Toward less Fed in your ed

For
the last couple of years—ever since the nation’s governors and state
superintendents started working on common academic standards in reading and
math—conservative education analysts have engaged in a spirited but polite
debate about the wisdom of this development. The last month has seen the
discourse turn nastier, with charges and counter-charges, name-calling, and
quasi-apocalyptic warnings about federal bureaucrats wanting to “control your
children’s minds
.”
Particularly at issue in this latest round of recriminations is Uncle Sam’s
role in all of this; are we witnessing a federal take-over of our schools? A
push for a federally-controlled national curriculum for all public schools?

Some
of these concerns are not entirely unfounded; the Obama Administration and
other supporters of the move to “common” national standards (Fordham
among them) have made some unforced errors that have helped to fuel the
paranoia. But for conservatives worried about federal interference in our
schools, this debate is mostly a sideshow. What should really keep them up at
night are the myriad proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that
would push Washington’s hand ever deeper into the day-to-day operations of
America’s schools—proposals that are coming from both sides of the political
aisle.

Before
diving into the No Child Left Behind debate, let’s mitigate some key concerns
about a “national curriculum” with a review of the facts.

The
effort to get states to agree to common standards started well before the 2008
election, with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National
Governors Associations leading the charge, largely with support from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation. A year later, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
and his team created a Race to the Top application (thanks to funds earmarked
for the competition by Congress) that would incentivize the adoption of their
preferred reforms, including common standards. Suddenly what started out as a
state-led (and privately-supported) effort had become tinged with federal involvement.

Team
Obama went even further, setting aside $350 million to fund the development of
tests linked to the common standards. Now the feds had gotten into the
“national testing” business, too.

Perhaps
the most fateful decision came in the fall of 2010, when, faced with the
prospect of leftover stimulus funds, Arne Duncan decided to hand out, to the
two groups of states charged with creating the common tests, millions of extra
dollars to develop teacher-friendly materials to be used to help students reach
the new standards. Now it appeared that the U.S. Department of Education might
be trying to control “curriculum” itself—something it is expressly prohibited
from doing.

All
of this left many conservatives—in think tanks but also on Capitol Hill—with a
sour taste. And it didn’t help when the Shanker Institute—named after legendary
teacher-union leader—released a manifesto that some read as calling for a
single national curriculum.

So
is this a federal plot to control Johnny’s thoughts? No, not really. Consider
this: States learned last fall whether they had won the federal Race to the Top
competition; two-thirds of the forty-four Common Core adopters did not. Those
states are free to bail out of the common standards effort at any time, but
they haven’t. Why not? Perhaps it’s because their leaders (including rock-solid
governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Scott Walker) actually
believe the standards are quite good, and see the value in being able to make
comparisons across state lines.

Critics
like Cato’s Neal McCluskey, who says that the “nationalizers” are like
“kidnappers” demanding ransom, charge that the Obama Administration and others
want to link federal funding to state adoption of the common standards and
tests. Nobody is proposing that, nor would Congress ever go along. Nor does
anyone seriously think the U.S. Department of Education would succeed in
enforcing a single curriculum on the nation’s 100,000 public schools.

There’s a better way. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it 'reform realism,' and it's an approach to federal policymaking based on a few commonsense principles.

 
   
 

What
many groups are proposing, however, external
to this raucous and distracting “national curriculum” debate, is to get the
federal government intimately involved in other crucial aspects of our schools.
That’s where McCluskey and his colleagues ought to be directing their ire.

The
influential liberal organization The Education Trust, for example, wants to require
that school districts redistribute their most effective teachers
in order to
give poor kids an equitable shot at good instructors. That sounds laudable on
its face but would embroil the feds in virtually every school board’s decision around
teacher pay, placement, and transfers.

Or
take a look at what former Secretary
of Education Margaret Spellings is proposing
in her role as education advisor
to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She wants to cement in place all of the No
Child Left Behind act’s onerous one-size-fits-all regulations for another decade,
and then some, with greater intrusion into high schools and federal mandates
around teacher evaluations.

There’s
a better way. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it “reform realism,” and it’s an
approach to federal policymaking based on a few commonsense principles. First, the
federal government should be much “tighter” about what states expect students
to know and be able to do, and much “looser” about how states (and districts
and schools) get there. If states don’t want to participate in the common
standards that’s fine, but they do need to demonstrate that they are aiming
high enough. (Most states to date have aimed way too low.) Second, federal
policy should focus on transparency instead of “accountability.” Empower states
and local communities by releasing mounds of information about how schools are
performing and how much they are spending. And then step away. And third, if
the feds can’t help but promote a particular reform idea, they should do it
through carrots (via competitive grant programs, like Race to the Top) rather
than sticks (via new mandates).

In
other words, we want a much smaller federal role in education—albeit one that
ensures that the benchmarks we use to measure our schools are rigorous and
trustworthy.

We might never see
eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we
should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other
aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our
energy working together on that?

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