Morning Bell: Time to Stand Up to the National Standards Agenda

Jennifer Marshall /

Last year, GM CEO Rick Wagoner “voluntarily” stepped aside when Washington took over his company. BP is “voluntarily” setting up a $20 billion escrow account. And now, states are being pushed to “voluntarily” adopt national education standards and tests.

It all began when the Obama administration used its $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant fund as an incentive for states to adopt standards under development by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (one of the “education blob” groups that protects the status quo against parent-empowering reforms). Initially, the competition was enough of an incentive to get 48 states – all but Alaska and Texas – to go along with the idea of national standards. Alaska and Texas chose not to apply for Race to the Top funding because of the provision requiring adoption of national standards. Texas Gov. Rick Perry stated that the Obama administration’s requirement that states adopt national standards “is an effort to undermine states’ authority to determine how their students are educated, and is clearly aimed at circumventing laws prohibiting national standards.”

Now other states are expressing concerns as well. Two more states – Minnesota and Virginia – have decided not to take part. Both Minnesota and Virginia argue that their state standards are stronger than the proposed national standards supported with federal dollars.

But if the Obama administration has its way, states might not have a choice in the matter. The U.S. Education Department recently released a “blueprint” for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. The blueprint language indicates the administration will try to tie $14.5 billion in money for low-income school districts to a state’s adoption of national standards.

While it was one thing for states such as Texas to eschew $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money, it will be nearly impossible for states to turn down their share of $14.5 billion in Title I funding. “Voluntary” once again rings hollow.

Proponents tout national standards and tests as a way to improve academic achievement. For half a century, the federal government’s role in education has continued to increase significantly with no positive impact on student learning. Yet, national standards proponents see this new federal role in standards and testing as the answer. But proponents are wrong to conclude national standards would improve American education. Here’s why:

Misconception #1: National standards are necessary so parents can understand how their children compare with other children across the country. The information parents need is already available. State tests let parents know how well their children have mastered the curriculum. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, currently administered to samples of students in each state, provides an external audit of state tests. If transparency about that data has been insufficient, it does not merit a national standards and testing regime. It calls for better transparency and accountability to parents.

Misconception #2: National standards would make American students more competitive with their international peers. While it’s true that many of the countries that outperform the United States on international tests have national standards, so do most of the countries that score lower than the United States. Even when it comes to state standards, the relationship between academic performance and the quality of those standards is inconsistent.

Misconception #3: National standards are necessary because state standards vary in quality. While it’s true that some state standards are better than others, the same pressures that drive down state standards would likely plague national standards. For that reason, national standards will tend to decline toward the average among states, undercutting states with higher standards, such as Massachusetts. Ultimately, the goal of uniformity would result in the standardization of mediocrity.

National standards would also further remove parents from their children’s education. Instead of being able to petition their local school boards or state leaders for changes in academic content, parents would have to lobby bureaucrats in Washington, DC, if they wish to see changes in what their child is learning.

This is perhaps the most worrisome part of the shift toward national standards. If imposed, parents and taxpayers will no longer be able to retain one of their most significant tools for education reform: the power to shape their schools’ academic content, standards, and testing.

Instead of moving toward a system of rigid national standards, which would represent an unprecedented federal overreach into education, states should empower parents with information about school performance and increase transparency about academic achievement. And ultimately, parents should be able to use that information to choose a school that meets their child’s needs. We know what works in education, and it begins and ends with parents–not the federal government.

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