Answering Jay Greene’s Questions about National Standards

Jay Greene is upset that nobody has addressed his concerns about the Common Core State Standards initiative. I respect Jay a lot, and thinks he raises a number of fair points, but he’s playing a typical debater’s game: attacking your opponent’s ideas, rather than defending your own. In this case: raise the specter of what could go wrong with national standards and tests (“a really dangerous movement”), but ignore the total mess that is state standards and testing today.

I addressed a number of Jay’s worries in this CATO debate last week, but let me do it again in writing.

First, Jay argues that “many credible people have raised strong concerns about the rigor and soundness of the proposed national standards,” even though we at Fordham gave them “passing grades.” That’s true, though many of these concerns have been mitigated over time as the standards have improved. And we didn’t just give them “passing grades”; we gave the drafts in March a B-plus and an A-minus–honors grades that, as Fordham watchers know, we don’t hand out very often. The final standards are even better, and we’ll give official grades this summer. They aren’t perfect, and there might be a couple of states who can boast of standards that are stronger. But these common standards are pretty darn good–at a time when most state standards (including Arkansas’s) stink. All along, we’ve been worried that the standards would come out bad and we’d have to disown the whole effort. Thankfully that hasn’t happened; the Common Core initiative passed its first test.

Second, Jay worries that the teachers unions and ed schools and others with dubious ideas will gain control of the “machinery” of the national standards. That’s a fair concern, though Jay should admit that this has already happened in many states. But is there a way to make this less likely? We at Fordham believe so, and are embarked on a year-long project to develop sound recommendations about the long-term governance of the Common Core initiative so that “sensible” people stay in charge and it remains a state-led effort forever. It’s not inevitable that we can succeed, but nothing is inevitable in public policy. Does Jay oppose voucher programs because they might get hijacked by shady for-profit providers who just want to make money off the backs of poor kids? Of course not. Furthermore, it strike me as more likely that the good guys will stay in charge at the national level, where all of this stuff will operate under the bright lights of the national media, than in the states, where decisions get made behind closed doors.

Third, Jay thinks we already have a cure for the problem of states dumbing down their standards: NAEP. “Illinois, for example, isn’t fooling anyone when it says that 82% of its 8th graders are proficient in reading because according to NAEP only 30% are proficient. The beauty of NAEP is that it provides information without forcing conformity to a single, national curriculum.” Right, Illinois isn’t fooling anyone, except for the vast majority of Illinois parents who have no idea that being “proficient” on the state’s test doesn’t even mean you’re on grade level. This is the same problem with Margaret Spellings’s line that we already have fifty speedometers telling us we’re not going fast enough, so why do we need another? Both Jay and Spellings see this issue through the lens of a policymaker. Yes, we in the policy elite know Illinois is setting the bar low, but parents don’t. That’s what matters. And the shaming from NAEP clearly hasn’t been enough to get states to raise the bar.

Fourth, Jay says that these standards won’t “close the gap” between the U.S. and our competitors. That’s true. Any reformer that promises you that any policy will close those gaps is selling you a bill of goods. At the most, national standards will help our system be more coherent, efficient, and rational, and will help set expectations for our students higher. If that’s followed up with good tests, high cut scores, smart accountability policies, strong implementation, and on and on and on, then maybe we’ll see some gains on student achievement. Rigorous standards are a means to an end–not an end in themselves. We advocates shouldn’t oversell them.

Finally, Jay charges that these standards aren’t voluntary. “The federal government requires that states commit to adopting the national standards as a condition of applying for Race to the Top Funds. And the Obama administration is floating the idea of making state adoption of these national standards a requirement for Title I or other federal funds.” Both of those statements are inaccurate. (Jay should know better.) Committing to the common standards earned states points in the Race to the Top application, but it wasn’t a “condition.” And the Administration floated the idea of requiring states to adopt college and career ready standards, but not necessarily these standards. Now, in both cases, I think the Administration erred and gave national standards opponents an opportunity to raise concerns about federal overreach. But there’s plenty of support on Capitol Hill for a clear premise: common state standards are OK. Federal standards are not.

So Jay, do you feel listened to? If so, then tell me this: If not through common standards, how else should we address the problem of vague, content-free state standards? Laughably low cut scores? Tests that are poorly designed and can’t possibly bear the weight being placed on them, from value-added demands to merit pay to teacher evaluations, etc.? Small state departments of education that don’t have the resources or capacity to get this technical stuff right? Textbook and curriculum and professional development and teacher training markets that are fragmented into fifty pieces?

I’m listening.

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