National Education Standards are not even Technocratic

The New York Times has a roundtable on the traction that the Common Core Standards Initiative is working on:

The first official draft of proposed national educational standards was released on Monday, a joint project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The curriculum guidelines detail math and English skills that all students should have by the end of high school. Forty-eight states (Texas and Alaska are the holdouts) have signed on to the effort

It’s hard not to chafe at national education standards. This project is not exactly coming from the federal government itself – that is good to hear. One key figure in Common Core said, “This is more bottom-up than top-down. It is very important that the federal government is not a key actor in this.” But even voluntary acquiescence by the nation’s governors means stripping more administration from the locales.

It brings us to the age old question of technical efficiency versus local participation, and I don’t have to be Ivan Kenneally to warn you about the problems there.

But there are real issues with local control – not as many experts there, strong local interests (ie the teacher’s union), not as many new ideas. Somehow even the most preposterous localist will have to deal with these.

However,  I have just one question for Common Core: on which existing standards are you going to base the national ones? Where is the statewide success that just needs to be dittoed, like stars on a flag? Because if poor education has not been satisfactorily meliorated in one state, then the science of experimenting with education strategies is just gaining a bigger sample size… and with no placebo group. What would be substantively different about the Common Core’s efforts, than any state’s?

I haven’t read any satisfactory answers to those questions. I have only seen two justifications for the national standards. (1) Different states’ requirements do not line up with each other. (2) American students don’t test well against international youngsters. Let me begin with the second.

The reality is that Americans do compete for jobs with Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, etc. Or, perhaps more significantly, American companies compete with national and international firms. But what is the advantage in saying that “Americans” are competing for jobs with Chinese students, versus saying that “New Yorkers” are competing for jobs with Chinese students? We have a national political identity, and therefore a concern in fellow “Americans” – but there is not much efficiency saved in a national standards system … only a further aggrandizement of national identity.

The ease that would be created for comparison’s sake is about federal funding (mainly a legacy of No Child Left Behind) and college admissions – which will not admit greater or fewer students, but merely spend a little less time on decisions. I have to stress: with low efficiency gains, national education policy makes about as much sense as national housing policy. And the elimination of local participation in the former is likely to create the same alienation as the latter has. Even the technocrat has to question whether this makes a lot of sense.

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