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Federal-Intrusion Talk on Common Standards: A Win-Win?

If you've been following the common-standards initiative, you know that the "don't tread on me" spirit has proved to be one of the flashpoints in that work. And even now, with three-quarters of the states having already adopted the standards, we're still hearing states rattle their sabers at the feds over the common standards (headline version: "States to Feds: Stay the Hell Away From My Standards").

The federal-intrusion sentiment pre-existed Race to the Top, of course. That resentment was one of the ingredients in the implosion of earlier attempts at national standards. Keen awareness of that history shaped the name and rhetoric around this effort (think state, not national, standards). But Race to the Top incentives for common-standards adoption activated those Jungian federal-intrusion archetypes, creating, as Yogi Berra once said, that sense of deja vu all over again.

That put the leaders of the common-standards work in the position of having to disentangle the initiative from the Education Department's support of it. And having to do it politely enough that they didn't tick off the wrong people.

Making the rounds at conferences and such, the organizers made no secret of their view that the feds' messaging was complicating their own. They uttered the phrase "state-led" so often that I began to see it bannered, as if dragged by a shoreline advertising plane, in my dreams. They squirmed under the public perception that states were adopting the standards in a Race to the Trough driven by tough economic times, rather than for their own inherent merit.

But with 36 states and D.C. having adopted the common standards, it would seem that the feds' discomfiting embrace has paid off richly for the initiative. There was no mistaking the RTT-induced adoption pattern: Every single state that either won a grant or was still vying for one adopted the standards. Quite neatly, that allowed the common-standards organizers to keep highlighting the state-led nature of the work and keep shooting down the national-standards bugaboo, while also benefiting from the accelerated adoption schedule fueled by Race to the Top.

Only the most cynical among us would argue that this was the idea from the git-go. Others might argue that such a claim would presume a whole lot more hyper-organization and premeditation around rhetoric than this initiative actually had capacity for. But it is interesting to simply note that it seems to have worked out nicely for the common-standards organizers. Whether implementation of the standards will be affected by the question of states' deepest motives in adopting them is anyone's guess.

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