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Do We Need a Set of National Proficiency Standards in Education?
Last week Checker Finn and I debated the merits of national standards in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Checker argued for requiring that all students meet the same, national standards, while I argued against. I oppose national standards because I don’t think all students should learn the same things in the same way, because I don’t trust a national authority to correctly identify what students should learn, and because I am convinced that progress in education, like in our economy, comes from choice and competition rather than from central planning. But many good and smart people are nevertheless attracted to national standards. Why? I think the problem is a mixture of hubris, impatience, and naiveté. The hubris comes from people who have worked hard on education issues developing excessive confidence that they know the right way for everyone else to be educated. They’ve seen what works, so they just want to get everyone else to do it. The difficulty with this approach becomes more obvious when we think of education as an extension of parenting – it is part of the set of efforts we make to prepare children to be productive and responsible adults. As anyone who has raised children will acknowledge, there is no single, best way to parent. Different kids, even within the same family, need different approaches. Similarly, children need different approaches in education. Just as we let parents choose how best to raise their children, we should defer to their judgment in how those children should be educated. Just because we’ve seen what works for some, doesn’t mean we should substitute our judgment for those who are closer to and have a greater interest in each child. If standards mean anything, they drive the content of testing which in turn drives the methods of instruction. So, to impose a single set of national standards on the entire country is essentially imposing a single way to educate all children. President George W. Bush warned us against this approach, telling the Republican National Convention in 2000: “One size does not fit all when it comes to educating our children, so local people should control local schools.” And as he said during the presidential debates: “I don’t believe in national testing. I believe that local folks ought to develop their own tests and their own standards because I strongly believe in local control of schools.” He was right and national standards are wrong. But good and smart people sometimes still press for a nationalized system of education because they’ve grown impatient. Education reform has made painfully slow progress. Some just want to make a Great Leap Forward and solve our education problems in one fell swoop. The American political system is not designed for radical social and political transformations – and for good reason. When we make radical leaps we sometimes jump off a cliff without realizing it. The American system is designed for gradualism, with local experimentation and learning. It frustratingly doesn’t allow us to instantly solve our problems but it prevents us from making horrible mistakes. Despite the dangers of hubris and impatience, some good and smart people still press for national standards. They think they know enough about how other people’s children should be educated and they can’t wait for gradual progress while students’ lives are being destroyed. They are convinced that building a nationalized system of education will allow good and smart people like themselves to make better decisions more quickly. Here they are suffering from political naiveté. Once it is built, a nationalized system of education will inevitably come under the control of the most powerful and most organized groups with a desire to protect entrenched interests. Even if a nationalized system of education is built by good and smart people, over time it is the unions and their allies that will dominate it. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Reformers would do well to remember that they are politically weaker than teacher unions and other entrenched interests. Minority religions shouldn't favor building national churches because inevitably it won't be their gospel being preached.” As tempting as it is for people of good will who see the problems of our education system and think they know better ways of doing things, it is important to resist the impulse to impose a national solution. You may not know the better way for everyone; you need to work with parents and localities to gradually experiment with reforms; and you shouldn’t imagine that you will be the one in charge of the national solution. Avoid the dangers of hubris, impatience, and naiveté while pressing forward with the gradual experimentation of choice and competition. This post was written by Jay P. Greene, an Education Reform Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Find him on Twitter: @jaypgreene.