National Education Standards: The Next Washington Takeover

The New York Times reports that 27 states are planning to adopt the set of national standards developed by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) — standards being backed by the Obama administration with federal funds.

Like so many of the president’s moves in the past year, this push to get states to adopt national standards has been an end-run around normal legislative procedure.

National standards — “federal norms” for what’s taught in your local school, as the Times puts it — represent a massive change in American education. Yet there has been virtually no public or legislative debate about this federal takeover. Indeed, the Obama administration has moved rapidly to press states to swallow the agenda.

The agenda has also been bank-rolled by some deep pockets. Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Gates Foundation gave more than $35 million to groups developing the national standards, including the NGA and CCSSO. Noting that the Obama administration cannot go further in funding the standards movement without it being seen as federally led, the Post writes that “The [Gates] foundation has stepped into the void, becoming the movement’s top funder.” Critics, they note, see the Gates Foundation as being so closely involved that it resembles “an arm of the government.”

One thing the Times gets right — and which explains why the president is wrong to call these “voluntary” standards — is this: “Those states that are not winners in the Race to the Top competition may also have less incentive to follow through in carrying out the standards.”

So it’s a catch-22 for the administration. What happens when states that don’t get Race to the Top funds (as most probably won’t) decide not to adopt the national standards?

The administration is clearly aware of this little glitch. That’s where Title I — $14.5 billion in federal funding for low-income school districts — comes into play. Earlier this year the administration released what they’re calling a “blueprint” for No Child Left Behind reauthorization, which is likely to be debated next year. Within the blueprint, the Department of Education states, “Beginning in 2015, formula funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of states.”

So while some states may be able to hold out on adopting national standards if only Race to the Top money is at stake — as Texas, Alaska, Virginia, and Minnesota have done — the penalty for non-compliance with national standards becomes much higher if Title I funding is tied to standards adoption.

And, as with any government program, its reach is already growing. The National Research Council has created a framework for national science standards; a final draft is expected to be released next year. Like the math and English standards of the “common core,” the National Research Council is using the “fewer, higher, clearer” metric to drive the science standards.

The problem, ultimately, is that these national standards and tests are a distraction from what really needs to be done to improve education. They likely will lead to the standardization of mediocrity, undercutting states that model excellence through rigorous standards. They will certainly tend to align to the average among existing state standards.

Perhaps most insidious of all, these national standards will come at the expense of parental control. Parents will have to relinquish the most powerful tool they currently have when it comes to their children’s education: control over the content of state standards and tests. National standards will further diminish parental authority in education, and the federal government will gain more control as a result.

The feds have a poor track record when it comes to improving academic achievement. After all, what inspiration of excellence can the Department of Education boast in the three decades since its creation? Will “national standards” fare any better?

Lindsey Burke is a policy analyst in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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