Op-Ed Spotlight: The Conservative Case for National School Standards

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By the latest tally, 28 states have adopted the proposed "Common Core" national education standards that have won praise from leading journalists, think-tanks, and pundits. Wednesday, as debate in Massachusetts over the move heated up, the Wire covered the pros and cons of moving to a national, rather than state-based, system.

One of the concerns, of course, is loss of state power to the unpopular feds. That makes it all the more interesting to find Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute making the conservative case for the measure in the National Review. The Fordham Institute is one of the groups to publish a formal review the proposed national standards. Finn and Petrelli argue, based on this review, that the Common Core is thoughtfully developed, and--particularly exciting from a conservative standpoint--eschews "the vague and politically correct nonsense that infected so many state standards (and earlier attempts at national standards)." Here are the highlights:


They expect students to master arithmetic and memorize their times tables; they promote the teaching of phonics in the early grades; they even expect all students to read and understand the country's founding documents. The new standards aren’t perfect. Our reviewers found three jurisdictions that did better in English (California, Indiana, and--believe it or not--the District of Columbia), mostly because they better distinguish among different "genres" of literature and other writing. Another dozen states (including Massachusetts) are "too close to call," meaning that their standards are about equal in content and rigor to the Common Core. But anybody worried that this national effort will dumb down what we expect young Americans to learn in school can relax, at least for now.


Until now, however, the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement. In 2007, we published a comparison of states’ “proficiency” expectations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The results were dismaying: In some places, students could score below the tenth percentile nationally and still be considered “proficient.” In other locales, they had to reach the 77th percentile to wear the same label. And it wasn’t just that expectations varied, but that they varied almost randomly from place to place, grade to grade, and year to year.
Most Americans understand that this is not the way a big, modernized country on a competitive planet should operate its education system.


Conservatives generally favor setting a "single standard" for everybody. Setting different standards for different people--think affirmative action, for instance--is an idea most associated with the Left.
Yes, there are risks inherent in a national anything, particularly if the federal government clumsily tries to intervene ... But America faces larger risks in clinging to mediocre expectations for its schools and students. That’s why we favor the move toward rigorous national standards and a system of tests that will hold all students to the same expectations. And most conservatives seem to be on board. Who knew that this would be change they could believe in?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.