Black helicopter-itis and local control

Common Core debate
Jay has been the victim of black helicopter-itis
Photo by Marshall Astor on Flickr

Jay Greene's slightly Churchillian recent post conflates two Common Core issues that are better understood if they're kept apart. One involves the role of the federal government vis-a-vis the Common Core, and on this one I really do think Jay is a victim of black helicopter-itis. Of course he's right that Messrs. Obama and Duncan should have kept the Common Core at arm's length. But he's not right that a successful Common Core is inseparable from a more intrusive, controlling federal government. One of the virtues of the American system is how many nation-spanning ventures we have that do not hinge on or get controlled by the federal government: The American Red Cross. The American Cancer Society. The National PTA. The National Association of Manufacturers. One could easily extend this list quite a distance, and so it could and should be with the Common Core.

The other issue, a very different one, is whether common standards are in opposition to school choice, parent control, and such. This is not so much about the Common Core (the multi-state version) as about any sort of academic standards beyond the school's own doing. This goes to the heart of whether states should have standards, assessments, accountability, etc., in the first place and would be as much an issue—insofar as it is an issue—with or without the Common Core. I do believe that statewide academic standards are generally a good thing, provided of course that they're content-rich, rigorous standards (which many states, alas, have failed to deliver) and that they are especially valuable for poor and minority kids and others trapped in schools and school systems that, absent external standards and accountability, would wallow in mediocrity forever. To be sure, external standards can be carried to excess if they come to span the whole curriculum and to prescribe pedagogical approaches, and if they're weak standards they can be worse than no standards. There's plenty of bathwater in the standards-based-reform enterprise that's worth discarding, but there's also a baby in it that deserves to be kept and nurtured.

One other point: Once upon a time, I shared Jay's confidence that parents would nearly always choose the best schools for their kids. Then came twenty years of immersion into the worlds of charters and choice, and I've seen too many thousands of examples of parents who make choices for their kids that are generally rational (re: safety, convenience, atmosphere, and such) but that fail to take account of academic expectations or performance. Somebody needs to put a floor under this. I think that's the role of state standards, multi-state standards, or even Common Core standards. It doesn't undermine choice. It reduces the odds that the choice marketplace will yield further educational mediocrities that endure forever.

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