If the Obama administration has its way, change could be afoot for your local K–12 curriculum.
Through its “Race to the Top” program, the administration is using federal grant money to coax states into adopting the “common core” standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In addition, while President Obama probably won’t be able to push a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind through Congress before this session ends, the administration’s “blueprint” for the law would cut off access to $14.5 billion in federal funding for states that fail to adopt these “common standards.”
Proponents claim that national standards would improve the American education system. They are wrong. Here’s why.
Misconception #1: National standards would make American students more competitive with their international peers. The relationship between standards and academic achievement is unclear. While it’s true that many of the countries that outperform the U.S. on international tests have national standards, so do most of the countries that score lower than the U.S. Even when it comes to state standards, the relationship between academic performance and the quality of those standards is not consistent.
Misconception #2: 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 and other standardized tests compare students’ performance nationally, exposing any “dumbing down” of state tests. Policies should require clear reporting of this data to parents, which in too many states is not standard practice.
Misconception #3: National standards are necessary because of the variance in the quality of state standards. Some states do have higher standards than others. But the same pressures that drive down state standards would likely plague national standards — and if national standards were defined down, they would undercut states with higher standards, such as Massachusetts. This would let the goal of uniformity trump the pursuit of excellence.
The push for national standards and tests, moreover, distracts us from a more fundamental debate about the real problems in American education. These problems are rooted in a misalignment of power that favors teachers’ unions and distant policymakers over students and parents. The mission of teachers’ unions is to protect the job security, salaries, and benefits of their millions of dues-paying members. National policymakers’ political agenda holds sway over states and school districts because federal funding can be withheld.
Parents, of course, can’t engage in collective bargaining with, or withhold funding from, a failing school system. Yet parents are the adults with the most at stake in their children’s academic success. National standards and tests wouldn’t fix this misalignment and would keep us from enacting the real reforms that are needed in public schools to put more power in parents’ hands.
Again, that begins with clear reporting of data to parents. But all of the information in the world is meaningless to parents unless they can act on it and choose the school that best meets the needs of their child. Providing genuine educational options and choice holds schools accountable to parents.
National standards wouldn’t improve academic achievement. They would merely strengthen federal control over education.
– Lindsey Burke is an education-policy analyst, and Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic-policy studies, at the Heritage Foundation.