Is Federalism In Education “Misguided”?

Henry A.J. Ramos and Eric C. Abrams wrote an op/ed for EdSource entitled, “Public education must promote participation in democratic process.” Ramos is the author of the forthcoming book Democracy & The Next American Economy: Where Prosperity Meets Justice. Abrams is the chief inclusion officer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. 

They write something that is truly mind boggling. Do they really think federalism applied to K-12 education is “misguided”?

Recent adoption of the Common Core by most states has achieved mixed results through a higher degree of standardization in teaching and testing content. In most places, this has led to incremental improvements but few major breakthroughs, especially in lower and middle income communities. This, in turn, has led to growing calls for less regulated and more varied approaches.

The notion, however, that further privatizing and decentralizing school policy and practice is a better long-range plan for American culture is deeply misguided. The idea of each state having its own educational approach and standards seems appealing on its face: “Let a thousand flowers bloom” say those who oppose stronger national standards for public schools.

But in today’s context of globalization and rapid technological transformation—forces that should be compelling us to harmonize as a nation—the absence of a more unified, strategic and egalitarian education approach actually works in the opposite direction. Indeed, it is working against us.

Where are these modest gains? What I’ve seen under Common Core is a growing achievement gap though. Scores have been stagnant. What data are they looking at? 

In fact, what evidence do they cite? Nothing. Where has centralization gotten us? Nowhere. The beautiful thing about federalism, especially as it applies to K-12 education, is that we have the ability to see what works and what fails without subjecting the entire nation to some grand experiment. 

This way state policymakers and local school boards have the ability to emulate success by applying what works if they want. 

Those who pushed Common Core ignored that benefit of having 50 systems of K-12 education rather than one national system. They could have modeled Common Core on the most successful states, but they didn’t.

Now we have spent countless hours and dollars on an education reform that has produced nothing.

Also, top-down policymaking and centralized education do the exact opposite of what the title of their article suggests. If you want participation in public education then policymaking needs to be done at the most local level, otherwise, citizens and parents will be ignored. 

Not to mention decentralization is what the founders intended and is the Constitutional model. The centralization of K-12 education has occurred over decades, and we have nothing to show for it. It’s time to embrace federalism and localization of education.

There Are No Silver Bullets

Dr. Gary Houchens, a member of Kentucky’s State Board of Education and Associate Professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, & Research at Western Kentucky University, wrote a two-part series about what education accountability can and can’t accomplish.

In part 2 he makes a point that I’ve been making for quite some time. When it comes to improving education whether we are talking student achievement outcomes or school improvement there are not silver bullets.

He writes:

Some educators believe very strongly that the achievement gap is a function of poor school funding overall and inequities of funding across districts. I’m skeptical, because per pupil education spending has skyrocketed over the last four decades (only recently leveling off and declining since the 2008 recession), while achievement has remained stubbornly stagnant and achievement gaps have actually worsened a bit.

I must concede that, during that same time period, the entire mission of education changed. In the 1970’s we did not expect schools to educate every child to proficiency, and the economy continued to have a place for low-skilled workers. Now we face the unprecedented challenge of educating every child to high levels, and the economy has no place for the ones we fail. We might very well need more resources to meet our new mission, but I don’t believe for a second that if the state legislature handed educators billions more dollars that we’d know precisely how to use those funds to rapidly accelerate student learning.

Which is not to say we have no ideas; we just lack a consensus on which of those ideas are most appropriate for closing the achievement gap, and no single strategy has promise for rapidly boosting and sustaining high levels of student achievement by itself. I have to admit this applies to some of my own favorite strategies for education improvement, including school choice, redesigning curriculum, and creating mastery-based learning systems that are more responsive to individual student needs.

Because there are no silver bullet strategies, we should not invest in top-down, one-size-fits-all types of education reform. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called states “laboratories of democracy,” I think we can apply that to local school districts as well. Innovation occurs as districts and states discover what works best for their students.

That can only happen if the federal government and even state departments of education get out of the way.

HSLDA’s Michael Farris Has a Conversation with David Coleman

David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards and now President of the College Board has been reaching out to conservatives and Christians to encourage them to support the Common Core.  He recently contacted Michael Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association.  Farris, in a email to his members (which my wife and I received yesterday as we’ve been members of HSLDA for years), discussed a recent phone conversation with Coleman.

Dear HSLDA members and friend,

David Coleman, president of the College Board, is the acknowledged principal leader of the effort to create and implement the Common Core. And he wanted to talk with me about Home School Legal Defense Association’s position. I was very willing. We spent about an hour together on the phone. The conversation was very cordial. Both of us showed that we truly listened to and heard the other person’s position. And both of us stood strongly on our principles and core positions. I was really glad that we talked. His initial presentation walked me through several features of the Common Core. From a pedagogical perspective, there are clearly some good ideas contained in it. When it came time for me to respond, I began with a story. I once testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Senator Joseph Biden was chairing a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee. Before began, Biden asked me, “I have a question for you. Is it your idea to force everyone to homeschool?” I told Senator Biden that such an idea would be anathema to HSLDA and to me. We simply want to protect the right to choose homeschooling for those who wish to pursue it.

I told Mr. Coleman that the point of the story was this: Just because you have a good idea (homeschooling in my case, Common Core in his case), it doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to force everyone in the country to follow your idea. And that is my central problem with the Common Core and all forms of centralized educational planning.

To his credit, Mr. Coleman noted that he was not acting in a vacuum. There are centralized mandates for education in play virtually everywhere. And many of them have very marginal educational utility. I agreed with his assessment of many current centralized standards.  However, my response was that the solution is not a national set of standards, but allowing each state to develop its own standards.

Competing standards from all 50 states would be likely to create more innovations–although my clear preference is to do away with all forms of centralized government standards. (I believe that public schools should form their own local standards.) When he asked me why I thought that the Common Core was worse than other standards, I indicated that one of my chief concerns was the creation of the database that would track students throughout their educational career.

His answer surprised me. He didn’t like the database all that well. It was not originally part of the Common Core, but other people have seized the opportunity to make a centralized data collection effort through the implementation of the Common Core. We talked about many other details, but these were some of the most important.

I walked away wishing that more political conversations could be like this one. Polite. Professional. Helpful. He acknowledged some good ideas that I shared, and I did the same.  I strongly oppose the Common Core for reasons I shared with him in detail. But I want to do my best to avoid demonizing those who promote it. He is motivated by what he truly thinks is best for education and for kids. I think his plans are unwise, especially when coupled with government coercion. But I will not question either his motives or his character.

We came away believing that each of us is acting in good faith. I think we make better policy decisions when we avoid the invective and simply look to the substance. That much, David Coleman and I have in common.

For Liberty,
Mike Farris

HSLDA has a website focused on the Common Core that should (in addition to this website of course) be a good resource for home educators.

Stopping Common Core is Only the Beginning

As parents have encountered Common Core in their children’s classrooms, then sought information about what it means, we’ve seen a nationwide brushfire of alarm. Parents must know Common Core did not randomly appear. I’m not talking about how it was created and advocated by the Gates Foundation, National Governors Association, and Council of Chief State School Officers, but the entire education edifice they represent that ensures ending Common Core will not prevent Common Core 2.0, just like stopping national education standards in Congress did not preclude Common Core.

Common Core is an outgrowth of the big business-big government consensus that dominates education and, because the mainstream education system reaches virtually every future voting citizen, is increasingly dominating every area of our lives. Name one sector of life or the economy where people are truly free in this country, or truly have the ability to influence decisions others make in our names. I dare you. In my state, a supposedly conservative one, we can’t even drink milk from a neighbor’s cow, which I did my entire childhood with only rosy cheeks to show for it. We can’t choose health insurance providers, can’t defend our property from robbers, can’t opt our children out of the Common Core complex even by homeschooling. Even in public education, we can’t choose our schools, can’t decide what we’ll pay for them, and can’t get supposedly representative school boards to give us the time of day.

Because I am a mother who lives in a hectic home with two toddlers and a tiny one on the way, I entirely understand why parents only tune in to things like this when they enter our backyards. My point is that, as tired as you are, as distracted, and as consumed with your mortgage and braces and packed lunches, this battle did not start upon reaching your door and it will not stop after it seems to have left. Pushing this away from merely your own gates only means it will reach them again, or will reach your children’s with much greater force.

The Gates Foundation has not run out of money, and neither have the others. No bureaucrats or well-credentialed but poorly experienced think tank figureheads will stop pushing nationalized education if parents, at great time and personal expense, manage to rout their glorious Common Core. They will simply prepare sharper initiatives and tighter sanctions for the next round, still using your forcibly extracted money. The Obama administration and our state departments of education already have spent and are spending billions in our tax dollars, or debt for future generations, on this entirely experimental bureaucrat acid trip.

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We and our ancestors have not been vigilant. No wonder we are not free.

Unlike progressives, I believe history has much instruction for us today. It demonstrates without a doubt that central planning causes frustration and misery. And it shows that a small band of brothers and sisters can, by courageously speaking truth to power, end that misery for their children and less attentive neighbors. But whether Common Core fades quickly or slowly, we must always understand it is only one head of the hydra, and we want all of them, stuffed, on our walls. The alternative is leaving an angrier, smarter monster for our kids.

I spoke in a similar vein about this recently at the Heritage Foundation with Lindsey Burke.

Kids Who Move Across State Lines

One of the arguments behind having centralized national standards, such as the Common Core State Standards or Next Generation Science Standards, is the argument that kids who move from say Washington State should have the same standards if they move to Iowa.  Since our culture has become more mobile it seems like a compelling argument.  Just how many kids are we talking about here?

According to the 2011 American Community Survey which has the latest numbers we could find – 1.7% of 5 to 17 year-olds moved from state to state.


The simple fact is more people move within the same county or same state than move across state lines.  Do we really want to determine educational policy for 46 states due to 1.7% of 5-17 year-olds who experience a move?  This also assumes that every school and kid is the same and that you can place a kid in a completely different environment and they will do exactly the same academically.  Also, as Common Core advocates will say, each school’s curriculum is different.  Don’t you think having a different teacher, different curriculum, being in a new class who may have a different pace of learning and a completely new environment impact that students learning more than having different state standards?

Obama Has Politically Scrambled the Decks on Education

Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute wrote an op/ed last week for the Boston Globe entitled “Schools and conventional wisdom.”  He said something that articulates what I’ve been noticing with the education scene with the two major political parties.

If the Republican convention showed us anything about Republicans’ views about education, it demonstrated just how successful the Obama administration has been in politically scrambling the decks. No longer is it clear which party is for standards, testing and charter schools (used to be Republicans), and which is for centralized policymaking in DC (used to be Democrats).

Republicans have always had within their midst a cadre of policymakers who believed that they could counter union power from the center—from DC—with prescriptive standards and testing as their core tools. The Fordham Institute and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander fall within that camp, comfortable with a level of control in DC that even the architect of the Great Society programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson, did not countenance. The justification for this convergence is “international competitiveness,” the driving force for DC-based policymakers since A Nation at Risk, if not 50 years before.

He also gave a suggestion should Mitt Romney win in November:

Rather than impose all kinds of new explicit or de facto federal mandates, a Republican administration would do well to create a real Race to the Top, which simply rewards states for results—not compliance with federal rules. If we are so taken with the narrative of falling behind other countries and losing our competitive edge as a result, a trope that is present since the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and continued in both Governor Bush and Secretary Rice’s remarks at the RNC, then a focus on results rather than what bureaucrats in DC think will work is the way to go.

Iowa Governor Branstad’s Unfortunate Praise of Common Core Standards

imageThose who have read my writing long enough know how I feel about the Iowa Core Curriculum.  I think it stinks.  It has huge problems.  Its history curriculum, in particular, stinks to high heaven.  It centralizes education and further removes educational decisions from parents.

There is nothing good about it.  Iowa Governor Terry Branstad today in his speech at the Iowa Education Summit said that the way to improve the Iowa Core was to in my estimation replace it with something worse.  He said, “The State Board of Education’s decision to add the new, voluntary Common Core State Standards in math and literacy strengthens the Iowa Core.”

How does it do that?

Consider some facts about the common core standards

  • They were not field tested.
  • They teach math skills two years later than it is taught in high performing countries.
  • It uses a geometry program that is outdated; discarded by the former Soviet Union 25 years ago.
  • In literature arts it replaces American literature curriculum which is rich in requiring students to read excellent literary works with a curriculum that is consists of 70% “informational texts.”  A perfect vehicle for driving indoctrination in our schools.

So again how does it improve things?  How will these standards make Iowa a world leader in education?  The simple fact is that they won’t.  The common core standards do not collectively raise the bar for education, instead it lowers it.

Not to mention, what public input has there been in implementing the Common Core Standards?  Has there been a legislative vote to amend the Iowa Core Curriculum?  No.  What authority do they have to do this?  None from what I can see in the Iowa Constitution.

It’s too bad that our Governor who has a worthy goal of wanting to improve education in our state has been convinced by the education lobby that centralization is the answer.

Cross-posted at Caffeinated Thoughts

Iowa’s Decline in Education

The Iowa Department of Education released a 28 page report today detailing the state of education in Iowa.

It’s dismal.  You can’t deny the facts presented – especially with reading and the achievement gap with students with disabilities.  I fully agree with Jason Glass, the State Director of the Iowa Department of Education, when he said in the report, “The persistence and size of the achievement gap for students with disabilities in Iowa is not just embarrassing—it is intolerable.”

It is intolerable.  While we all agree that education in Iowa needs improvement there is much disagreement on how we got there and the way forward.

The report in discussing the past mentions several things I find interesting:

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) approved by Congress in 2001. NCLB was signed into law in 2002, holds schools accountable for student achievement levels and imposes penalties for schools that do not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward meeting the goals of NCLB. Iowa adopted accountability measures aligned with the goals of NCLB.

The Iowa Teaching Standards developed and adopted by the State Board of Education in 2002. The Iowa Standards for School Leaders followed in 2008. These initiatives gave districts new, evidence-based models for quality teaching methods.

The Iowa Core contains essential concepts and skills in English/language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics, as well as 21st century skills in financial literacy, health literacy, and other key areas. The Iowa Core represents the state’s work to set high expectations for all students. Setting these statewide expectations was an important step for Iowa toward becoming an education “system” as opposed to a loose confederation of school districts.

While this certainly isn’t the only reason for the decline, but one can’t help but notice that while Iowa decline has occurred congruently with a movement toward centralization – No Child Left Behind, The Iowa Teaching Standards, and The Iowa Core (I also find it interesting that they dropped “curriculum” from the title and are just calling it “The Iowa Core.”)

Contrast that with Massachusetts who has seen student achievement improve and they have become more localized.  Has Iowa moving toward “becoming an education ‘system’ as opposed to a loose confederation of school districts” really been a good thing?  Wasn’t Iowa that loose confederation when they ranked #1 in education?  Granted changes in culture, a sense of entitlement, among other problems have contributed to the decline, but how has centralization helped?  What empirical data can they show?  None.

The way forward… the #1 suggestion made in the report is to have “clear standards with high expectations and accountability for results.”  Ok, who sets the standards?  Who provides the accountability?  Based on the current trajectory we can guess… educrats at the state and federal level.  Already the Iowa State Board of Education is aligning the “Iowa Core” with national common core standards.  The fact that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is making an appearance at the upcoming education summit next week shouldn’t be lost on us either.

It would seem that the current approach, when it comes to centralization, fits the definition of insanity quite well, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

You can read the report below:

Iowa Rising to Greatness 082111(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();

Originally published at American Principles in Action.