By Casey Given
Critics of the Common Core State Standards had our fears confirmed on Monday when Education Week reported that the Department of Education will oversee the assessment test design for the new national standards. This is no April Fool’s joke: Washington will soon be directly regulating what America’s schoolchildren learn and on what they are tested. This massive expansion of federal power is concerning considering the federal government’s failed history of intervening in public education.
As I recently explained in AFP Foundation’s school choice policy report, the federal government has had its meddling hands in America’s public schools for decades. From the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to No Child Left Behind today, Congress has provided Title I federal funding to schools with low-income student bodies for the past half-century. But, this money is by no means free. As is often the case with federal funds, Title I comes with strings attached – which explains how Washington has been such a major player in American education despite the fact that public schools are function of the states.
Unsurprisingly, the feds’ central planning hasn’t worked. Laws like No Child Left Behind have backfired by setting unattainable benchmarks for student performance, such as 100% proficiency in all subjects by 2014, and threatening schools with government take-overs if they don’t achieve the impossible. Despite Washington’s best efforts and a threefold increase in school funding, test scores and graduation rates have stagnated since the early 1980s, as seen in the chart below.
After decades of failed federal intervention in America’s public schools, Common Core’s similar approach of centrally planning public schools has worried education reformers since the initiative was launched in 2009. For years, proponents of the standards have tried to soothe these fears by emphasizing that they are not administered by the federal government. Common Core’s official website, for example, downplays the protests by claiming “[t]he federal government had no role in the development of the Common Core State Standards and will not have a role in their implementation.”
Perhaps this claim could hold water four years ago, but today it’s evident that Common Core is nothing more than a federal ruse to exert even greater control over America’s classrooms. The truth started to unravel in September 2010, when the Department of Education required states to participate “in a consortium of States that… working towards jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards” in order to receive Race to the Top grants. Meanwhile, they rewarded $350 million of such grants to two such consortia of states developing assessment tests for Common Core, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Since there were two consortia of states, and they both adopted Common Core, the new Race to the Top requirement was a strong incentive for states to voluntarily accept the curriculum. When there’s multi-millions of dollars as a reward, who wouldn’t say yes?
Little did the states know that their acceptance opened the door for further federal intervention in their public schools. Unsurprisingly, the Department of Education attached strings to the $350 million given to the two consortia, giving itself the authority to oversee “item design and validation” of the assessment test. What exactly does this vague regulatory phase mean? Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute explains:
That means, most likely (in-depth information from the Department was off-line as of this writing) reviewing the specific questions that will go on the tests. And what is tested, of course, ultimately dictates what is taught, at least if the test results are to have any concrete impact, ranging from whether students advance to the next grade, to whether schools gain or lose funding. Since the ultimate point of uniform standards is to have essentially uniform accountability from state to state, they will have to have some concrete impact, rendering this a clear next step in a major Federal incursion into curricula.
Thus, it looks like Common Core is poised to repeat and amplify the federal government’s failed educational interventions by giving the central government even greater control of what American schoolchildren are learning. If the success of school choice has taught us anything, it’s that education is most effective when controlled by actors on the local level, like teachers with freedom in how to teacher their students at charter schools, or parents with options of where to send their child to school through opportunity scholarships. Choice from the bottom, not force from the top, leads to effective learning.
Fortunately, states like Indiana are waking up to the reality of Common Core’s educational coercion by proposing legislation to withdraw from the standards. Most of the states adopted Common Core within weeks of when the standards were released in June 2010 and before the federal government’s Race to the Top ruse began to be seen in September of that year. More states should reverse their hasty decision by delaying or repealing Common Core’s implementation for further consideration of what is best for their public schools. The future of America’s schoolchildren is too much to gamble on a federally-controlled curriculum that is clouded in mystery.