Politics & Policy

Conservatism’s Big Test

Sometimes going national is the answer.

In the past few weeks, conservative luminaries including Bill Bennett, Tommy Thompson, and Rod Paige have publicly endorsed national testing for K-12 education, giving some libertarians a fit. Consider Cato’s Neal McCluskey, for instance, who not only attacked national standards in his recent National Review Online piece but went after the entire education-reform strategy that rests on standards and testing.

Here’s his argument in a nutshell: National standards — or government-imposed education standards of any sort at any level — are doomed to mediocrity or worse. His alternative? “School choice — giving parents the ability to take education money to schools that work, and away from those that don’t — is the only hope.”

Is McCluskey right that conservatives must choose between standards-based reform and market-based reform? Of course not. Holding schools accountable for results and giving parents multiple options among diverse schools has been a longtime winning combination for conservatives.

More importantly, this is a winning combination for our nation’s students precisely because the two strategies complement one another. As Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn points out, each offers a viable solution to the other’s fatal flaw. Standards-based reform is pretty good at identifying schools in need of improvement but is awful at doing anything to fix them. (See here and consider what’s happening — or not happening — to failing schools under No Child Left Behind.) School choice provides an answer: give children trapped in these schools other options and support supply-side innovations like charter schools to make sure there is a decent elsewhere.

But school choice has a blind side, too. In order for any market to work effectively, consumers need good information. In K-12 education, that means data about how much students learn in a given school, i.e. how effective the school is at educating them. Many schools — including elite private schools — would like their clients to settle for slick marketing claims about all their Ivy League alumni/ae. But parents have no way of knowing whether those “results” come from great instruction in the classroom or selective screening during admissions. If we want to know whether schools actually “add value” to their students, we need rigorous tests tied to meaningful academic standards, plus a sophisticated “value added” analysis system — the whole standards-based reform kit-and-caboodle.

Unfortunately, most states have botched standards-based reform by setting the bar too low. The problem is aggravated by No Child Left Behind, which demands that all students reach “proficiency” by 2014 but lets states define “proficiency” to their low levels. Hence, NCLB has created a race to the bottom. States face strong incentives to game their own standards — ensuring they’re “sub” standard. We see plenty of evidence of this, as states continue to post big gains on their own tests while their students tread water on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

So conservatives face a dilemma. Parents need the information yielded by standards and tests for the education marketplace to function efficiently. But most states have proven unable to develop these tools and current federal policy is pushing them in the wrong direction. So what to do? Far from McCluskey’s counsel of defeat, national standards and tests are the best option. By creating a national marketplace of school-performance information, such a system would empower education consumers to make good choices — and help to put bad schools out of business.

Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.

Not that Uncle Sam has to take the lead. In the Fordham Foundation’s recent report on national testing, Diane Ravitch — whose work on textbook adoption McCluskey clumsily conflates with her views on standards — argues that “it is possible… to have national standards that are not run by the federal government.”

For instance, the American Diploma Project — a private-sector, foundation-supported initiative that already enlists half the nation’s governors — could develop the standards and tests. (It’s now helping nine states create a common algebra assessment.) Or the National Assessment Governing Board — currently in charge of NAEP — could be tasked with the job. No doubt there are other possibilities.

But perhaps the strongest conservative case for national standards and tests is that such a policy could actually lead to less micromanaging from Washington. McCluskey is skeptical, calling such an argument “paradoxical.” Hogwash. All successful modern organizations use a “tight-loose” management model: be tight about the results you want and loose about how your production units achieve them. National standards and tests could allow the federal role in education to make this historic shift — from regulating inputs, processes, and regulations to a laser-like concern with learning.

Libertarians might not go for such a grand bargain — especially if they want to “pull government out of education” entirely — but right-thinking education reformers should consider it. If we want to make good on the core conservative ideas of expanding parental choice and shrinking the federal role in education, it might be our last best hope.

 – Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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