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National Standards Report Makes a Leap Too Far

Susan Notes:

Mathis concludes that as a critique of the national standards moement, the Cato report serves a valuable purpose. "The summary of the current political situation is generally accurate. The empirical evidence against standards is well-documented but, as the report explains, this evidence is limited and contaminated by a host of inter-connected external variables." But, as Mathis shows, Cato doesn't stop there. The report concludes that since standards don't work, the free market will.

Press Release

April 21, 2010

Cato fairly notes flaws in national curriculum standards but then proposes unfounded recommendations for free-market policies, review finds

Contact: William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058; William.Mathis@colorado.edu
Nikki Rashada McCord, EPIC, (303) 735-5290; Nikki.McCord@colorado.edu

BOULDER, Colo. and TEMPE, Ariz. (April 21, 2010) - A recent Cato Institute report even-handedly and correctly highlights flaws in the push for uniform national curriculum standards. But its leap from those findings to the solution of a free-market education system is unfounded.

In a review released today by the Think Tank Review Project, William Mathis examines the recent Cato report Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Standards. Dr. Mathis is managing director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, co-sponsor of the Think Tank Review Project.

The Cato report identifies two salient criticisms of the national "common core" standards push that has been endorsed by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The first is that there is no strong consensus about the content of such standards. Second, and more important, there is little or no evidence that such standards promote improved achievement in student learning.

Mathis notes the report's relatively balanced presentation of the case for and against standards. "The report's review of the current political situation on national standards is succinct and generally fair," he writes. "The arguments for national standards are accurately provided. The weak direct evidence in favor of national standards is reported and the scarcity of relevant findings is noted." Evidence on the effectiveness of standards-based accountability can be interpreted in various ways, Mathis notes, but he concludes that Cato's skeptical treatment "is fairly presented."

The report falls apart, Mathis writes, when it makes an unsupported "leap to free-market solutions" for education. "The literature review supporting this assertion is thin (a half page), and the sources used are limited." So is the entire section of the report devoted to "support for educational freedom" (school choice). While couched as a research presentation, the work falls short of research standards.

"As a critique of the national standards movement, the report serves a valuable purpose," Mathis concludes. But to go from there to claiming that free-market education is the logical next step "is the equivalent of saying that since elephants can't fly, frogs will."

The Think Tank Review Project (http://thinktankreview.org), a collaborative project of University of Colorado at Boulder's Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) and the ASU Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU), provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. The project is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Find William Mathis's review on the web at:

Find Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Standards, by Neal McCluskey and published by the Cato Institute, on the web here

The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses.

Visit EPIC and EPRU at http://www.educationanalysis.org/

EPIC and EPRU are members of the Education Policy Alliance

— Press Release
Think Tank Review Project


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