education philosopher

No Choices Left Behind? Why National Standards Will Increase Standardization, Decrease Accountability, and Probably Not Work

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on March 10, 2010

I suppose it was just a matter of time. After years of floating the idea around in the abstract, a national panel of educators and curriculum specialists are unveiling their draft of new national curricular standards for US public schools. And I confess; I don’t get it. The first attempt at widespread federal intervention into education – No Child Left Behind – was roundly and rightly criticized by, seemingly, everyone. But this time…this time will be different.

Maybe I exaggerated; I do get it. I get that we are living in a time where we simply assume that the larger the scale, the better the result. After all, one of the key arguments against allowing states to set their own standards for their own schools is that…well… states can’t be trusted. (Of course, the idea that decision makers on the federal level can be trusted where state decision makers can’t is never argued for; it is just assumed.) William Bennett and Rod Paige took this line several years ago:

But there’s a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act — which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly.

Tennessee, they cite as an example, reports that only 47 percent of its fourth graders are “proficient” in reading. They also cite Oklahoma,  where the reason their number of “needs improvement” schools have decreased is because of changes in their standards, not performance.

All of this may well be true. But is there anything in this argument that suggests that nationalization will tackle this problem and get better results? Just as many arguments for national standards do, Paige’s and Bennett’s argument points to state flaws and ASSUMES that those flaws would be ameliorated at the national level.

Now, here, it could be responded that there is nothing to lose by trying. We have let the localities and states think for themselves for far too long, and it is time to let the fed try their hand. There are several reasons I see  AGAINST doing this. Not only are there things to lose, there are reasons that localities are simply better governments than nations.

First, anyone who has faith that, as far as schools go, the cure to bad localisms is nationalism might read CATO Institute scholar Neal McClusky’s Feds in the Classroom, which should remind us that bigger government has never led to better schools. The opposite, in fact, seems to be the rule.

Secondly, there are good arguments why, theoretically, localities will function better than nations at responsive governing. Before the founding of the United States, several of the founders – Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, etc. – became persuaded of localism’s preferability via a book written by Baron de Montesquieu called Spirit of the Laws. Throughout the book (and particularly book 23)  Montesquieu notes that the fewer inhabitants and lesser the radius, the more responsive the government is. This should be absolutely no surprise if we think about the fact that a person or group wishing to to affect change in their city (say, Chicago) will have an easier time of it than those who want to affect change in their state (Illinois), and both will have a much harder time affecting change than those who wish to affect change to their country’s laws (US). The more local the policy and the policymakers, the more access one has to them, the more knowledge they have of their specific constituency, and the more people can keep an eye on them.

So, picture it: let’s say citizens in Tennessee are concerned about their standards and believe that the standards should be different. Now, either the standards are set by the state (or localities) in which case the citizens will have less far to go to get their voices heard. Or, the standards can be set by an unelected board (which the current board is) appointed in Washington, in which case it is doubtful that this group could do much of anything to change the standards. (Of course, it can be argued that some parents – working class, inner-city – may not have the social capital to get their voices heard either way, but the question remains: under which scenario do they stand more of a shot?!)

This is the exact opposite, of course, of the way the country’s attitude has been over the last century, where the rule of thumb seems to be “if it isn’t working locally, it will be sure to work nationally.” And this time is even worse, because the assumption seems to be that if the first federal policy (No Child Left Behind) didn’t work, it must be because it was not federal enough. (I predict that 1o years hence, when this policy fails to have its intended effects, we will hear arguments that its failure was due to the fact that we are still allowing states to write their own curriculum and that the feds should take this over as well.)

There is another reason to oppose national standards, and this one really befuddles me. So many folks rightly decry ‘standardization’ but then cheer federalization without pausing to realize that the two invariably accompany each other. When one nationalizes something, one is attempting to make what was once plural standard.  And when one thinks about it, the proliferation of standardized tests has correlated with…well… larger and larger government control of education. (Correlation of course doesn’t prove causation, but we c an at least see reason to suspect here.)

Here it is said very explitly by Bennett and Paige:

The remedy? As both of us have long argued, Washington should set sound national academic standards and administer a high-quality national test. Publicize everybody’s results, right down to the school level. Then Washington should butt out.

Of course, this shocked no one: republicans coming out in favor of standardized tests? Hardly surprising and easy to write off. That is why this new strategy will try to sneak the same conclusion through the back door.

Am I just paranoid here? Well, no. It is quite logical that nationalizing standards in attempt to make sure all kids are learning the same ideas will invariably beg assessments to assess whether students are learning the same thing. And assessing whether students are learning the same thing is called…standardization. Disliking “one size fits all” and championing national standards is simply incompatible: nationalizing means equalizing and equalizing means standardizing.

And here is another thing standardization is incompatible with: pluralism. Whether it is the byproduct of cultural, demographic, or just personal differences, one thing that has always made this country strong is the diversity of thought and knowledge. As such a large country, it is invariable that pluralism is a fact of life, and that different folks will…well… be different. National standards, by definition, undoes pluralism for the sake of keeping everyone, to some degree, the same. And the worst part is that this push for standardization seems motivated out of a fear of pluralism: that allowing localities to set different sets of rules will mean that some localities will make choices that other localities – and the federal government – will find distasteful. I cannot dispute that, but I can certainly lament the sentiment of disdain implicit in it.

So, while others are celebrating national standards in education, I will not. I see nothing to celebrate about the triumph of one group of people to decide that they should make the decisions for everyone else. Some will call that progress but I call it contempt. And while some will celebrate the idea that “change” is happening at the national level, I will remind them that change at the national level means usurpation from the local level which, as we’ve seen, results in less flexibility and plurality. And while some scoff at Texas’s audacity in suggesting that “only Texans should decide what children there learn,” I will cheer this statement as the negation of “only an unelected board of federal experts will decide what all US children should learn.”


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