Do We Need National Standards to Prevent a Race to the Bottom?

One of the better arguments for the adoption of national standards is that it is necessary to prevent a race to the bottom among states and localities.  States wishing to look good rather than actually be good may be tempted to lower their academic expectations so that they can more easily declare victory without having to make any educational progress.  Imposing a national standard would prevent this race to the bottom because all states would have to compete on the same scale and could not manipulate the measuring tape to appear 10 feet tall.

There is some evidence that this kind of race to the bottom has been occurring.  Rick Hess and Paul Peterson, for example, have compared state cut scores for proficiency on their state tests to results on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to show that the level of achievement required to be declared proficient in many states has been dropping over the last decade. In his recent review of the Maranto and McShane book on Obama’s education policies, Nathan Glazer described how advocates for national standards see them as a fix for this race to the bottom:

in Race to the Top, “the Obama administration tacitly gave its approval to a set of ‘Common Core Standards’ developed by a consortium of state school officers and tied Race to the Top dollars to participation in the program.” This may be a path to finally getting a set of national standards and overriding the standards the states set, which have in many states been pushed lower. This “race to the bottom” has made it easier to show adequate yearly progress (AYP) and avoid triggering measures required for schools that do not show AYP.

So does competition among states and localities really produce a race to the bottom or does competition motivate improvement and spark continual improvements?  The answer depends on what states and localities are competing for.  If states and localities are competing to receive federal funds and/or avoid federal sanctions, as Glazer describes states seeking to make AYP, then competition will produce a race to the bottom.  In competing for bureaucratic approval from the feds, states only have to appear good (satisfy the bureaucratic requirements), but they don’t have to actually be good.  Competing for the bureaucratic approval of the federal government turns education into a redistributive policy where the goal is to get a larger share of the federal largess.

But if states and localities are competing for residents and businesses to increase their tax base, then the incentive from competition is to increase standards and quality.  Millions of individuals are not so easily fooled and can distinguish between phony claims of progress created by lowering the bar and real progress.  Clever bureaucrats can also tell the difference but they are bound by the rules for dispersing rewards and sanctions and so are forced into encouraging a race to the bottom.  Individual face no similar constraints.  They want to move to the areas with the best schools to help their kids, enhance their property values, and have access to a quality labor force.  Individuals may make mistakes or have bad taste, but in aggregate they reward real educational progress not fake, race to the bottom, manipulation.

The history of U.S. education is filled with evidence of how this competition for residents and tax base has spurred improvements in quality and increases in rigor.  The economic historian, William Fischel, carefully documents how the development and spread of high school education in the United States was driven by localities seeking to compete for residents demanding a more rigorous education.  And the standards required for graduating high school have steadily increased over time.  Graduation requires more college-prep coursework.  In almost half of the states students now have to pass a state test to receive a standard diploma.  And 37 states instituted their own testing and accountability systems before NCLB was adopted.  The result of these state and local efforts was not always a rigorous education, but they clearly show a trend toward higher standards and quality in response to consumer demand.  Competition produces a race to the top as long as it is competition for individual taxpayers and business instead of competition for federal government handouts.

So, if a race to the bottom is fueled by the desire to satisfy federal bureaucratic rules, why would we think the solution is in the adoption of more federal bureaucratic rules?  National standards will just create a new regime of gaming, manipulation, and the appearance of progress without the actuality of it.  Expanding choice and competition for individuals is the solution to a race to the bottom, not more centralized control that stifles that competition.

-Jay Greene

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