In a recent column, David Brooks, who fills the center-right slot on the New York Times opinion page, asserts that the Obama administration’s education agenda adheres to a “measured vision of a limited but energetic government.” Citing the president’s $4.5 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) education-funding program, Mr. Brooks argues that the administration “has used federal power to incite reform, without dictating it from the top.”
The details of RTTT and the actions of the administration, however, render this claim absurd. Take, for example, national education standards.
Until now, the crafting of standards has been the purview of individual states. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, however, have recently produced national standards the Obama administration says are voluntary, but which RTTT requires states to adopt if they want to be eligible for funding. More seriously, President Obama has said he will withhold federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students from states that refuse to adopt these standards. Such heavy-handed tactics offend even those sympathetic to national standards.
In a recent statement, Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, complained that the administration’s actions seek “to coerce states to adopt a particular approach or be shut out of future funding for key programs,” which opens the door for more federal conditions and requirements. Beyond the administration’s arm-twisting methods, the national education standards have raised serious concerns about governance.
Mr. Brooks believes the national standards to be tough and rigorous, but they fail to match up well against the top international or state standards. Stanford University mathematician James Milgram, co-author of a Pioneer Institute-Pacific Research Institute study on the national standards, has said that a large portion of the national math standards “are one, two or even more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all the high-achieving countries.”
For high-standards states like California, the new national standards threaten to undermine their elevated expectations of students. Milgram warns: “Another issue with the Core Math Standards is that there are no provisions for eighth-grade algebra. This contrasts with the California standards where the expectation is that most students will be ready for Algebra I by eighth grade.” “California and the other states with top standards,” concludes Milgram, “would almost certainly be better off keeping their current standards.” Federal pressure, unfortunately, makes that choice increasingly unlikely.
While national standards appear to help states with mediocre or poor standards, the Obama administration’s determined effort to make all states, including those with high standards, adopt the national standards highlights RTTT’s troubling Washington-knows-best approach.
According to a just-released Heritage Foundation report, “National standards would force parents and taxpayers to surrender one of their most powerful tools for improving their schools: control of academic content, standards and testing.” Indeed, the public has a much better chance of changing state standards they don’t like than national standards protected by distant and powerful Washington special interests and bureaucracies. In addition, national standards will force the nationalization of other critical parts of American education.
Since testing must be aligned with standards, national standards will result in national testing. National testing, warns the Heritage report, “will inevitably lead to a national curriculum,” which is “not a prospect most Americans would embrace.” The report notes that even top officials in the Democratic Carter administration, which created the federal Department of Education, feared that a national curriculum could lead to a national control of ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with giving one’s opponent his due but David Brooks seriously misinterprets the scope and impact of the president’s education policies. The columnist contends that Obama-ed “is not heavy-handed Washington command-and-control.” Yet, the words, actions and logic of the president’s education policies all point to the opposite.
Americans are increasingly skeptical of Washington power grabs. Once they understand the implications of Mr. Obama’s policies, expect a much different response than Mr. Brooks’ misguided optimism.
Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.