Answer sheet with pencil

Why National Standards Won’t Fix American Education: Misalignment of Power and Incentives

NATIONAL EDUCATION STANDARDS and assessments are being pursued by national organizations with the support of the Obama administration. Proponents of the Common Core national standards push argue that establishing “fewer, higher, and clearer” benchmarks and aligned assessments will empower parents with information about what their children should know and which skills they should possess and that they will hold schools accountable for producing those results. National standards and testing, they say, will ensure that all children are ready for college or the workforce and will advance the educational standing of the United States.

On the one hand, such a critique of the status quo is well founded. Parental empowerment is essential and currently lacking. The monopoly that is the public education system must be more accountable to parents and taxpayers. Too many students leave high school without basic knowledge or skills. American education should be more competitive, particularly given the amount of money that taxpayers invest.

On the other hand, national standards and testing are unlikely to overcome these deficiencies. These problems are too deeply ingrained in the power and incentive structure of the public education system. A national standards debate threatens to distract from these fundamental issues. Centralized standard-setting would force parents and other taxpayers to relinquish one of their most powerful tools for school improvement: control of the academic content, standards, and testing through their state and local policymakers. Moreover, it is unclear that national standards would establish a target of excellence rather than standardization, a uniform tendency toward mediocrity and information that is more useful to bureaucrats who distribute funding than it is to parents who are seeking to direct their children’s education.

Common national standards and testing will not deliver on proponents’ promises. Rather than addressing the misalignment of power and incentives from which many public education problems arise, national standards and testing would further complicate these same problems. An effort by the Clinton administration to produce national standards and tests during the 1990s was roundly rejected because of strong opposition among Members of Congress, state leaders, and others. This renewed push for common national standards and assessments should be similarly resisted.

Instead, federal policy can improve the alignment of power and incentives in public education by enhancing transparency of existing accountability tools and providing flexibility in program funding for states to do the same. State policy should advance systemic reforms that better align power and incentives with educational outcomes, including enhanced accountability and parental empowerment through educational choice. By pursuing this combination of reforms, Americans can better address the core issues that continue to inhibit meaningful education reform.

Misconceptions About the Promise of National Standards and Testing

Advocates paint the national standards and testing movement as the key missing ingredient in K–12 education reform while dismissing concerns that such standards would lead to further misalignment of power and incentives in American education. The following are a few of the most frequently cited arguments in favor of national standards and tests:

Misconception #1: National standards and tests will make U.S. students more competitive with their global counterparts. Proponents point to international evaluation measures such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, in which American students rank in the middle of the performance distribution. Proponents note that countries that outperform the United States have national standards and that the United States needs national standards to move up in the ranking.

But the relationship between existence of standards and strong educational outcomes is not clear. While the countries that outperform the United States on international tests have national standards, so do most of those countries that score lower than the United States. Canada handily outscores the United States on international exams but has no national standards. Even the relationship between the quality of state standards in the United States and academic performance is weak and inconsistent across subject areas.

More careful attention is needed to understand the role that national standards play in other countries before asserting that national standards would add the same value in the United States. Alternatively, state standards and tests might be a closer analogy to standards and assessment systems in countries with populations the size of American states. There are limits to international comparisons in education given the size, diversity, and federal system of the United States.

Misconception #2: National standards are necessary so that parents can understand how their children’s academic achievement compares to that of other students across the country. The Common Core State Standards Initiative claims that “the common core state standards will enable participating states to work together to make expectations clear to parents, teachers, and the general public.” The case for national standards and testing, however, has neither addressed the question of why current tools are inadequate to inform parents about their children’s educational progress nor specified with much precision why Americans should expect the proposed system to improve the situation. Moreover, rather than making public schools more accountable to families, the new regime is likely to make them more responsive to a centralized scorekeeper. In this way, national standards and testing fail to address the critical problems of power and incentive structures in public education today.

Rather than making public schools more accountable to families, the new regime is likely to make them more responsive to a centralized scorekeeper.

What kind of information do parents need about their children’s educational performance? First, they need to know whether their children are mastering the curriculum content. State criterion-referenced tests, which measure a student’s mastery of the content outlined by state standards, currently supply this kind of information. Parents also need to know that when the state test determines that, for example, a child has mastered third-grade content, the child is keeping pace with third-grade students across the country. In other words, parents need to know how rigorous their state standards and tests are. To provide this information, some states also offer norm-referenced tests, which measure student achievement compared to other students nationally.

Another tool that can provide comparative information is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is administered to a sample of students in each state. In this way NAEP provides an external “audit” and common gauge on the quality of state standards and tests.

The meaningful information that parents and other taxpayers need is already available. The tools already exist to supply straightforward information on student, teacher, and school performance—sometimes referred to as report cards on the school system. All states are currently required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to create such report cards. Some states, such as Florida and Massachusetts, supply more detailed reporting and straightforward information than others. What has been missing in some other cases is transparency about that information. If access to information has been inadequate, that does not justify a national standards and testing regime. Rather, policies should insist on clear reporting of the essential data to parents and other taxpayers.

Public policy should also empower parents to act on that information. Parents need not only information about their children’s educational standing but also the power to do something about it. In many states, parents lack any recourse to remove their children from underperforming schools.

If the relevant information to empower parents currently exists, does the United States need a new national standards and testing regime? According to advocates of new national standards and testing, existing tests are inadequate. NAEP holds no sway over teachers and students because results are not reported by schools or students. The curriculum-based exams developed at great expense by states in recent years are unacceptable, they say, because differences among the tests make national comparisons difficult.

These arguments show the considerable difference that a new national standards and testing system would make: It would empower the federal government. National comparisons are valuable for those who make national decisions; a national exam that has influence over curricula is a useful tool for national policymakers. National standards and assessments would provide an infrastructure and yield information that lines up neatly for federal interventions.

Misconception #3: National standards are necessary because state standards vary in quality. Some states, such as Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and Virginia, have highly regarded standards. A number of other states have uneven quality of standards across subjects, and some are not up to par generally. Teachers union pressure, pervasive political correctness, and pedagogical and content disputes hamper the quality of state standards.

The variation in state standards is one of the most frequently cited reasons for adopting national standards and tests. But the same pressures that detract from the quality of many state standards are likely to plague national standards as well. As a result, the rigor and content of national standards will tend to align with the mean among states, undercutting states with higher quality standards.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refers to the varying quality of state standards as “50 different goal posts.” That is a catchy phrase, but it begs the question of whether the national standards movement is more concerned with uniformity than it is with excellence. Uniform minimum-competency standards on a national level would provide a one-size-fits-all approach that would likely lead to decreased emphasis on advanced work and a generally dumbed-down curriculum.

Centralized standards and testing would eliminate the possibility of competitive pressure for increasing standards of excellence.

The Failure to Address Fundamental Problems in American Education

Contrary to the claims of proponents, the stubborn persistence of more fundamental problems in American education makes it unlikely that national standards and tests would substantially improve educational outcomes. Ultimately, reform strategies must address the fundamental power and incentive structures in public education and configure them in a way that is most likely to increase the quality of educational outcomes.

Currently, two major factors exert the most influence generally on public education and introduce motivations that can compete with the objective of improving student educational outcomes: teachers union power and funding incentives.

Teacher unions exert influence because of their mandatory dues-paying membership and contract-negotiating power. Their interests (including job security, salaries, and benefits) should be understood as distinct from student educational outcome objectives.

Funding incentives are a powerful motivator that is also distinct from the student learning objective. In particular, federal funding has had influence far beyond its 10 percent share of local school funding since the advent of systemic education reform in the 1990s.

Between 1965 and the early 1990s, the federal education role consisted in categorical education programs, designed to address a specific issue (high-poverty schools, for instance) or population (such as non-English speakers). Beginning with Goals 2000 during the Clinton administration, federal policy began to pursue a standards-based systemic reform agenda, expanding to stipulate criteria that have school- and system-wide influence, not just discrete programmatic application as is generally the case with categorical programs.

No Child Left Behind is a good example of the systemic influence of the federal funding incentive. In exchange for federal funding, NCLB required states to test at specific intervals (using state exams), with the requirement that all students be proficient in math, English, and science by 2014. States, districts, and schools must demonstrate adequate yearly progress toward that goal in order to continue to receive federal funding.

At face value, this appears to be a push for higher standards. In reality, some states have dumbed down their definition of proficiency on state tests in the interest of receiving federal funds. Federal funding is an incentive that can trump interest in actual progress on student outcomes. The two goals can and do diverge when power and incentives are misaligned.

Meanwhile, parents and students have a much weaker voice in the current power and incentive structure: They have neither the power to withhold funding nor collective bargaining authority. On the other hand, they have the most at stake in children’s ultimate educational success and, therefore, the greatest vested interest in quality outcomes for students. Positive student outcomes are more likely to result from the alignment of incentives of those with the most at stake in students’ educational outcomes.

National standards would force parents and taxpayers to surrender one of their most powerful tools for improving their schools: control of academic content, standards, and testing.

National standards and tests do not fundamentally alter this misalignment between basic power and incentives in public education today. They will not produce the promised outcomes. More disturbingly, the initiative to create and implement national standards and tests is likely to detract further from the real reforms that would align the incentives and power in public education so that they lead to better outcomes.

But national standards and testing would not just fail to empower parents. National standards would force parents and taxpayers to surrender one of their most powerful tools for improving their schools: control of academic content, standards, and testing. Moreover, a national criterion-referenced test will inevitably lead to a national curriculum—a further misalignment of means and ends in education intended to equip self-governing citizens for liberty, and not a prospect most Americans would embrace.

When President Jimmy Carter was intrigued by a national test proposed by Senator Claiborne Pell (D–R.I.) in 1977, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano warned that “[a]ny set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum…. In its most extreme form, national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”

What State Policymakers Should Do

Strengthen state-based accountability systems. Instead of signing on to common standards that will drive state curricula, state education leaders should strengthen state standards and tests. States should follow the example of models like Massachusetts (prior to its adoption of Common Core) or Virginia in creating solid standards and aligned assessments. State standards can also be strengthened by continually raising the bar on achievement. As students reach content proficiency, the proficiency bar should be raised to further challenge students to meet the demands of college coursework and competitive careers.

States with outstanding standards and tests have taken great pains to ensure proper and precise learning sequencing.

The Bay State requires teachers to be proficient in all aspects of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and in all subject matter content, and it aligns teacher testing to state standards. Mastery of general content knowledge and subject matter knowledge required by teachers helps to ensure that standards are aligned both horizontally, so that students learn content aligned by grade level, and vertically, to eliminate redundant content and verify subject mastery. An initial criticism of the Common Core standards was that there were “grade-sequencing problems in some places … such as requiring a math skill in one grade level without prerequisite skills in the previous grade level.”

Provide school-performance information to parents and taxpayers. States should publish the standards along with cut scores (passing-grade thresholds for a particular test) and clear definitions of what it means for a student to be deemed proficient. States could publish this information in a Consumer Reports–type guide that is accessible to parents and taxpayers. At the university level, parents and students already have access to this type of information through independent reviewers such as the Princeton Review, the College Board, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

It is critical to define proficiency in a subject; assessing student performance without such a definition is like reading a map without a scale. In order to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of a state’s cut scores, the scores should be published for tested subjects with an explanation of how those scores were determined.

Transparency is the first step. Empowering parents to hold schools accountable through school choice is the important next step.

Empower parents to act on school-performance information. Ultimately, providing parents with clear information about school performance is useful only when parents can act on that information. Transparency is the first step. Empowering parents to hold schools accountable through school choice is the important next step to improve educational outcomes. Parents in Florida, for example, have access to high-quality information about their children’s school performance and, as a result, are able to make informed decisions about school enrollment.

Schools and districts in the Sunshine State are graded on a commonsense, straightforward A-to-F grading scale; parents understand that it is better to have a child in a school that has received an A than it is to have that child in a school that has received an F. Additionally, parents in Florida have access to education tax credits, private school choice for special-needs students, virtual education, charter schools, and public school choice. Transparency about school performance enables parents to be well informed; these many choices hold schools accountable to parents.

What Federal Policymakers Should Do

Federal policymakers should pursue policies that will increase transparency in state accountability systems and improve accountability to parents. To those ends, policymakers should provide states with increased flexibility and freedom from federal red tape so that their focus is aligned not with the federal funding incentive or the demands of teachers unions, but with direct accountability to parents and students.

Mrs. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Ms. Marshall is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article is an update of their paper “Why National Standards Won’t Fix American Education: Misalignment of Power and Incentives,” originally published by The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2010.