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Home » Debates » April 24-28: Michael J. Petrilli vs. Neal McCluskey on National Standards

April 24-28: Michael J. Petrilli vs. Neal McCluskey on National Standards

As No Child Left Behind is currently constituted, each state establishes its own standards by which schools are measured.  But should some sort of nationwide standards be established? 

Michael J. Petrilli is Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and co-author, with Frederick M. Hess, of No Child Left Behind: A Primer (available here).  Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.


Petrilli (9:08 a.m. Pacific):

Argument #1: A More Rational Federal Role in Education

Surely education reformers can agree that the current federal role in education is a mess. In recent decades Washington has become an overbearing, micromanaging nanny, attempting to coerce equity and excellence from the K-12 system through regulation and bribery.

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to improve the situation, to signal a New Deal between the federal government and the states. The states would embrace tough accountability for their schools and districts and the schools would yield markedly higher achievement; the feds would back away from heavy-handed regulation and slash the red tape. The combination would give schools what they needed to be successful: strong incentives to boost student achievement, combined with the freedom of action to innovate and get the job done. Parents, too, would be empowered through additional information and school choices. 

Unfortunately, neither states nor feds have kept their part of the grand bargain, leaving our schools under-motivated and over-regulated and parents frustrated and bewildered.

Take a look at the states. Last week brought more news that they are playing games with the No Child Left Behind Act, this time to let schools off the hook even if their minority students are performing abysmally. (An Associated Press analysis found that an astounding 2 million students—most of them minorities—are being left behind by the law’s accountability system because of these state decisions.) Last month we learned that the number of schools “in need of improvement” is remaining stable, even as states are supposedly ratcheting up their standards, mostly because of technical changes that states are making to their “Adequate Yearly Progress” definitions. States are also finding myriad ways to lower their standards and make their tests easier. This educational gerrymandering is putting the entire standards-and-accountability movement at risk—which is a real shame since the few states that have adopted this strategy wholeheartedly are seeing great results. 

Washington’s record is equally unimpressive. Despite the rhetoric about NCLB providing “flexibility in return for accountability,” by the time President Bush’s law cleared Congress there was precious little flexibility left. Most of the rules and regulations that accrued over the past 40 years stayed in place; NCLB’s new “flex” programs have gone largely unused because they offer scant relief. To make matters worse, Uncle Sam added a huge new mandate that schools hire only teachers with certain paper credentials. At the same time, Washington has no say over what really matters: the content of the academic standards, the rigor of the tests, or the ultimate consequences for school failure. So the feds and the states play a classic compliance-oriented cat-and-mouse game around a blizzard of bureaucratic rules, and no one pays attention to whether students are learning at high levels.

Parents, meanwhile, face a paradox. They have access to loads of new data but, because the yardstick keeps changing and comparability ends at the state line, they actually have little information about how their child’s school is really doing. 

It’s time to try a radically different approach, a role reversal in which the feds play a much smaller role in the day-to-day affairs of local schools—but are much more specific about achievement expectations. Washington would measure the progress of schools with common standards and tests, and pretty much otherwise get out of the way.

Certainly some reformers recoil at the idea of national standards and tests. (Of course, some libertarian-types don’t like standards and tests at any level.) But they should ask themselves: how else are we going to rein in the federal government and give schools the freedom they need to succeed? Ironically, the one way to extricate Washington from the minutiae of K-12 education might be to give it this power.

McCluskey (3:55 p.m. Pacific):

Rebuttal #1: Federal Policy Is Never the Answer

Based on Mike’s opening salvo, it seems we agree on a lot. He is absolutely right, for instance, that “the current federal role in education is a mess,” and hits the nail squarely on the head when he points out that the No Child Left Behind Act, which “was supposed to improve the situation,” has turned out to be nothing but an expensive package of perverse incentives. Indeed, Mike and the Fordham Foundation have taken the lead in both identifying the law’s perverse incentives and shining a bright light on states’ standards-dropping “race to the bottom.”

Unfortunately, wretched results like NCLB’s are inevitable when the federal government makes policy. Why? Because political logic drives federal policymaking, and that logic is almost always based on what’s best for politicians and special interest groups, not children or the nation. Groups with vested interests in the public school monopoly, like the teachers unions and the National School Boards Association, with their D.C.-based headquarters, lobbying staffs, and abundant cash, will always have outsized influence over federal policy, while lobby-less parents will be left in the lurch.

In light of political logic, NCLB’s seemingly irrational outcomes actually make perfect sense. The law’s standards and accountability mechanisms have evasion built right in to them, for instance, because neither special interests nor the politicians they control benefit if schools are really forced to do better. NCLB’s school choice and supplemental service provisions are largely meaningless for the same reasons. And then there’s the money: Despite abundant evidence that ballooning federal spending hasn’t produced anything like ballooning academic achievement, when negotiating NCLB President Bush promised to crank out a lot more federal bucks. He had to build enough support for the bill’s passage. The result: Between 2001 and 2006 spending on programs falling under NCLB has grown 34 percent, from $17.4 billion to $23.3 billion, yet all we’ve got to show for it is this lousy race to the bottom.

Sadly, we were warned long ago about the corrupting influence of political logic and power, but about forty years ago we stopped listening. The Founding Fathers constantly cautioned against giving the national government too much power, both because it posed a threat to liberty and because a national government simply could not handle most matters as well as the states or people. That is why the Constitution gives the federal government no authority whatsoever over education. Unfortunately, too many politicians and self-serving special interests have decided to ignore the Constitution, and political logic now reigns supreme. Imposing federal standards would only compound the problem.

Fortunately, despite our transgressions, American education can be saved, and the key is related to Mike’s assertion that “some libertarian-types don’t like standards and tests at any level.” As a libertarian myself, I can honestly say
that he is wrong: Many of us love standards, so long as they aren’t forged in politics and imposed by government. The standards we like are consumer-driven, the kind we benefit from every day. For instance, I can go to a McDonald’s anywhere in America and almost always get the burger I expect and demand. Why? Because Ronald McDonald knows that if his standards drop – or Wendy’s get better – I can leave. The same holds true for almost every product or service we buy, from automobiles to magazine subscriptions.

It is this kind of accountability – accountability built on individual freedom and market incentives – that libertarians like, and that holds the key to fixing American education. It is only when parents are allowed to exercise full school choice, and government stops trying to impose things like national standards and tests, that we will see real accountability and progress in American education.


Petrilli (9:04 a.m. Pacific):

Argument #2: Equity

Neal is right that we agree on a lot. We would both like the federal government to get out of the business of micromanaging our schools, and we both support expanded parental choice in education. But worry not, readers who seek a real debate. Neal’s dead wrong when he claims that federal policy is the domain most subject to education group politics.

Let’s take a look at this statement of his: “Unfortunately, wretched results like NCLB’s are inevitable when the federal government makes policy. Why? Because political logic drives federal policymaking, and that logic is almost always based on what’s best for politicians and special interest groups, not children or the nation. Groups with vested interests in the public school monopoly, like the teachers unions and the National School Boards Association, with their D.C.-based headquarters, lobbying staffs, and abundant cash, will always have outsized influence over federal policy, while lobby-less parents will be left in the lurch.”

Set aside for the moment that all of these “powerful” groups vigorously opposed NCLB, and yet it passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Go back and replace “federal government” with “school board” in the statements above and you’ll find an even greater truth: it’s at the local level, not in Washington, where the education blob is strongest. It’s at the local level where low voter turnout allows teachers unions to elect their own hand-picked candidates. It’s at the local level where the education monopoly keeps parents in the dark and tells them to accept the crumbs they are given. And, most critically, it’s at the local level where standards have been set for decades—in a way that’s been disastrous for poor and minority children.

This brings us back to the larger standards-and-accountability debate. Neal claims that he is not opposed to standards, but the McStandards of which he writes are not really standards, they are consumer preferences. If Neal wants to eat Big Macs for lunch everyday, it doesn’t bother me a bit. But if Neal’s children get a McNugget kind of education, one that doesn’t prepare them for productive life in our democracy and economy, it bothers me a lot. After all, education is not just a private good, it’s a public good, and we all benefit if all of the nation’s children are well-educated. And we know from voucher and charter school programs that some parents will choose to send their children to schools that are academically abysmal; choice is necessary but not sufficient.

We also know what happens when standards are set at the local level. They are uneven. Affluent communities tend to aim high, treating Advanced Placement exams as de facto standards. Schools in low-income areas tended to aim lower, shooting for minimum competency and basic skills. The result? Today, the average African-American 12th grader graduates with the reading and math skills of the average white 8th grader. This is awful news for all of us.

Thankfully, we know that setting rigorous statewide standards and holding schools accountable for them is a strategy that works. Massachusetts students, for example, have made tremendous gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the past decade, pushing the state to the top in most categories. The Bay State’s poor and minority students have made especially impressive strides. The state’s small charter schools program can’t claim much of the credit; it was the development of clear standards, rigorous assessments, and real accountability for schools and students that made the difference.

Yet Massachusetts is the exception, not the rule; most states are moving in the opposite direction, lowering their standards and playing games with accountability. So we are left with a conundrum. If we leave standard-setting to parents, we will have customer satisfaction but no guarantees of high student achievement. If we leave it up to local communities, we will exacerbate our system’s inequities. If we leave it up to the states, the “race to the bottom” will continue. We are left with one good option: set the standards at the national level, so that all schools and students are held to the same, high standards, such as those that have driven reform in Massachusetts. In fact, I could imagine a certain New England governor taking his state’s excellent standards with him to Washington if he were elected president. That’s the kind of “bottom-up” reform of which our founders could be proud.

McCluskey (5:19 p.m. Pacific):

Rebuttal #2: If I Were a Monopolist, Where Would I Go? The Federal Government!

I think Mike and I would agree that public education is a monopoly that primarily serves the people it employs, a group Mike calls the “blob.” Now, what does a monopolist do? He tries to control as many customers as he can. That’s a problem for Mike: The history of American education shows that public schooling has been driven by a relentless effort to expand the public school monopoly, ultimately to the federal level.

This was not the case at first. Until about 1830, education was pretty much market-driven and educational attainment grew steadily, despite the fact that America was still primarily a wild, unsettled land. What changed? Immigrants arrived, industrialization started, and people with political power resolved to “assimilate” the new and the poor.

As time went on the monopolists expanded their power and schools became assimilation factories designed to mold students into obedient industrial workers and good “Americans.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive educators whom Mike and others blame for so many of our current woes took control of the increasingly monolithic system and forced their ideas on captive parents and children.

During most of this time, the Constitution was not yet treated as a dead letter, and expansion stalled at the state level. But that’s not what the monopolists wanted. Since the mid-1800s the NEA, which for decades included teachers, principals, and superintendents, desired a federal Department of Education and a greater federal presence in America’s schools. By the latter half of the twentieth century, with the Great Society, creation of the U.S. Department of Education, and forays into national standards and accountability, they got it.

Despite the monopolists’ progress at the federal level, it’s true that much of their power is concentrated locally and with states. But that is only because education is not yet totally

federalized, not because the Blob prefers state and local control. In addition, while it is true that many of the monopolists opposed NCLB, they still love federal control. It’s just that they wanted to be in charge of the new law and get more money in the deal.

Sadly, national standards supporters want to do the monopolists a favor by giving the federal government complete authority over what the schools teach. Of course, they don’t want the Blob to make the new national curriculum, so Mike and company must expect to control the standards. But that is an unreasonable expectation. Except in rare instances, the Blob has almost always eventually gotten what it wanted, and would almost certainly take over national standards.

Of course, what right do Mike and others have to impose national standards on parents and children, anyway?

Mike predicates their “right” on the “public good.” But history teaches us something about that as well. Assimilationists used the same justification to force children into industrial-prep schools, and progressives used it to wrest control of education from “lay” people, leading to our current education disaster.

Why have the keepers of the “public good” been such failures? Perhaps due to their tendency to view top-down control as good – as long as they are on top. Mike wears such blinders in his argument that national standards will work based on the fact that Massachusetts, which has “rigorous” standards, is performing better on NAEP than states with lesser standards.

Should we really model policy around the least hideously performing state in a completely broken system because it is doing better than anyone else? That makes no sense.

What does make sense is to look at systems outside of public schooling that work and see what makes them tick. Thankfully, we have abundant examples to examine. Consider the computer industry, where the cheapest machines, affordable to almost anyone, vastly outperform even the greatest computers of a decade or two ago. Or look at consumer electronics like iPods and DVD players, which advance technologically at remarkable rates. Imagine if education improved so quickly.

What drives these industries’ success? Free market accountability imposed by millions of consumers making individual decisions, not “experts” who presume to know what’s best for everyone.

Expert control has been an utter failure, and free choice a resounding success, which leaves Mike with just one weak argument: The market can’t “guarantee…high student achievement.” On an individual level, it’s true: With choice some people will make bad decisions. For the vast majority, however, results will be excellent, while with “expert” control the only things we’ve been “guaranteed” are pitiful academic results and the imposition of bad choices on everyone.


Petrilli (11:12 a.m. Pacific)

Argument #3: Content Matters

Now we’re having some fun. I know Neal is getting serious when he throws around the iPod example. (And speaking of iPods, have you checked out the latest and greatest podcast, The Education Gadfly Show?) I also enjoyed the history lesson, though it conveniently left out an important chapter whereby local school systems across the south were systematically segregating children and denying equal opportunity until the federal government took action. Of course, that piece doesn’t fit nicely into the libertarian story line.

Obviously McCluskey wants to turn this into a debate on choice/competition, since that’s the only solution the one-hit-wonder Cato Institution believes is necessary for our educational woes. But alas, we both agree that choice is an important ingredient; I merely believe that it’s not enough. After all, take a look at education’s private sector. It’s hard to argue that private schools are progressing at “remarkable rates” like the high-tech field. While their lack of regulation allows them to do some smart things—such as hire teachers who lack certification but possess a command of their subjects—on the whole they are just as mediocre and fad-ridden as the public schools.

If parents want to shell out their own bucks for a lackluster private education, I say, it’s a free country, go right ahead. But once public dollars are involved—my tax dollars—then I want some say in the deal. I’m not asking for much—just some assurance that children are learning what they need to be prepared to contribute to society. Everything else I leave up to the school and its customers. That’s the grand bargain that charter schools are given—at least in states with decent charter laws—and it explains why the most dynamic sector in American education is not public or private—it’s charter. (KIPP did not appear within the public school system, but it didn’t arrive via a voucher program either.)

A fundamental question is whether it matters what children learn. Some in the school choice movement appear to be agnostic about the content of education. If certain parents merely want their children to “learn to learn” and swing from the rafters all day, so be it. If others want core knowledge for their kids, great.

That approach is a mistake. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for society. Let’s take individuals first. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has so masterfully shown over the years, people who successfully climb the American ladder of meritocracy have a store of knowledge that gives them power. For upper-middle class children much of that “cultural literacy” comes from experiences out of school, like family travels and academic camps.

Poor children are at a great disadvantage, both because they lack many of the out-of-school experiences that build this vocabulary and literacy, and because their schools refuse to systematically provide it to them. Addressing this deficit should be job number-one for our educational system.

Yet most state standards are not up to the task. The Fordham Institute has been reviewing K-12 standards for almost a decade. (See our latest reviews here, here, and here.) In any given subject, only a handful of states earn an A, and the majority get D’s and F’s. The reason is simple enough: the education system (and the faculty at the nation’s education schools) derides knowledge as “mere facts.” The professional organizations developed model standards—later adopted by many states—that are largely devoid of content. Only in states like California, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Indiana, where policymakers or civic leaders took a strong interest in the quality of the standards and went to battle with the blob, do schools and teachers have access to clear explanations about what students should actually learn.

Neal is right to worry that these same professional organizations will seize control of any national standards and turn them into mush. So here’s a
proposal: First, set the standards and develop the tests, building on the excellent ones from the states mentioned above. Make them available for public inspection. Then offer the states a deal: if you opt into this national measurement and reporting system, all the pesky federal rules (such as “highly qualified teachers”) go away. Or you can keep your own standards and tests—and the full panoply of federal regulations.

We suspect that many state officials would jump at the opportunity to switch. After all, it provides them with political cover to do the right thing. Before long you’d have de facto national standards—without any states being forced to submit. And if the feds renege and go back to their micromanaging ways, states are free to pull out.

So Neal: deal, or no deal?

McCluskey (3:34 p.m. Pacific) 

Rebuttal #3: Reality Check

Sorry Mike, no deal. Your “build federal standards and freedom will come” plan is just too dreamy for me.

Thanks, though, for restating my argument that the Blob almost always controls government education. I thought this passage from your entry today illustrated my point nicely:

“The Fordham Institute has been reviewing K-12 standards for almost a decade…In any given subject, only a handful of states earn an A, and the majority get D’s and F’s. The reason is simple enough: the education system…derides knowledge as ‘mere facts.’ The professional organizations developed model standards—later adopted by many states—that are largely devoid of content.”

So the Blob really does dictate policy! Which begs the question of the debate: Why would you want to impose national standards? The Blob will almost certainly take them over, only this time everyone in America will be stuck with the consequences.

Here’s your defense mechanism:

“First, set the standards and develop the tests….Then offer the states a deal: if you opt into this national measurement and reporting system, all the pesky federal rules…go away. Or you can keep your own standards and tests—and the full panoply of federal regulations.”

Where in this plan is there any assurance that the pedagogical bad guys will not take power? If the Democrats retake Congress and Hillary is the next President, for example, mightn’t they just please their Blob friends and rewrite the standards to be as weak as possible? Such an outcome is hardly unprecedented: There’s NCLB’s race to the bottom, the track record of federal policy, and, of course, the entire history of public education!

One more thing: Even if you release states from federal regulations – a highly dubious proposition considering the government’s insatiable appetite for them – what will you do about runaway spending? Heck, with the feds controlling standards legislators could even justify programs like the pure-blubber Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners. “They teach the standards,” we’d be told.

If Mike’s plan is the best protection against national standards expanding the public school monopoly, then it just reaffirms my support for choice. Of course, I can look at the economy around me for that reaffirmation. Or I can gaze at American higher education, which has problems, but thanks to market competition is the best university system in the world. Or I can even look to slums in India and Africa, where researchers have found that free market schools are providing much better education than “free” government schools.

Ahh, but American private schools are not so great, sayeth Mike. I agree, but when 90 percent of the education industry is controlled by a government monopoly, what should we expect? It’s the same reason we don’t see innovation in U.S. K-12 education like we do in real market-based industries. Of course, maybe Mike wouldn’t even want innovation: It might result in some “weird” schools that don’t comply with his standards. But, then, people thought the Wright Brothers and Einstein were a little unstandard.

Mike is right about two things. The first is that before the federal government stepped in, many states discriminated against African Americans. However, in contrast to national standards, when the feds intervened to end state-imposed segregation, they did so in accordance with the Constitution. It also took them forever to do it, with the Supreme Court enforcing segregation in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson, and not correcting its mistake until Brown in the mid-1950s!

And let’s not forget what happened when the feds decided to go beyond their Constitutional authority and institute forced busing: Lots of Americans, black and white, were outraged, more suffering and division ensued, and, ultimately, African Americans across the country demanded school choice! It was a wise demand: Research by Derek Neal, Jay Greene, and others, has confirmed the dramatically superior outcomes for poor and minority students in such places as Catholic schools and private schools in Milwaukee’s choice program.

Finally, Mike is right that his taxes should not go to schools with standards of which he disapproves. But why shouldn’t the same apply to taxpayers when it comes to Mike’s standards? Thankfully, we have a solution: Universal tax credits for both personal use and donations to scholarship-granting organizations of the taxpayers’ choosing. At last, there would be real choice in education without forcing anyone to pay for my standards, the Blob’s standards, or even Mike’s standards!

Which brings me back to the central point of this debate: If history teaches us anything, it’s that choice works and Big Brother is a failure. So why would we ever want to give Big Bro more power?

Check back tomorrow for continued debate.


Petrilli (8:53 a.m. Pacific):

Argument #4: National Greatness

Neal, I’m really disappointed that you didn’t take the deal. That’s like turning your back on the million-dollar briefcase.

You ask, “Where in this plan is there any assurance that the pedagogical bad guys will not take power?”

Right in front of your eyes! As I wrote, you build the standards first, before the states commit to using them. If the bad guys win the day, you push the abort button. Furthermore, if the standards later change, the states are always free to cancel the contract. The same principle applies if the feds renege and go back on a regulatory binge. This escape clause would buy us some insurance, plus put healthy pressure on the standards-setters to do the job right.

Still, it’s true that
there’s no fool-proof way to ensure that the standards come out right. The lesson from the state standards movement is that people matter. Most states have done a horrible job setting standards—by which I mean they haven’t really set standards, they just wrote platitudes about the importance of learning—but there are shining examples where the opposite is true. California’s standards are rigorous, clear, and, one might even say, beautiful. The same can be said about those in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Indiana. Take a look at that list. There are red states and blue states. What made the difference? Committed reformers jumped into the fight and didn’t stop until they won. If it can happen in Sacramento, it can happen in Washington.

Are there risks in setting national standards? Of course. But what great mission isn’t without risk? Yesterday I argued that rigorous standards and the development of “cultural literacy” is essential for individuals, especially poor children. Today I want to discuss its importance for our society.

Once upon a time, a certain breed of conservatives (led by Bill Kristol and David Brooks) promoted “national greatness.” This was an alternative to the “leave us alone” ideologies of libertarian conservatives, and summoned the memory of Theodore Roosevelt to the cause of great national projects at home and abroad. (Perhaps “national greatness” as a movement still lives; a new McCain campaign is likely to reignite it.) Developing a common civic and cultural language could certainly be considered such a great national project—and would be possible through common K-12 standards. This is especially essential as the nation wrestles with the challenge of assimilating millions of new immigrants into our economy and society. In an age of thousands of cable channels and millions of blogs, wouldn’t it help the cause of E Pluribus Unum to have all of our children learning some common history, literature, and science?

Neal’s alternative is radical individualism. He says, tax credits for everyone! The promised land, as he sees it, looks something like today’s higher education system, where Pell Grants and student financial aid are strapped to the backs of students and not just limited to public, secular institutions. Hooray, I say, to those elements of choice and competition. But let’s not ignore the downside. Back in the day, colleges and universities used to accept, as their mission, the task of building core knowledge and common understanding among their students. Those days are over. As one would expect in a market system, colleges and universities are diversifying their offerings and giving their customers what they want—which is mainly pragmatic training for lucrative careers (not to mention gold-plated fitness centers and trendy pedagogical experiences). (hyperlink fixed; our apologies.–ed.)

So yes, Neal, remake the K-12 system in the image of higher ed, and you might spur greater innovation, efficiency, and dynamism. But without standards for what students are expected to learn, you will see a different race to the bottom—a race that leaves our society and democracy even more fractured and disconnected than it is now.

But choice versus standards is a false dichotomy. We can have both. In fact, we need both if our system is to serve its customers and its public—and if our nation is to be as great as our founders intended.

McCluskey (3:35 p.m. Pacific):

Rebuttal #4: Great Like US, or Great Like USSR?

I’m going to spend a second on Mike’s “safeguards” for national standards, but quickly move on to something much more important.

Mike’s first line of defense is to write the standards before states have to accept them. That’s sensible, but doesn’t address the major threat: What happens when the Blob takes power after the states have accepted the standards? Mike’s answer is that the states can “cancel the contract.” But yesterday he said that if states don’t take the standards, they get “the full panoply of federal regulations.” Some choice. Plus, the thing that really locks states into federal control is federal money, money taken from taxpayers. If the feds renege on the deal, does anyone think they will give taxpayers their money back? Of course not, so Mike’s protections are meaningless: States will take federal standards because they can’t tell taxpayers they are refusing to take back their hard-earned dollars.

As scary as Mike’s game of “heads Blob wins, tails children lose” is, it’s not the primary argument against national standards. No, the entire notion of imposing a single, federal standard on all Americans is fundamentally opposed to what has made America great. Liberty – not forced “assimilation” or a “common,” government-created, “civic and cultural language” – is the key to America’s greatness.

In the history I furnished a couple of days ago, I reviewed how public education dedicated to “Americanization” inflicted conflict and misery on American society, and produced the education disaster we have now. Perhaps, though, I didn’t give sufficiently explicit examples. Unfortunately, neither time nor space allows me to do so here, but thankfully they are well summarized elsewhere. Read Tyack’s The One Best System, or Jorgenson’s The State and the Non-Public School, or Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, to understand our sad history of coercive public education. Or just check out the daily news to see the conflict public education forces: There are constant battles over Intelligent Design, homosexuality and religious expression, the International Baccalaureate program, school library books, and so on.

Do we really want to push this sort of social warfare to the federal level, where no one can escape even by moving to a new state? And should we really buy into Mike’s utopian notion that federal standards will put the unum in E Pluribus Unum?

Of course, government-imposed “national greatness” has been tried before. Prussia became a great military power thanks to its bureaucracy and regimentation, not to mention a public school system greatly admired by common school enthusiasts. The Soviet Union transformed itself from backward Russia into a superpower. But, alas, in neither place did “national greatness” translate into happiness or prosperity, only oppression and suffering.

Contrast this with the “radical individualism” on which the Founders built the United States. Rather than relying
on centralized power, the American tradition as enshrined in the Constitution understands that groups do not think, feel, dream, or learn – individuals do – and thus leaves individuals free to pursue what they see as their own best interest. The system is a proven success: It drives our nation’s dynamic economy. It has made ours a free country, where we can pursue our dreams and express ourselves without government retribution – except in public schools. It has made the nation attractive to millions of immigrants, who have come seeking success, a goal that has far too often been denied them by government-imposed preparation to be factory drones or agricultural workers.

Importantly, this individualism does not translate into isolation or Balkanization. Far from it. To be successful, we all must live and work with countless other people, and to do that we must have standards. But for standards to be useful, they must be accepted voluntarily; forcing them on others only creates division and conflict. Of course, voluntary standards are at work all around us, in churches, at clubs, in workplaces, in neighborhoods, in private schools, and in the now-globalized world of commerce.

Mike concludes his entry today saying that “choice versus standards is a false dichotomy. We can have both.” He’s right, but there is only way to do it. When people have choice they create standards while keeping their freedom. When their only choice is a single standard, however, there is no choice at all, and nothing good comes of that.


Petrilli (9:27 a.m. Pacific)

Argument #5: Choice Won’t Work Without Standards

I should start today by admitting I was wrong. On Wednesday I accused the libertarian Cato Institute of being a “one-hit-wonder” that promotes a single solution for our education troubles (school choice). But Neal’s entry yesterday reminded me that libertarians also support…liberty!

Fret not, even we “national greatness” types like Lady Liberty, too, and as I’ll explain below, one of the best reasons to support standards (national or otherwise) is because they will facilitate the educational freedom Neal so desires.

First, let’s recap the week’s debate. From my perspective, our goal with K-12 education should be ensuring that all 18-year-olds have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in our economy and democracy. If they want to pursue higher education, they should not be limited by their primary and secondary schooling. We should not be satisfied as a nation until all students are achieving at much higher levels—and our pernicious achievement gaps have narrowed significantly. Building the “cultural literacy” of poor and minority students is especially important if we are to live up to the country’s ideal of equal opportunity.

Neal, on the other hand, aims for customer satisfaction. He expresses faith that while, on the individual level, “some people will make bad decisions,” he thinks that “for the vast majority…results will be excellent.” But what results? Measured how? He doesn’t say.

I’ve also argued that national standards will be good for our society—in fact, might even support the cause of “national greatness.” In a wonderfully diverse country, a common grounding in history, literature, the sciences and the arts would give our young people (and over time, our whole citizenry) a common cultural language. (Importantly, it would also bolster our economy and make the U.S. more competitive. Math is the same in Boise as Buffalo as Bombay, after all.)

Neal derides this approach as Prussian or even Soviet, and claims that liberty (and, he implies, liberty alone) is the only standard our republic was built upon. (One can only surmise that Neal is not a big Alexander Hamilton fan.)

I’ve also argued that standards-and-accountability, when done right, gets great results. Massachusetts is the best example de jour. Yet standards-and-accountability is not being done right in most states. Unfortunately (and ironically) the No Child Left Behind Act is making the situation worse by creating a “race to the bottom” rather than pushing states to raise standards and hold their schools accountable. The solution, I argued, is a grand bargain: the feds would be charged with setting common standards and measuring how schools perform against them through a common national test. Otherwise it would get out of the K-12 business and leave the rest to the states and individual schools.

Neal wouldn’t take the deal and retreated to his familiar position: There should be no federal role in education (talk about utopian!) and we should rely entirely on parental choice and the invisible hand of the marketplace.

Yet through all the debate we both agreed on several points. We both believe that the federal government is involved in many matters best left to the states or to schools. We both believe that the education monopoly needs to be broken and that parents need to be empowered with real choices.

That brings me to my final argument for the week: educational choice cannot work without standards—just as standards cannot work without choice.

Credit goes to my boss, Checker Finn, for first explaining this maxim. As he says, standards-based reform and choice-based reform are each the solution to the other’s fatal flaws. Standards-based reform is good at identifying failing schools, but it isn’t good at all at fixing them or creating alternatives to them. That’s where choice—and “new schools” mechanisms like charter schools—come in. Choice-based reform, on the other hand, is good at providing options to parents and boosting the supply of new schools, but it isn’t good at all at giving parents the information they need to choose wisely. That’s where standards and tests—and the public information they spawn—come in.

Neal says that “voluntary standards” will do the trick. Yet that’s what we have now. If you’re a parent in the Washington, DC area and want to choose the best elementary school for your daughter, you have a lot of choices and not a lot of information. Sure, if you’re looking at public schools, you can find test score data, though it’s based on different standards in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. How to make sense of it? You might ask parents or consult books to get impressions, but the prestige of the school is probably based more on the social class of the students who attend the institution than the learning that happens there. (There’s your “voluntary standards,” Neal.) If you want to consider a private school, you have even less information, since these institutions don’t participate in state testing and rarely make any test-scores available to their customers. Of course, if you’re poor, you have fewer choices (obviously) and less information, since much of these data are only tapped through certain social networks.

As explained earlier, Neal has a theory that choice and competition will lead to excellence. He might be right—but only if consumers have good, reliable, comparable information about the quality of schools and their outcomes in terms of student learning.

I, of course, would go further. I want more choices for parents but not unlimited choices. I would require taxpayer-funded schools to meet some basic standards, or else lose their license to accept pub

lic funds. This is hard to enforce, as we know from charter school authorizers who have attempted to close schools that are failing academically but still popular with parents and students. But it’s essential if we care about preparing all students academically, and not just making consumers happy.

But even if we accept Neal’s one-size-fits-all solution (the one size being choice), the only way parents will get this information that is so essential is if we have a common measurement of school quality. And that means a national standard.

So Neal, reject my calls for a new federal role in education. Ignore my pleas for “national greatness” or “cultural literacy.” But for the sake of your own dreams of educational freedom, isn’t it time to admit that national standards are an essential part of the picture?

Thanks for the great debate.


McCluskey (4:03 p.m. Pacific):

Rebuttal #5: Choice Must Be the Standard

Mike and I both want the best education system possible. Our difference is that while I know only freedom and choice will deliver that system, he thinks government must create it. When will he learn the lessons of history?

As I’ve established, the story of American public education is one of ever-increasing centralization. Indeed, it is centralization that has kept the sort of content Mike and others want out of the schools. Diane Ravitch, for example, reports that in the early Twentieth Century the “progressive reformers created centralized school bureaucracies and civil service systems in urban districts….” E.D. Hirsch complains that progressives created an impenetrable “thoughtworld” that kept traditionalist ideas out of the schools. Mike himself has admitted that most states have woeful standards because “The professional organizations developed model standards—later adopted by many states—that are largely devoid of content.” He has also freely admitted that Massachusetts, which he highlights for its “good” standards, “is the exception, not the rule.”

Of course it’s the exception! The standards Mike advocates are rarely enacted because they are not the standards the entrenched interests – that is, the Blob – want, and like it or not, the Blob exerts huge political influence. After all, the Blob’s livelihood is based on getting as much money and as little “accountability” out of public education as possible, and lobbies for that full time. Parents, in contrast, have millions of other things to deal with than political warfare, and simply cannot compete with the Blob.

This Blob power, in addition to keeping standards the Blob dislikes out, is used to kill such standards after they’ve been enacted. Look at NCLB: After promising great standards and accountability, the constant pressure put on NCLB by vested interests has produced a “race to the bottom” and crumbling enforcement. As Checker Finn has written: “Prodded by Washington to do things differently, [Blobbers are] balking….They’re demanding waivers, exemptions, and ‘flexibility’ so they don’t have to change, at least not much. And to a lamentable degree the U.S. Department of Education is yielding.”

So how many more lessons do we need that giving more power to government is just providing more rope to hang ourselves?

Quite simply, if we want to achieve greatness we must let liberty work. Indeed, in stark contrast to Mike’s suggestion that the nation would somehow be rudderless without government standards, it is only choice, free of government coercion, that will establish high standards.

We know that liberty leads to the creation of standards. Do computers constantly get faster and more powerful because the government mandates it? Of course not: they get better because if manufacturers don’t improve their products they’ll never keep up with the constantly increasing standards of supply and demand. Or look outside of business: Churches have completely voluntary standards of belief and behavior, and even common “literacy” and “culture.” And then there are professional sports: The government did not set a minimum vertical leap for the NBA, or 40-yard dash time for the NFL. Players, owners, and fans did. And how about this: No government set English as the unofficial language for commerce world-wide. The reality of globalized business did.

Voluntary standards are everywhere because people need them to make their lives better. Indeed, as Ravitch has chronicled, often the only thing that has maintained standards in public education has been the freedom people have taken. For example in the 1930s and 40s, she writes, it was mainly “the strong allegiance of parents and teachers to the academic curriculum [that] slowed the implementation of radical changes even after superintendents announced them. Teachers knew that they had to go along, join study groups, and give outward signs of compliance to their supervisors. But they could always close the classroom door and teach the subject they knew best.” Unfortunately, educational black markets couldn’t save all standards. “What they could not do, however, was to revive subjects that were dropped from the curriculum altogether.”

Confronted with massive evidence that choice works, Mike is left to argue that if choice is so wonderful, why aren’t private schools doing better? The answer, as I’ve noted before, is that 90 percent of the education industry is controlled by a monopoly, and there’s never going to be much innovation as long as that’s the case. It’s also why there’s not a lot of information out there to help parents select schools: Why would anyone furnish such information if no one can use it?

Despite the monopoly’s effect, I seriously question Mike’s assertion that private schools “rarely make any test-scores available to their customers.” Mike provided no evidence of this, and we know that private school test scores often are readily available. Consider, for instance, Peterson’s guides to private schools. Or look abroad: Japan’s tutoring industry is a true market, and a huge industry ranks and explains the merits of tutoring schools. And here’s the kicker: Even if Mike were right, if consumers of private education can’t find information for a school that they think is crucial, they can choose not to go there – or send their money there – if the school refuses to furnish it. No such option exists with public schools.

So in the end, why are government-imposed national standards an idea we should consign to the ash-heap of history? Because history makes one thing clear: Liberty is the key to greatness, and government is its mortal enemy.

Thanks to Edspresso and Mike for the enjoyable debate! And now, to rest…


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