Sunday, February 9, 2014

Standards decided by whom?

What are the claimed benefits of the Common Core? As I understand it, they basically come down to two. First, adopting the Common Core will help ensure that kids are learning the things we want them all to learn. Second, adopting a “common” set of standards – that is, one that is uniform throughout the country – will make it easier for kids to adjust when they move from one school to another.

Starting with the first rationale: “We need standards to make sure kids learn what we want them to learn.” The first objection to this argument is that it does not respond at all to some of main reasons people oppose the Common Core. For many people, the problem is not the idea of standards, but the question of who gets to decide what they are. Traditionally, education has been the prototypical example of an issue that is best governed at the local level. There are good reasons why it should stay that way.

I start with the relatively uncontroversial proposition that government policies should be made at the local level unless there is a convincing reason to shift them to a more centralized authority (like the state or federal governments). There are at least three good reasons for this approach. First, it makes government more democratically accountable. Local school boards are elected solely to deal with education issues, so they are the entities best able to express community preferences and values on education. Presidents, members of Congress, governors, and even state legislators are elected to deal with a multitude of issues, and few such elections hinge on educational issues, so those elections are a much less useful way for voters to express their preferences about education.

Almost nobody changes his or her vote for President because of a candidate’s stand on education; I certainly don’t, and I’m pretty riled up about educational issues. So what reason is there to believe that federal education initiatives like the Common Core reflect what the public actually wants from its schools? And how democratically accountable are federal and state-wide actors for their choices about education? Has any federal or state office-holder ever been voted out of office because of his or her education policies?

Because state and federal officeholders’ elections don’t depend much on education issues, it is more likely that their policy choices will be driven by factors other than community preferences and values—for example, by well-funded interest groups with agendas that diverge from what the larger public values.

A second reason to favor local policy-making is that one size seldom fits all. Local governments are plainly in the best position to take local differences into account. They are also in a better position to accommodate variation in community values and preferences. Almost by definition, your own policy preferences are more likely to be reflected in the laws that govern you if you live in a decentralized system of government than if you live in a winner-take-all centralized system.

A third reason is that local variation allows good ideas to come to light that would not have otherwise—the “laboratories of democracy” idea. A related idea is that variation is a good hedge against risk—that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

There’s nothing very controversial about any of that. The first question, then, is whether there are good reasons to take the decision about educational standards out of the hands of the locally elected school boards and give it to the state, or to the federal government, instead. My only point in this post is that just saying “we need standards to make sure kids learn what we want them to learn” tells us nothing about which level of government should set standards. (The “we need uniformity” argument might; on that, more later.)

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