High Standards vs. Local Control

During the past week, conservative educational icons have been sparring over whether the Right ought to embrace the new "Common Core" standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The debate has gained urgency as more than 25 states have signed on in the past two months.

Fordham Institute honchos Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli argued last week in a thoughtful National Review Online column that the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) fueled an explosion of mediocre state standards, undermining accountability and reform. They see the Common Core as a remedy. University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene responded that there's good reason to believe that the Common Core won't deliver on its promises and that it will impose real costs.

What to make of this? Here's my two cents: Finn-Petrilli and Greene are both right. The Common Core standards are superior to those in place in most states, and transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous national standard. Uniform standards and performance measures can help us test new educational techniques on a level playing field, so that we can deliver useful tools and techniques to more schools and students. These are all things that conservatives can embrace. The Common Core is a good start, and a stunning political triumph.

Grand political projects (conservative or liberal) tend to look best in the early days, while the conservative temperament has historically attended to unanticipated consequences and warily emphasized what might go wrong.

But this "state-led" effort has been aggressively driven by the Obama administration, there's a huge chance that it will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teachers' unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined.

Also, we have excellent reasons to fear that states will fail to negotiate the enormous implementation hurdles ahead. Past experience teaches that the odds aren't great that states, funders, vendors, and the feds will maintain their stride when it comes to making the tedious, small-bore, and potentially costly--but critical--revisions to assessments, accountability, curricula, professional development, teacher education, and instructional materials.

Common Core supporters must also face the reality that a slew of governors, state chiefs, and legislators will be turning over this fall, that the officials charged with enacting the Common Core may have little investment in the effort, and that even sympathetic leaders may have little inclination to spend what it'll take to do it right as they struggle with gaping fiscal holes in 2011 and beyond.

There are telling parallels to NCLB. Back in 2001, conservative thought was similarly split on the act. The Bush administration argued that standards, transparency, accountability, and choice for students in failing schools were pillars of conservative reform--while critics saw overreach, the perils of wrong-headed implementation, and a Trojan horse that could open the way for all kinds of federal mischief. Both sides made good points. But the aftermath reminded us that grand political projects (conservative or liberal) tend to look best in the early days, while the conservative temperament has historically attended to unanticipated consequences and warily emphasized what might go wrong.

Indeed, it was Mike Petrilli who penned a chapter titled "The Problem with 'Implementation is the Problem'" for a book that Finn and I edited back in 2007. In that piece, Mike pointed out that the problem with NCLB's school-choice provisions, which he liked in theory, was not a matter of bungled implementation but of advocates' wishing away design flaws and political obstacles.

Thus the distance between Finn and Petrilli's hopeful conservatism and Greene's more skeptical discipline is well-trod turf. It's the old Jack Kemp--versus--Bob Dole divide, and it's woven into the fabric of contemporary conservatism. It's an important, if familiar, theme. And it's useful to see Mike, Checker, and Jay giving a healthy workout to an educational question that will likely loom large in 2012.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education-policy studies at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/RonTech2000

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