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The Price of Uniformity

There was a timely conversation yesterday in New York Times's "Room for Debate" about whether it makes sense for standards and funding to vary by state. (You can find it here.)

The NYT's query was: "The Common Core State Standards, adopted by the overwhelming majority of states and supported by the Obama administration, have worried liberals who question their quality and conservatives who fear they erode states' traditional responsibility for education. At the same time, the budget pressure of the impending 'fiscal cliff' could reduce federal support for education, which would add to the state and local responsibility. As these trends collide, Americans can take a step back and ask: Should education standards and funding vary by state?"

The debate included ten brief responses, some more thoughtful than others, from NYU prof Pedro Noguera, Kentucky state chief Terry Holliday, Jeb Bush, a Philadelphia principal, yours truly, and so forth. The contributors raise some interesting points, and the discussion is worth checking out. For those interested, here's what I had to say:

There are two competing impulses in education. One presumes that there is an optimal model of schooling that Uncle Sam should enforce, good and hard. The other insists that there is no one "right" model of schooling just as there's no "right" kind of kid, and that schools and school systems should be designed to serve their students and communities. I'm partial to this second view, myself.


What's that have to do with the question at hand? Well, it's true that school funding and standards don't dictate how schools go about the stuff of teaching and learning. And there's no obvious complaint against schools having equal resources or striving toward a common, rigorous bar when it comes to reading and math.

But things quickly get more complicated for those of us skeptical of the virtues of one-size-fits-all school reform. First, remember the golden rule--"he who has the gold makes the rules"--and that only the federal government can ensure funding equality across states. Of course, long experience teaches that federally funded activities are subjected to increasingly prescriptive federal direction.

Second, common standards are nice in theory, but they only matter when married to common tests. By design, such exams will require that every school, everywhere, cover the prescribed content in the prescribed sequence at the prescribed grade level -- or risk winding up in the crosshairs when students test poorly. This will pose challenges, for instance, even for accomplished pilot, innovative or charter schools, if they happen to favor alternative approaches to the scope, sequence, shape and pacing of curricula.

Bottom line: I'm not at all sure that standards and funding should differ by state, but we'd do well to acknowledge that there may be unanticipated, adverse consequences when we seek to prohibit such variation. Given that education "reformers" have shown themselves all too prone to self-righteous groupthink, minding the price of uniformity could help spare us another bout of, "Whoops, that's not what we meant to do!"

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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