President Obama has extended federal control over health care and is now trying to centralize education policy by imposing Washington’s dictates on states and local jurisdictions. Though aimed at improvement, the president’s agenda will weaken strong state standards, set in motion a domino effect of education nationalization, and marginalize ordinary Americans.
Obama-ed started with the president’s $4 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive funding program, which required states to commit to adopt common, i.e. national, standards in core subjects. Next, Mr. Obama informed the nation’s governors that, if he has his way, states would have to adopt national standards to receive federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students.
Finally, in the president’s recently released “blueprint” for education reform, a new national target of getting all students “college and career ready” by 2020 would be based, in one likely favored option, on national college-and-career-readiness standards.
The president’s national approach, however, spawns an array of problems.
First, despite claims about their rigor, the draft national standards crafted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are supported by the Obama administration, aren’t as challenging as the top standards in California, Massachusetts and a number of other states.
A new joint study by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute (PI) and the San Francisco/Sacramento-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI) reveals serious shortcomings in the standards. According to the study, authored by Stanford University mathematician James Milgram and University of Arkansas education professor Sandra Stotsky, the proposed national math standards are characterized by “low expectations.”
The proposed standards don’t require mastery of single-digit addition until the end of the second grade and don’t require mastery of single-digit multiplication until the end of the fourth grade. “Both are at least a year too late,” Milgram and Stotsky warn. Worse, they say: “Indeed, basic arithmetical knowledge and skills are not fully developed until sometime in grade 5 in Common Core’s March draft. By that time, our students will be nearly two years behind their peers in high-achieving countries.”
Further, whereas California’s eighth-grade algebra standards are rigorous and complete, the PI-PRI study finds that in the proposed national math standards “only bits and pieces of algebra are present in grade 8, with very little connection among them.” The study also notes that the national standards push an unproven method of teaching geometry that Russia tried and discarded 25 years ago.
There are also serious problems in the proposed national English standards, especially the fact that many grade-to-grade standards require no increase in intellectual demand. Thus, a grade 7 reading standard says: “Cite several sources of textual evidence when useful to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” The standards in grades 8 through 12 have virtually the same wording, and deserve the PI-PRI study’s scathing appraisal.
“[These standards] are generic skills—‘can-do’ kinds of statements—which can be applied at any grade to any text but in themselves entail no body of prior literary or world knowledge or content specificity to give them intellectual heft,” observe the authors.
If high-standard states must accept comparatively weaker national standards, then new national tests aligned to those standards would also be weaker. Student test score may go up, but that won’t necessarily mean that learning has improved.
The final nationalization domino would be the imposition of a national curriculum. Rep. John Kline, ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, predicts: “If the federal government is going to insist that the states adopt these standards, then the federal government is using coercion, and will move inevitably to a national curriculum.”
Faced with national standards, national testing and a national curriculum, it will be nearly impossible for grassroots parents and community members to effect change when problems arise. In contrast, powerful Washington-based bureaucrats and special interests will be strategically positioned to influence content, tests and curriculum. Rather than promoting excellence, one-size-fits-all national standards and curriculum will stifle competition and could lock in mediocrity on a countrywide scale.
Unlike the prolonged debate over health care, the public was given a criminally short three-week period, ending in early April, to comment on the draft national standards. As a result, the nationalization of education may occur before most people are even aware of what’s at stake. Welcome to Obama-ed, America.
Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.