July 29, 2010

Re: Federal Money, Federal Guidelines; and Local Control?

Justin Katz

It may be that I'm just more cynical than Marc, but with respect to Race to the Top, I can't help but muse that government reforms always sound good — otherwise, politicians wouldn't try to sell them. Suppose that the goal of education policy, at the national level, is to increase the federal government's role in that critical area of social development, while offering short-term political advantage to those who implement it.

The trick on the latter count would be to persuade those who want substantive reform that the new policy is not just talk — therefore, support for charters and standards for presumed accountability of educators — while comforting those invested in the broken system that they won't be harmed — therefore, the requirement that states' Race to the Top applications garner teacher union support. The trick on the former count would be to build the program in a way that allows the tendencies of growing government to finish the job quietly — as if natural and inevitable. Two points that Marc makes bring that trick into focus:

If something fails, stop doing it. If it looks promising but may need some modifications, tweak it.

The problem is that government (especially large, centralized government) is less inclined toward such modifications than the average group or individual. Somebody with political power is already invested in the something that is failing, and with the long process of accountability in a national bureaucracy, it takes quite a bit for general dissatisfaction with government services to overcome such investments and stop the failure.

However, a Common Core is just that--a "core" of educational standards, not the end-all, be-all. It is the baseline standard that should be met. It's not the ceiling, it's the floor. ...

Federal help only undermines local control if reformers view federal standards as the ultimate goal and not the jumping off point.

In a gradual federal takeover of education, the floor is enough (and too much), to start. It will henceforth be available to the political process to layer in all those "critical" baselines that statists and social engineers find much more interesting than basic math and English. First science enters the field — not just the basic facts of what we know about the interaction of particles and waves and such, but bleeding into the inevitable metaphysical questions. No doubt health and all of the behavioral implications thereof — sexual, dietary, and so on — will come up for application to the core. Perhaps civics and history will be next, with even more opportunity for government spin.

Every government program proposed will have attractive points, because human beings do have the capacity to work together intelligently toward common goals. Individual incentive for corruption is the limiting factor, though, and eroding the government structure that seeks to empower society to work cohesively while protecting it from invidious encroachment by those with tax and police authority will never end where our hopes declare that it might.