States Resist Obama Plan for Tying Federal Money to National Standards

Published April 7, 2010

Forty-eight states signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort led by state governors and education officials to craft a uniform set of voluntary national standards for reading and mathematics. But several participants in the project, including Minnesota, California, and Massachusetts, are resisting a proposal by the Obama administration to make federal Title I aid for low-income schools contingent on states adopting the standards.

The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) released a draft of standards for kindergarten through 12th grade on March 10.  Drafted with the help of teachers, school administrators, and other experts, the standards aim to “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers.”

Alaska and Texas declined to participate in the drafting of the standards. (See “Alaska, Texas Reject Common Core Standards,” March 25.)

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of School Administrators have endorsed the draft standards.

Some Laud Effort

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Education Department official and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC, is another prominent supporter of the standards.

“My own initial reading is that millions of American kids would be far better off in schools adhering to these standards than they are today,” Finn said.

“If their schools are serious, their curriculum strong, their teachers competent, and the still-to-come assessment systems are well-designed and properly aligned, those young people will emerge from 12th grade in possession of a plausible version of college readiness, . . . and the United States will be farther along the road to international competitiveness than it is today,” he said.

Finn’s endorsement represented his second thoughts on the initiative.

Two weeks before the draft standards appeared, Finn described the Common Core project in a column on Fordham’s Web site as “enormously risky, and frankly, hubristic, since nobody yet has any idea whether these standards will be solid, whether the tests supposed to be aligned with them will be up to the challenge, or whether the ‘passing scores’ on those tests will be high or low, much less how this entire apparatus will be sustained over the long haul.”

Dilution of Standards Feared

Jay Greene, professor of education at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute, says he opposes the standards and notes similar efforts have failed before.

“It doesn’t end well,” Greene said.

“The standards will inevitably be diluted to gain sufficiently broad support,” Greene said. “The standards-based reformers at Fordham and the [Core Knowledge Foundation, founded in 1986 by E.D. Hirsch to promote a common curriculum]  will end up renouncing the final product but will continue to believe that if only the right standards were adopted all would be well.”

Sandra Stotsky, who holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas, and Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive active in developing California’s standards and assessments in the 1990s, echoed Greene’s criticism. Stotsky and Wurman wrote Why Race to the Middle?, published jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and the Pioneer Institute in February.

“Coming from California, which has one of the strongest state standards in the nation, [I can confirm that] these national standards are much too weak,” Wurman said. “In math, the national standards have weaker requirements for arithmetic and multiplication than in California.”

Equally troubling, Stotsky and Wurman write in their reportis the possibility these “weaker national standards will cause a negative domino effect resulting in weaker tests, weaker curricula, and weaker teacher training.”

Obama ‘Strong-Arming’ States

Stotsky and Wurman write President Obama “is strong-arming the states to adopt these common, i.e. national, standards through the enticement of federal education funding.

“This headlong plunge into adopting national standards destroys the concept of local control over key education policymaking and forces states to commit to accept and implement standards that are not as rigorous as the strongest state and international standards,” they conclude.

Stotsky and Wurman also criticized the Common Core State Standards Initiative drafting process.

“For a product that is so important and that will have such immense impact on the education of our children, it is a travesty that the drafting process was so opaque,” they write. “Just as the president tried to ramrod [health care reform] through Congress, so too he is trying to ramrod these national standards through our state capitals. This is no way to make public policy.”

‘Cookie-Cutter’ Mandate

Dr. David Tuerck, executive director of the Boston-based Beacon Hill Institute, also opposes the national standards and says school choice should trump any effort to craft a uniform curriculum.

“That’s not because I don’t think standards are effective for improving performance in the areas to which they are applied,” Tuerck explained. “It’s because I dislike the cookie-cutter approach to education that they mandate—especially when the standards are national rather than local.”

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, echoed Tuerck’s criticism. But Coulson also noted opposition to national standards shouldn’t be seen as opposition to standards in general.

“It’s our duty to help kids realize their full potential, and measuring their progress through formal testing is often helpful in that effort,” Coulson said. “Standards advocates are right that a high school diploma should really mean something. But there’s no reason every diploma has to mean exactly the same thing.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.

Internet Info:

Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman: “Why Race to the Middle?”