a failure.

Eventually an elite consensus formed around the notion that in the long run, welfare was cruel to the recipients, creating a powerful disincentive to work and develop job skills. This new consensus could be seen as early as the late 1980s, but for the most part, the national welfare Gosplan went on as usual, with minor tinkering at the edges.

Given the lack of a national consensus on what to do about AFDC, the Republican Congress and President Clinton eventually agreed to devolve welfare to the states. Different states tried different approaches, but by and large in did not prove terribly difficult for states to reach a consensus about how to deal with the issue. Nor did it prove difficult for the states to (mostly) do a better job than the federal government. The Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 is widely viewed as having been a rare social policy success.

In K-12, the long-term increase in the role of the federal government has coincided with a long-term collapse in the productivity of American K-12 spending. Federal involvement did not drive this collapse, but did contribute to it, and certainly did not prevent it. Secretary of Education Rod Paige lamented the billions spent on Title I with next to nothing to show for in terms of improved academic performance at the start of the George W. Bush administration. Sadly, not much has changed in terms of performance, but spending continued to rise.

Why not national testing? Given that there is no national consensus on what constitutes a high quality education, there is no prospect for an enduring national consensus on high quality standards. In fact, it seems fairly obvious to me from the figure above that there is a national consensus for LOW QUALITY ACADEMIC STANDARDS AND TESTS.

The danger in creating “common core standards” and then forcing states to adopt them through NCLB is that when they get dummied down, and they will, they drag the entire nation with them. Despite the fact that the status-quo is awful, it could be worse: we could have the entire country saddled with bad standards and tests.

Federalism has not been a cure for K-12 because all states have essentially the same problem: large politically powerful special interest groups in every state who prefer the status-quo. In recent years, however, we have not lacked for “labs of reform” out in the states. Jeb Bush’s reforms in Florida have significantly improved academic outcomes for disadvantaged children. The NAEP needle seems to be moving in the right direction in Washington DC. Massachusetts is proud of its standards led reforms and highest overall NAEP scores. Indiana has a reform-minded governor and schools chief determined to learn the lessons from these examples, and to take the next steps.

To be sure, these examples are few and far between, but they do exist. Just as Tommy Thompson led the way on welfare reform by seeking federal waivers from a federal “one true way” on AFDC, those few states that have departed from the “throw more money at schools and wring our hands” consensus fostered by the teachers union have shown progress as well.

It is however NOT likely to be the case that there will be any sort of sustainable national consensus on using high quality standards or tests in Washington DC. The same political forces which dummied down most of the state tests will eventually, if not from the start, dummy down a national effort. The genius of federalism is that a state consensus can be developed much easier in a state than in the nation as a whole. As more states enjoy success, we can expect other states to copy their practices through the normal process of policy diffusion. This process is already under way.

We could however suspend the laws of political dynamics. We could skillfully impose strong tests and standards on states against their wills, and resist their efforts indefinitely to undermine such tests until such time as the public grew to accept, love and defend them from special interest attack. Riiiight. It is also worth noting that while a DC elite consensus fended off AFDC from the public will for decades, they *ahem* got it WRONG…

Sorry kids, but the road to K-12 reform is a long, hard slog that primarily leads through 50 state capitols. We already have a national test for gauging the effectiveness of  state K-12: NAEP. The only reason that NAEP wasn’t dummied down is because no one’s school label or job performance hangs on the results. It is hard enough to maintain a consensus for decent standards in a handful of states. The chance that it will happen at the national level is vanishingly small and the danger of such an attempt very real.

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