Not everything worth doing should be done by the federal government. That may be the understatement of the millennium, but it's the key to understanding why the current push for "common core" standards in education is a bad idea.
Common core is the latest wrinkle in a 20-year trend to raise standards and increase accountability in education policy. Perhaps inevitably, this trend has coincided with a growing federal role in setting educational standards and mandated testing. This movement has been bipartisan, with one of the largest expansions of federal authority occurring under President George W. Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. This law requires standardized testing of students attending schools that receive federal funds, although these tests are designed and administered at the state level.
Common core actually began as a voluntary effort among states to provide guidance to educators on what students should know to be ready for college and compete in a global economy. However, the Obama administration interjected itself into the initiative when its 2009 stimulus package made $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" funds available to school districts. For a state to compete for these "bonus" funds, it essentially must adopt common core standards. The administration has also provided Race to the Top funds to two consortiums that will test and evaluate student performance relative to the common core.
These developments have sparked opposition from the left and the right. Parents are worried that the move towards de facto national standards and testing will undermine local control of content and curriculum. The testing protocol also raises alarms. To make "apples to apples" educational assessments among diverse student populations throughout the country, the testing consortia are developing extraordinarily detailed databases on the income, demographic and personal characteristics of students. These data will reportedly be compiled, and accessible to the public, at the classroom level.
These features of the common core are troubling. While the federal government cannot legally prescribe educational content, the link between federal standards, federal testing and monetary bonuses naturally creates incentives for local districts to align their curriculum toward what the common core advocates and tests. The nationwide database also raises obvious privacy concerns. Even though student identities will be hidden, it's difficult to see why the future of American education requires the test scores and family incomes of, say, the fourth grade class at Crestwood Elementary to be revealed to everyone from Modesto to Maine.
Nevertheless, common core is defended vigorously by high-profile supporters from the sensible left (Michelle Rhee, ex-chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools) to the reform-oriented right (Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal). One surprising defender is conservative education analyst Chester Finn, who believes common core can be the key to a kind of grand bargain between federal, state and local governments on education policy. In his words, "if everybody's schools use the same academic targets and metrics to track their academic performance - duly reported by demographic subgroup, perhaps by individual classrooms too - and if everybody has access to his information via a transparent reporting system, a powerful case can be made for getting 'big government' to back away from managing schools."
This brings to mind Winston Churchill's definition of an appeaser as someone who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. It takes an enormous leap of faith to believe the best way to keep the federal government out of managing schools is to give it more power to set standards and measure outcomes at schools. It's easier to see Finn's grand compromise collapsing in the opposite direction: Federal authorities will feel the need to increase their meddling if federal standard-setting and measurement efforts stubbornly refuse to yield much in the way of educational improvement.
And, unfortunately, this will almost certainly be the case. Primary and secondary education are inherently local issues. America's public education system was the envy of the world when it was managed and financed exclusively with local resources. In the last 50 years, as education has shifted towards sclerotic, unionized administration and greater federal financing, our K-12 schools have declined from the best to essentially the worst in the developed world. The last thing American education needs right now is another top-down, bureaucratized and technocratic solution to what are fundamentally a series of local challenges and issues.
If common core is the wrong approach for Wisconsin, what is the right one? Exactly the one that inspired such angst in last week's opinion piece in Isthmus: school choice. Nothing promotes accountability like parents' ability to take their children - and the funding that follows them - out of a school that is not getting the job done. Education policy that empowers parents rather than bureaucrats is the best way to improve educational standards and outcomes in the medium to long run.
In the interim, if Wisconsin believes its education standards need to be improved, it's easier and more straightforward to learn from the best and most innovative public school systems in the nation (such as Massachusetts and Florida) rather than hitching our wagon to common core.
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.