Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Have National Education Standards Arrived?

[Kevin R. Kosar is the author of the book Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards.]

Skimming the news, one might get the impression that the United States now has national education standards. “National School Standards, at Last,” smiled a March 14 New York Times editorial head.

Although I count myself a supporter of national education standards, I cannot get terribly excited about the developments to date.  The reason is simple—despite the progress, we are a long, long way from national education standards.

This is not to begrudge the Common Core State Standards effort.  Politically, it was a savvy maneuver—have non-feds (the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) develop the standards.  Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has ponied up cash for the effort and hopes to encourage state adoption of the standards by awarding  Race to the Top funds to states that commit to adopting the standards.

As I see it, a host of issues remain between where we are and a system of national education standards.

(1) The proposed standards only cover mathematics and English.  This is a sound start, but a solid system of national standards also would include standards for science and history.  However, with hot-headed interest groups out there with extreme ideas about evolution and American history, adopting academically credible science and history standards may prove very difficult.

(2) Tests—even if the standards are good, high quality, aligned assessments need to be created and put to use by states.  If past performance is the least bit indicative of future results, well, I would not expect standards-based assessments to arrive any time soon.

(3) According to the New York Times, the Obama Administration intends to encourage adoption of the standards by adding 40 points to a state’s application for Race to the Top funds.  Considering that there are 500 possible points on the application, it is not clear if offering 40 points is an adequate incentive.

(4) Already, two states—Alaska and Texas—have thumbed their noses at the Common Core Standards, and Massachusetts and Virginia may complain that they already have great education standards and that it isn’t fair for them to have to switch standards.  This is not a crazy argument, and it raises the question: will the Obama Administration create a loophole that permits states with good standards also to qualify for the 40 points?  If it does, then we definitely won’t have national education standards, as one state after another will belly up to claim that their standards are just as good as the Common Core Standards.

(5) What happens when the Race to the Top funds run out?  Unless I am grossly misinformed, the Stimulus Act was a one-time deal.  It did not create an educational entitlement nor did it provide the Secretary of Education with an endless pot of money for all time.

Hence, one can easily imagine a scenario in which states agree to adopt the standards, take the money, and then drag their feet in adopting the standards.  After the Race to the Top money runs out, states might then quietly proclaim “mission accomplished.”

Unless the ESEA’s Title I is amended to require states to adopt the standards, it is hard to see how state adoption could be anything more than adoption on paper.  The sharp folks at the Fordham Foundation have noted that President Obama has suggested that he might try to do this.  Time will tell whether he can pull this off.

(6) Even if the  ESEA is amended to incent states to adopt the Common Core Standards, another huge hurdle remains.  What will the Obama Administration mean when it requires a state to “adopt” these standards?  Put in governmentese—when a state applies for funds, what will be the “conditions of aid”?  Will states have to create aligned assessments?  Must they train teachers in the standards, and adopt curricular materials that embody the standards?  And what of reworking teacher college curricula to include the standards and aligning teacher licensing with the standards?

If our recent experience with education standards has taught us anything, it is that standards cannot just exist on paper.  (Twenty years ago national standards were produced, and they never took.)  A state’s entire school system needs to be restructured around helping students reach the achievement levels of the standards.  Trying to make all these changes happen from Washington, DC is fantastically complex.

All too often, for the Department of Education’s purposes, states have been awarded cash for producing a lengthy plan for adopting a policy.  Thus, under the past two iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the feds have required states to  promise they will adopt standards and aligned assessments. Yet,  here we still are with mostly crumby state standards and misaligned tests.

Part of this compliance problem is inherent to the nature of standards-based reform.  As noted above, making it work requires states to utterly overhaul how they run their school systems, which is time-consuming, complex, and fraught with political and legal pitfalls (i.e., states often have laws that conflict with federal requirements.  Getting those laws scratched from the books isn;t easy.)  Additionally, the Department of Education has limited power to punish states for failing to deliver.  What President wants to have his Department of Education withhold education funds?  He will be pilloried as “hurting the children” (the ESEA is, of course, prima facie, an anti-poverty program for kids).

So call me grumpy, but I think much work remains to be done, and I won’t be surprised if we end up sorely disappointed again.

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