National Education Standards: A Race to the Top!

Are you an American Tea Party Patriot who opposes federal intervention in state regulated industries? During the 2008 Presidential election campaign, did you leap to your feet and applaud when candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin chanted Drill Baby Drill to emphasize their opposition to federal regulation of the oil industry? And two years later, during the health care debate, did you cheer when House Republican Leader John Boehner shouted Hell No to what he described as heavy-handed mandates from Washington politicians and bureaucrats?

Such political positions actually extend back over many decades of political debate. President Ronald Reagan, for instance, once proposed the complete abolishment of the federal Department of Education on the grounds that it interfered with the rights of the individual states to manage their own local school systems. Although no such legislation ever came close to passage, the principle of local control over local school districts still permeates the American system of education.

This week, though, a significant challenge to the principle of local autonomy over public education didn’t emerge from the federal Department of Education; instead, it was launched by the states themselves! Specifically, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers joined forces to develop and issue a set of Common Core State Standards.

Content vs. Context

At first glance, the content of these common core standards may appear to be fairly innocuous. Five year old children in kindergarten, for instance, are expected to speak audibly and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly. And high school geometry students are expected to prove that all circles are similar.

But if the content itself appears to be reasonable, why did Texas and Alaska refuse to join the standards development process? Robert Scott, the Texas Commissioner of Education, explained that the initiative might threaten his state’s sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children. And Sarah Palin, in her role as governor of Alaska, noted that high expectations are not always created by new, mandated federal standards written on paper. They are created in the home, the community and the classroom.

In addition, unnamed sources in The Washington Post charged that common standards amount to a thinly disguised ruse to establish national standards under federal control. In other words, these critics aren’t necessarily concerned by the content of the standards themselves; instead, they appear to be warning that the state governors and school officers are somehow preparing the way for a federal take-over of the national system of education.

A Race to the Top!

Is America’s federal government truly lusting for power, hiding behind these state officials and yet manipulating their efforts to gain ultimate control over the American education system? Or are these Common Core State Standards, as described by their creators, truly the product of a group of state-level politicians and educators?

On the one hand, it is hard to believe that the National Governors Association would ever support a Democratic Obama Administration’s takeover of the American education system, considering that many of the fifty governors of the United States are affiliated with the Republican Party. And yet it is impossible to avoid noticing the significant impact of a single high profile federal program, one that may have indeed helped to inspire the development of these standards.

That program is the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top, an initiative that requires state education programs to compete with each other on the basis of quality outcomes in order to win federal funds. It is difficult, though, to conduct a race of any kind without maintaining some type of common standard(s) against which to measure the success of each participant; hence the desire to develop a universal set of standards!

Money, Money, Money

On a fundamental level, though, the impetus that is driving the states to develop a single set of national standards appears to be derived from the impact of the Great Recession on state budget revenues, and its resultant effects on state cost budgets. After all, states are desperately investigating all plausible opportunities to reduce expenses; it costs far less money overall for 48 states to collaborate on the development of a single set of standards than for individual states to develop 48 unique sets of standards.

In addition, for many years, market forces have been driving textbook publishers to standardize their curricula on a national level. Some historians, for instance, have decried the influence of the culturally conservative Texas Board of Education on the content of all nationally sold texts. Apparently, publishers tend to defer to the wishes of the Texas Board because of their mammoth purchasing power.

Federal grant programs, state budget pressures, and textbook publishing market forces all appear to be driving the American system of education towards a condition of greater standardization. Although some federal officials may indeed desire control over the entire American education system, many of the forces that are driving these trends actually originate from causes that have nothing to do with any political intrigue inside the Washington Beltway.