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Friday, April 18, 2014

How the Common Core Fosters an "Ideological Circus": David Brooks Misses the Point of Educational Federalism

David Brooks has a typically Brooksian "split-the-difference" column about the Common Core in this morning's New York Times, in which he lays a pox on both houses of Left and Right -- the "ideological circus" in his words -- for beating up the Common Core standards promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education. Because the "Common Core" standards emerged from a "state-led movement" topped by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Brooks asserts that the Common Core respects federalism principles. As for their content, the Common Core is neither left-wing brain-washing (as right-wing radio hosts assert) nor pedagogical straitjackets depriving teachers of discretion (as left critics frequently charge): The standards are, instead, common-sensical goals that are plainly superior to the "verbose, lax or wildly confusing" earlier curricular rules in most states.

Agreeing with all of Brooks' statements about the intrinsic merits of the Common Core standards, I think that Brooks has missed the point of educational federalism. By decentralizing educational policy, federalism lowers the ideological stakes involved in schools. Standards endorsed by the national executive in a polarized party system tend to attract controversy like a dead cat attracts bluebottles, even if the standards themselves are innocuous or sensible. By using conditions on federal spending to "encourage" adherence to the Common Core through waivers of NCLB -- itself a policy attracting suspicions of illegality from Ravitchian Left and Heritage Foundation Right -- the Obama Administration raised the ideological stakes in ways that defeat the stake-lowering function of a federal system. The process of tying curricular standards to federal money actually helps create the "ideological circus" that Brooks decries. Putting Obama Administration's fingerprints on the Common Core poisons the apple, so to speak, even if the apple itself is actually healthy.

One might ask, then, how nationally uniform K-12 educational standards are possible in a federal system. One answer is that the voluntary actions of the states themselves tends to converge on consensus curricula without the aid of a federal schoolmaster. The engine driving such convergence is greed -- or, more specifically, homeowners' desires to maximize the re-sale value of their house by pressing their school districts to adopt the curriculum that attract home-buying migrants from other counties and states. If this happy story sounds implausible to you, then I'd recommend your taking a look at Making the Grade, Bill Fischel's outstanding analysis of nineteenth century educational policy in the United States. As Bill notes, the thousands of little red schoolhouses converged on a standard curriculum revolving around the McGuffey Reader because the farmer-boosters financing the districts wanted to attract more migrants who would want their kids to pick up in the new school district where they left off in the old. A similar dynamic is described by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their economic analysis of the "high school movement", in which the states made enormous investments in creating high schools between 1910 and 1940 without much of federal involvement at all. The high school movement was driven from below, starting mostly in the Midwest, especially Iowa, by individual households' pressing counties and state legislatures to create high schools because of perceived high returns from educational investments.

In short, the "rug rat race" drives anxious parents to seek out consensus educational programs and press them on their local and state political officials. As I have argued elsewhere, the process tends to break down when parents have less social capital and accompanying political acumen. Single parents and indigent households might not be able to control provider cartels as ably as suburban parents. But this problem counsels in favor of a targeted strategy of building up the political organizing capacity of low-income households, not trying to press for uniform curricular standards from the commanding heights of the national government. That latter strategy is a recipe for the sort of ideological circus that Brooks rightly decries

Posted by Rick Hills on April 18, 2014 at 01:47 PM | Permalink


Not to be too cynical on a Saturday morning but there is a lot of money for the curriculum sellers (book companies, testing companies, etc.) in Federal standards. Its easy to sell to (read: bribe) one person (the federal government) than 51 people.

Posted by: The Establishment | Apr 19, 2014 7:43:06 AM

"Standards endorsed by the national executive in a polarized party system tend to attract controversy like a dead cat attracts bluebottles, even if the standards themselves are innocuous or sensible."

Welp, add that to the list of analogies I don't understand at all.

Posted by: Simile, dude | Apr 19, 2014 12:26:45 AM

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