Bennett Bets Big On National Standards…But Is It Just More Think Tank Noise?

Remember when I said you should start taking the think tanky excitement over national standards seriously when a prominent national politician championed the idea? Well, Bill Bennett and Rod Paige don’t fit the bill, sorry! But they did jump on the national standards train in this morning’s WaPo. Four thoughts:

First, shouldn’t Paige have at least signaled to readers that when it comes to citing Fordham Foundation work, he’s not just an observer/consumer, he’s a playa’! He’s on the board. Don’t think Bennett has any formal affiliation there though.

Second, every time someone lobs one of these National Assessment of Educational Progress v. state standards comparisons you get a rehash of the old debate about whether NAEP’s standards are meaningful or too rigorous. Fair enough, it’s a legitimate debate. Nonetheless, there is some utility to NAEP at least at the extremes. In other words, while I wouldn’t use NAEP to impugn a state where say 55 percent of the kids are “proficient” on the state test but only 45 percent were on NAEP, when you have really enormous spreads, for instance Tennessee’s 87 to 27 as Paige-Bennett cite, that does tell you something.

Third, Bennett and Paige say that a reason for bottom-up standards is so that Washington doesn’t mess it up. That’s really just a throwaway Republican line. There is no guarantee that the states won’t screw it up either. After all, they did produce much of the current mess. Instead, why I think that if you want to see national standards bottom-up is the only way to go is because it’s the only way to get genuine buy-in at the state and local level. Remember, No Child Left Behind doesn’t impose federal standards; it just forces the states to get serious about enforcing their own. And, at least so far, they’re not too keen to do that. Don’t expect them to enthusiastically embrace someone else’s standards. That’s because a big part of this problem is political, not technical or substantive. The politics of dealing with low-performing schools are knotty and even with some sort of Platonic standards and measurement system, those politics still remain.

Finally, bottom-up standards will take a while so they’re not an immediately actionable solution for the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind. That means that regardless of what provisions Congress puts in the law to encourage the creation of national standards, thorny questions about accountability between now and then remain. That, for my money, remains a more interesting debate.

See also Jal Mehta’s dissent from the zeitgeist here. And ignore AFTie One-Ls hysterics about privatization*, she gives good info on where this issue stands on the Hill.

*Why ignore? Because the NCLB problem isn’t that states are privatizing schools, or being forced to, it’s that they’re doing next to nothing!

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