Education Opinion

The Many Ways Jay Mathews Is Wrong About Local Control

By Justin Baeder — September 04, 2011 4 min read

In a Sunday WaPo op-ed, Jay Mathews suggests that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is doomed to failure, and isn’t a good idea anyway:

Such specific standards stifle creativity and conflict with a two-century American preference for local decision-making about schools. The decentralized nature of our education system is the least of our problems. We should focus on better teaching methods and better training of teachers, as well as school structures that help educators work more as teams. Those teachers could then employ whatever methods and standards make sense.

Wait, so Mathews is saying that multi-state standards stifle creativity, but state standards don’t? As if there’s much difference to teachers? And that we need to reform our teacher methods and training, but only at the local level? How would that work?

I think he’s correct in suggesting that local tolerance for federal ed-meddling has recently crested, and that this will make further RttT-style efforts more difficult to pull off in the short term (even if we had the money for them). But to suggest that creativity is the solution to our nation’s (real or supposed) education woes seems downright silly, unless... oh, he’s talking about the creativity of companies, not educators.

Mathews references a recent blog post from Jay P. Greene, who argues that the CCSSI will fail because, among other reasons, digital learning companies need states to be different so they can develop their products and services in more reform-minded states and get them ready for market elsewhere. This is such weird logic that the only conclusion I’ll draw from it is this: If education companies have so much power that they can kill a broad-based movement like CCSSI, then we’re in big trouble.

Returning to Mathews’ original point that I quoted above, let’s look at his theory of action: If we had better teaching methods and better teacher training, and better structures for teaming within schools, education would improve.

The problem with such a line of thinking, when accompanied by a strong preference for local control, is that there is no “we.” There is no “education system” in the U.S. at the moment—just a wildly varying hodgepodge of state and local systems—and that’s precisely why teaching methods and teacher training are great in some places and terrible in others. Decentralization can’t be isolated from the issues that Mathews identifies as more important in determining educational performance.

Variation is our reality, because our school systems are overwhelmingly locally controlled. I’m not sure whether I think this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly means that national-level policy is a myth, except in a few areas like special education. The most we can seem to muster on a national level is policies like “each state shall have a policy on X,” and states respond to these mandates with policies that state “each district shall have a policy on X,” and in the end, we all have new policies but we have no greater degree of consistency or quality than we had before.

Case in point: NCLB required states to test all students in certain grades, and to hold schools accountable for meeting standard on those tests. But NCLB did not specify the test or the standard, so we ended up with a huge variation from state to state in both proficiency rates and test rigor (not to mention the variation we’ve always had, and still do, in NAEP scores, which are our best indictor of the relative performance of states).

Similarly, RttT required states to (require districts to) develop four-tier teacher evaluation systems, and required that student test scores be incorporated into those evaluations. But it didn’t specify how those evaluations should be conducted, or what kind of test scores they should include. As a result, we’re ending up with a wide range of evaluation systems (some of which are turning out to be illegal, and some of which will be a huge improvement).

America is a land of contrasts, a land of variation, a land of messy, local differences, and we like it that way. But we also don’t like being anything other than first, and overall, we’re not first in the world when it comes to education—not even close. We’re huge, complicated, and varied.

Now, if we start putting up individual township school districts in New Jersey against Shanghai and Finland, perhaps we can feel better about our standing in the world. But no one seems to be proposing that. We want to be the best, period.

Mathews may be right that public support for a strong federal role in education is waning at the moment, but I think this is more of a temporary reaction to the heavy hand of RttT than a long-term shift in national sentiment. Local control is alive and well, but it’s going to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future, from both Republicans (see Jeb and George Bush in the last decade) and Democrats (see Arne Duncan and President Obama at the present).

In an effort to improve our educational performance as a nation, we’re probably going to keep on trying to do things as a nation, not as a loosely coupled collection of localities (which often amounts nationally to doing nothing). We may not like where we end up when the feds are driving, but as a nation, we aren’t content to sit in the driveway, either.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.