School & District Management Opinion

National Standards and Local Control

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 28, 2016 5 min read
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After getting through the vitriol that has characterized the behavior of some of the candidates this election process, once the smoke clears, issues of great importance remain and must be addressed. For educators, the issue of federal or state control over education is important, very important. On the surface and in the context of history, state and local control of education makes sense. The state and local control argument is rooted in the Constitution, is embedded in laws about governance and finance, and is regulated in curriculum, graduation requirements, and teacher certification and almost all operational aspects of schooling. For better or for worse, this state/ local mix has allowed for distinctions among communities, urban or centralized or regional districts varied by states, some districts became wealthy while others remained poor, and so on. The quality of education offered varies greatly among those communities.

The federal relationship to public education has happened more recently. Spurred on by global competition from Sputnik to international comparisons on math and science achievement, federal policy has connected money to mandates. According to the US Department of Education website, 87.7% of the money schools receive nationally is from non-federal sources.

Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role. Of an estimated $1.15 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2011-2012, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources. This is especially true at the elementary and secondary level, where about 87.7 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources.

That means the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 10.8 percent, which includes funds not only from the Department of Education (ED) but also from other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.

But, common core and related assessments have ignited a misunderstanding of the federal role that candidates seem to be holding. The popular current view of the federal government’s role in education is attached to a disdain for the common core and the standardized tests required to measure their acquisition. It is good practice to examine the facts.

Common Core as a State Level Initiative
Common core began when then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano served as chair of the National Governors’ Association. As is the role of the chair, she created an initiative for the year. An article in USNews.com reported:

So Napolitano created a task force - composed of commissioners of education, governors, corporate chief executive officers and recognized experts in higher education - which in December 2008 released a report that Linn says would eventually serve as the building blocks of what became known as the Common Core State Standards...

...Rick Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says the Common Core standards also have roots in No Child Left Behind. Under the President George W. Bush-era education law, the federal government required states to test, disaggregate and report data on student performance, but allowed states to continue deciding on their own which standards and tests to use.

“The problem with that is if you had hard tests or hard standards you made your schools look bad. So there was a real, kind of perverse incentive baked into NCLB,” Hess says. The desire to correct that mistake, Hess says, led to the creation of what became the Common Core.

Accepting premise the standards are flawed and the tests are flawed and even their use has been flawed, before throwing out the baby with the bathwater, let’s return to the reasons behind their creation.

The Bigger Picture
Children across the country have been receiving varied levels of education, always. Sometimes that is due to location, resources, and levels of wealth or poverty and the difference in funding that creates. School districts across the country have varying levels of attraction to highly qualified teachers. Where teachers live and work is as important to them as it is to anyone. Plaudits to those educators who choose to work in sparsely populated areas, or those with high crime rates or great poverty, or in schools so small that there is only one teacher for each grade and each content area in high school. Constraints abound for creating generative learning environments in so many places. How can we guarantee all children in our nation a quality education without some common standard for excellence? If we are to reject the common core and a set of measures to hold all students to a similar standard, how can we guarantee all children in our nation a quality education?

Educators are responsible for and to their local schools and districts. But, a national value for a highly educated population to preserve our democracy and a highly prepared workforce to sustain our national economy gives the federal government an interest in our work that cannot be denied. It is the bigger picture that evades many. If we are to object to these federal mandates, then how can we be sure we are not only taking care of our local concerns? How do we assert our obligation for the welfare of all children who are at stake in this conversation?

Common standards assessed by common tests remain the only way we have to compare student achievement across the state and country. Whether we are holding the right standards, and administering the right tests that measure what we value, or are fair, or are important, remains in discussion. But while they are required, being open about what they do or do not reveal, and how they are used within a community is dependent upon the wisdom of the local leader.

If the local leaders hold both the local view and the national view as we wade out of these weeds, then as objections rise, so may the solutions. A call to end federal involvement in education, a proposal to eliminate the Department of Education, a platform to throw out national standards will most certainly leave us in a place where a gap unlike any other will occur. As we have heard the campaign issue describing the exaggeration of wealth and poverty in our nation, we will raise a next generation of children educationally advantaged and disadvantaged. And all will have attended our publically funded schools. Whatever name is given to national standards, they aren’t a bad idea if we can get them right.

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Illustration by scusi courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.