More Bad News from Government-Run Education: The Corrosive Centralization of Common Core

Daniel J. Mitchell
Posted: Jan 18, 2014 12:01 AM
More Bad News from Government-Run Education: The Corrosive Centralization of Common Core

I’ve posted hundreds of charts over the past several years, including on favorite topics such as tax code corruption and counterproductive government spending.

But arguably the most powerful and compelling chart I’ve ever shared is on the topic of education. Prepared by my Cato colleague, Andrew Coulson, it shows that massive increases in spending and bureaucracy (which accompanied increasing federal involvement and intervention) have had zero impact on educational performance.

Keep that chart in the back of your mind as we consider what George Will has to say about President Obama’s scheme – known as Common Core – to expand federal involvement and intervention.

We have several excerpts, beginning with this passage outlining some of his concerns.

Common Core…is the thin end of an enormous wedge. It is designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity. …proponents of the Common Core want its nature and purpose to remain as cloudy as possible for as long as possible. Hence they say it is a “state-led,” “voluntary” initiative to merely guide education with “standards” that are neither written nor approved nor mandated by Washington… Proponents talk warily when describing it because a candid characterization would reveal yet another Obama administration indifference to legality.

Will then notes that we’ve been sliding down the slippery slope of centralization and Washington control.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the original federal intrusion into this state and local responsibility, said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” schools’ curriculums. The 1970 General Education Provisions Act stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any” federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials by any” school system. The 1979 law creating the Education Department forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school system.

And Common Core is just the latest example.

…what begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT and ACT tests with the Common Core. By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re aware of other slippery slope examples, such as the tiny income tax in 1913 that has morphed into the internal revenue code monstrosity of today.

Returning to the topic of education, Will warns that the one-size-fits-all approach will undermine the innovation and experimentation needed to figure out how best teach kids.

Even satisfactory national standards must extinguish federalism’s creativity: At any time, it is more likely there will be half a dozen innovative governors than one creative federal education bureaucracy. And the mistakes made by top-down federal reforms are continental mistakes.

I particularly like his warning about “continental” mistakes. You get the same problem with global regulation, by the way.

The bottom line, as Will explains, is that Common Core is yet another example of a failed approach.

What is ludicrous is Common Core proponents disdaining concerns related to this fact: Fifty years of increasing Washington input into K-12 education has coincided with disappointing cognitive outputs from schools. Is it eccentric that it is imprudent to apply to K-12 education the federal touch that has given us …Opposition to the Common Core is surging because Washington, hoping to mollify opponents, is saying, in effect: “If you like your local control of education, you can keep it. Period.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that Cato Institute experts are among the leading opponents of Common Core. Here’s what Andrew Coulson, in a column warning about the negative impact on private schools, has written.

…the Common Core–aligned tests create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time. This would make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to meet the needs of individual children — they will instead have to resort to expecting that all children who happened to be born in the same year progress at the same rate across subjects.

And another Cato scholar, Neil McCluskey, points out that other education experts also think Common Core is a dud.

The Common Core is opposed by scholars at leading think tanks on the right and the left, including the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute. My research has shown that there is essentially no meaningful evidence that national standards lead to superior educational outcomes. Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek, an education economist and supporter of standards-based education reform, has reached a similar conclusion, recently writing: “We currently have very different standards across states, and experience from the states provides little support for the argument that simply declaring more clearly what we want children to learn will have much impact.” Hanushek’s conclusion dovetails nicely with Common Core opposition from Tom Loveless, a scholar at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. In 2012, Loveless demonstrated that moving to national standards would have little, if any, positive effect because the performance of states has very little connection to the rigor or quality of their standards, and there is much greater achievement variation within states than among them. In fact, Loveless has been one of the clearest voices saying the Core is not a panacea for America’s education woes, writing: “Don’t let the ferocity of the oncoming debate fool you. The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.”

We started this post with a very powerful chart, so let’s end with another chart.

It’s not as visually compelling, but it shows that the United States already spends more on education than another other nation.

But if you look at the data is this post, you’ll see that American students are lagging behind their counterparts in other developed nations.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to put kids first. Perhaps we should discard the Bush-Obama approach of centralization and spending and instead choose a better path.

In other words, let’s learn from Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.