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Is Race to Top Fueling Skepticism of Common Standards?

I'm not telling you anything new when I mention that many people are less than thrilled when federal officials start exerting a broader influence on local schools. This skepticism has long roots, and has cropped up time and time again in education debates.

As I track the development of the common-standards initiative, it's certainly one of the themes I hear. I saw it again while reading my colleague Lesli Maxwell's new blog on state policy. And the message comes across loud and clear in this story, too.

What does this mean for the common-standards initiative? Skepticism toward a large federal government role in shaping education was one of the factors that helped doom recent previous efforts to create national standards. That's why the organizers of the current initiative bent over backwards to let people know that this effort is completely voluntary and "state-led." They avoided the loaded term "national standards" in favor of "common standards."

So what accounts for the persistence of the notion that common standards are being imposed on states by the feds? One hint came from a remark a state school board member made to me during a break in the NASBE meeting in Las Vegas last week. "Race to the Top has co-opted common standards," she said. She was referring to the ardent support federal officials have expressed for common standards and assessments, and the fact that they dangled Race to the Top money in front of states that would commit to them, too. In a similar vein, I heard folks at this meeting grumble that support of common standards doesn't feel wholly voluntary when your state needs money so badly that it pretty much has to apply for Race to the Top funds and has to commit to them in order to improve its chances of winning a slice.

I keep hearing people joke about the "race to the trough," the idea that states agreed to all kinds of things in order to get a chunk of the federal stimulus money. However cynical or sincere the states were in their applications, has this race confused or "co-opted" key messages of the common-standards initiative?

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