The Hobgoblin of Little Wonks?

Thanks to Eduwonk for lending me this space. He really knows everything–even Rockabilly. And it was kind of him to confuse me with this Robert Gordon rather than this one or this one. I am less talented than them all, except maybe as an Eduhack.

Eduwonk has said some not-so-nice things about the progressive critique of NCLB in the name of local control. I agree with him, but I also agree with the progressive critique of George Bush’s efforts to override state prerogatives on other issues—the right to die, marriage, and, generally, tort law. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Maybe it is too much to expect consistency over federalism. But it would be nice if there were a principled way through the thicket.

Maybe there is. To follow up on a post the other day: National standards are a very good idea, even though federalizing the right to die is not.

  • State control makes some sense when different states doing different things will teach us something useful. Oregon can show us whether, for example, a right-to-die statute will inevitably create terrible pressures on sick people. But the 50-state, 50-standard regime under NCLB discourages learning by making it more difficult to compare students across state lines. National standards teach us more than federalism.
  • State control makes some sense when state laws reflect local values. If most Oregonians believe in euthanasia, that’s an argument for letting them have euthanasia–without imposing the same law in Alabama. But it is hard to imagine that different state education standards reflect different attitudes toward education. Diane Ravitch says that five states have aligned their standards with NAEP’s challenging ones: South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and Massachusetts. A nickel for anyone who can find what unites those states, except that their names begin with letters sort of late in the alphabet.
  • State control makes some sense when competition among states will drive them to do better. This is not a factor on values issues. It seems to be an argument against national tort reform (presumably states have plenty of incentives not to drive their own doctors out of business). But on national standards, this factor points the wrong way: NCLB’s content-free demand for “proficiency” encourages states to define proficiency down.
  • State control makes some sense when, well, the issue’s just not that big a deal. It is hard to get too worked up if different states want different standards for barbershop licensure. The values issues are a big deal, but we don’t have national consensus on them. Education is clearly a big deal, and we are much closer to a national consensus. That is true at a policy level: globalized economy, flat earth, what you earn depends on what you learn, yadda. No one seriously doubts that that reading and math are now essential to successful American citizenship. And it is also true at the deeper level of constitutional values, from Reconstruction through Brown to the present, as Goodwin Liu powerfully argues in a forthcoming article.

The opposition to national standards seems to me to be driven by two thoughts. One is wild suspicion of the federal government. And it is true that the feds, unlike any state, can ruin standards for everyone. But if we actually had national standards, the stakes would be high, public scrutiny intense, an opt-out for states available, and control over standards given to an independent body that even the current administration would have difficulty screwing up.

The second basis for opposing national standards is that people want local control. They’re afraid of a “national school board.” But it’s not as though the local school board chooses standards and tests. Some state entity does. If you want local control, your beef is with the entire standards and accountability movement, not with national standards.

And here’s where we might address Eduwonk’s correct concern about the politics. If people want more local control, we should find ways to give it to them. That doesn’t mean keeping the definition of standards in an out-of-touch state capital rather than an out-of-touch national capital. It means … well, that’s a longer conversation. More public choices for parents about where to send their kids? More control for community members over the structures of their schools? More control over hiring and firing of school personnel?

There has to be grand bargain in there somewhere.

–Robert Gordon

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