National Standards and Federalism

Someone once said that the problem with national standards is that the right won't abide "national" and the left won't abide "standards".
John Ray linked to this Washington Post article on low-level "Advanced Placement" courses. Edespresso linked to this Education Next article by Chester Finn and Mike Petrili advocating national standards as a substitute for the thicket of Federal laws which interfere with local control of education.

NCLB is an unconstitutional intrusion by the Federal government into an area reserved to the States or to the people. While that objection may sound antique to those who believe that the US Constitution is a living document, the Federal principle recognizes that human rationality has limits and allows numerous experiments in public policy. To a devout Federalist, the Department of Education is unconstitutional, and so are Federal minimum wage laws, Federal child labor laws, Social Security, and Federal subsidies to agriculture. To avoid that larger fight, an administration concerned simultaneously for the Federal principle and for education might consider that the Federal government exercises legitimate authority over four pre-college school systems: the Washington, DC, schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, the Department of Defense schools, and the US Embassy schools. All the Federal government has to do to inject competition into the K-12 education industry is 1) to create exit exams for a 12 year sequence of courses which meets graduation requirements in these schools, 2) to offer credit-by-exam at any time, at any age, 3) to allow any US citizen the option to sit for these exams, 4) to offer HS diplomas to students who accumulate sufficient credits, and 5) to authorize independent institutions to administer these exams. Let competition between Sylvan Learning Centers and the Kumon Institute drive the cost of an accredited K-12 education to the marginal cost of administering and grading exams.


allen said...

Might as well put the traffic on your site.

Your measuring stick analogy doesn't work because there's no place for feedback. A barometer measures atmospheric pressure but there's not much you can do about the air pressure after reading the barometer. Your "yardstick" analogy is similarly a passive measure of a phenomenon over which control cannot be exercised. Since I don't want to beat your, or my, analogy death, suffice it to say that standards provide a goal against which progress can be measured.

It's the control that a goal and measurement of progress towards that goal provides that the public education system lacks. Without *some* goal there's no way to judge if progress is being made so one technique, idea, insight, product or school of thought is pretty much as good as any other. There's no way to differentiate the worthless from the worthwhile since progress towards the goal isn't being measured.

It's that feedback mechanism that's missing from the public education system and without it everything becomes clear.

Edu-crap doesn't have to provide worthwhile movement towards the goal because there isn't a goal. That throws the door open to extraneous considerations like appeals to vanity. You can fancy yourself to be progressive because there's no one to dispute you. Progress is defined as the occasion demands and that's a lousy way to move toward a goal.

If you don't measure the product of the education system you don't have to bother to distinguish the top-notch practitioners from the dregs. That's why teachers are considered interchangeable and there's nothing unusual about a gym teacher teaching a computer class in which he's the most ignorant person.

Since the skill and preparedness of the teacher is unimportant the education necessary to prepare someone to teach is also unimportant. At least with regards to obtaining the skills necessary to be a good teacher. So the ed schools are off the hook. They don't have to educate teachers to teach and the research they produce is immaterial.

I'm perfectly willing to agree that NCLB is a lousy way to inject feedback into the public education system but as the public education system is currently constituted, what else is there? State boards of ed and especially local boards of education are as independent as a hog on ice. Why shouldn't they be? The only time the public can make a statement about the degree of satisfaction with the public education system is at election time. That's a terrible way to get the system to move toward excellence and it doesn't.

NCLB hits the current system in the one place in which it's vulnerable: the checkbook. Checker Finn and the Fordham crowd are just wrong. The Title 1 money that's the pivot upon which NCLB revolves isn't mandatory any more then a bon-bon is irresistible. States could've eschewed the federal money if the federal strings were onerous enough but they didn't. So there's no constitutional objections even though most of the executive branch, including Department of Education and a good chunk of the legislative are unconstitutional as hell.

Well, now the strings are being yanked and there's a lot of yelping going on.

The big surprise for me was that NCLB came into existence at all. I'm still trying to figure out who the major constituency was that powered NCLB through Congress. Another mystery to investigate.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks for the traffic, Allen (traffic: like, one car per month on a wilderness track). I suspect what people want from "standards" is a stick with which to beat the bureaucrats. The waste, and abuse in the current system grow, apparently without limit. Official indifference to students' or taxpayers' well-being inspires frustration in those of us who study the system, and this prompts this urge to belabor the bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats will sabotage any internal accounrtability measure. Even "external" measures (e.g., NAEP, Colege Board) succumb to capture by system moles. Parent control is a necessary and sufficient condition for reform.

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