Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards

Neal McCluskey
CATO
February 2010

When it comes to national standards, Neal McCluskey is no fan, and this paper explains why. He starts by complaining that there’s no proof that national standards will boost achievement. “The first question that needs to be answered before fundamentally altering the status quo is whether a given reform will work.” Fair point. But did we know for sure that charter schools or private school choice programs would “work” before we launched them in the early 90s? McCluskey also asserts that the national standards movement is addressing the wrong problem, and is thus the wrong solution. It’s not that employers and colleges can’t differentiate between high and low quality applicants, or the high or low standards to which they were educated, but that districts don’t have an incentive to change their practices. To accomplish that, we need to empower parents and schools with greater choice. In fact, continues McCluskey, school choice “would lead to standards that would be meaningful, but also sufficiently flexible so that unproven ideas could compete, and inevitable human failures wouldn’t be inflicted on everyone.” We absolutely agree that parents should have lots of choices, inside and outside of our education system. But standards (linked to assessments and transparent data) will give them information with which to make good choices. This much we’re sure of: Standards are abysmally low in many places, and while national standards are no cure-all for pupil achievement, they will raise the bar for millions of youngsters in the majority of states. Check it out here.

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