by Jim Tynen
WAKE FOREST — Our recent Common Core Forum highlighted the national standards’ basic flaw: They undermine the federalism that is one of our nation’s greatest strengths.
The new Common Core Standards set nationwide guidelines for secondary education. Though supposedly run by states, our forum revealed that the standards are really run by federal bureaucrats and their allies in two private organizations.
Drawing on his business experience, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint said that static standards freeze processes in place. For example, decades ago U.S. automakers tried to hew to rigid standards. They reached a certain level, then got stuck there.
Meanwhile, Japanese carmakers adopted the teachings of an American expert, and began to continuously improve quality. They soon dominated the market, while American companies struggled.
This shows that setting rigid standards tends to lower the ceiling of accomplishment, rather than raising it. The better course is to craft a culture of quality and continuous improvement.
“That is what has happened in education,” DeMint said. American schools have stagnated, and so have students’ test scores. Common Core threatens to do to schools what rigid standards did to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
To understand why Common Core is a blueprint for stagnation, we have to remember that real success does not come from the top, but from the ground up. “Command and control doesn’t work,” the former U.S. Senator said. “There’s no hope of producing quality at a reasonable cost in a centralized system.”
This is shown by the failures of programs directed by Washington, he added. “There’s no federal program that is producing quality.” That includes Common Core.
Don’t believe the notion that Washington will let states and school districts run Common Core, he added. Accepting federal money means that bureaucrats in Washington will run North Carolina schools. The federal government used stimulus funding to entice states into accepting Common Core before the standards were even known.
As so often, federal funds are “fool’s gold,” he said. Accept the money from D.C. bureaucrats and “they’re gonna squeeze ya, squeeze ya, squeeze ya.”
That’s why it’s important for states to keep control of education, Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution said. One secret of American exceptionalism is that individual states can experiment with different approaches, and compete for businesses and residents. This competitive federalism is the real driver of improvements in many areas.
But with Common Core, “You’re losing the ability of competitive federalism,” he said. Improved education depends on innovation and school choice, and “you will lose them if you have a monopoly in education” — and Common Core is that monopoly.
Indeed, Common Core not only undermines the creative power of federalism, it defies federal law. The major federal education laws since the Great Society explicitly forbid the federal government from intruding into curriculum choices, he said.
But Common Core will meddle in curriculum, because it not only sets the standards, but prescribes the tests students will take. The curriculum in schools across North Carolina is already being shaped by these facts.
There’s much more wrong with Common Core, including serious flaws in the standards themselves. But tweaking them won’t be enough, if only because establishing such nationwide regulations for education will hamper the creative federalism that can be an engine of improvement in education.
—Jim Tynen is communications director of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.