Board of Scholars

Education Standards and Culture

By November 1, 2015 March 17th, 2020 No Comments

Last quarter I wrote about the deficiencies in America’s educational system and how Common Core reform (as it is known) is supposed to improve educational outcomes through a systematic approach to K-12 and even K-16 education.  Common Core means a set of national standards (as opposed to local or state standards) and an emphasis on a common core of classes aimed at crucial areas for testing success.  Will the effort to institute a common core improve American competences in the areas of math, science and reading?

Let me start by dispelling a myth about American K-12 education.  American spending per pupil exceeds $11,500 per student, 35% higher than the average developed country. America spends just under 7% of its Gross Domestic Product on secondary and post-secondary education, among the highest in the world.  This number has increased over time, an increase that far outstrips inflation and that increases in real and relative terms compared to most other public spending.  Our educational system is among the most lavishly funded system in the world. Yet average educational attainment is still rather pitiful. Why?

Any analysis of common core must separate the content of the standards from the idea of standards and the political process used to adopt and implement them.

There is more than a little sense in many of Common Core’s ideas.  For instance, today elementary students read almost exclusively fiction in their classes; common core standards would have school districts add historical biography.  Another example would be the integration of a more consistent use of language in math teaching that allows for more systematic building on previous concepts.

The political process that Pres. Obama and Common Core advocates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush favor to gain adoption of Common Core has undermined the free choice of local governments to adopt Common Core.  Common Core has been spread under the auspices of Pres. Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, part of his stimulus bill in 2009.  Under this initiative, states received federal monies and relief from federal regulations in return for their adoption of Common Core standards.  The Obama administration also granted massive funding to testing and curriculum development industry to develop materials to support these standards.  Private foundations also got into the act at that time.  The Gates Foundation was active in supporting the Obama Administration’s efforts to secure adoption of Common Core standards, expending billions of dollars to help states write “Race to the Top” applications and to persuade state officials of the benefits of Common Core.

By 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia had bought into the Common Core standards.  Most private schools have followed course, in part because they have to given the requirements that they have for accreditation from the state.

Let us leave aside that, at the time Common Core was adopted, there were no pilot tests to see whether it would actually work.  Let us also leave aside more technical worries that Common Core emphasizes skills without content.  Experience teaches that the announcement of standards is very different from implementing them in classroom and that higher state standards have very little to do with educational improvements or high achievement.  Common Core (2009) is but the latest example of national reform designed to fix an unacceptable status quo—it comes seven years after the No Child Left Behind, which came 8 years after Pres. Clinton’s goals 2000 initiative, which came seven years after Pres. Bush wanted to be the “Education President” and announced tough national standards, which came seven years after Pres. Reagan’s “Nation at Risk” report in 1983.   Forty years of reform after reform and the nation is still at risk.  Reform measures have failed for three interrelated reasons.

First, standards-based educational reform efforts subvert local control, which helps secure high educational quality at a good cost.  Interested citizens can provide a kind of check on school districts just as paying customers provide a check on private industry.  Efforts to centralize education funding and curriculum have fostered disengagement from schools.

Second, disengagement from educational decisions has also proceeded from the decline of marriage and family life in America.  Schools are reflections of their student populations, and if parents are not reinforcing educational goals at home, then students are less likely to be able to do the job.  Study after study shows that all the standards in the world are nothing compared to a solid home life for children.  After cataloguing declining educational attainment, scholars at the Educational Testing Service concluded that “it is hard to imagine progress resuming in reducing education attainment and achievement gap without turning these family trends around” by “increasing marriage rates and getting fathers back into the business of nurturing children.”

Third, there is a sense in which educational attainment is rather high, if we limit our analysis to those that are products of stable, two parent families.  This has been brought about not by forty years of reform, but rather by the advantages accrued from intact families.  Improving attainment for students without stable home lives is the great challenge and standards have very little to do with that problem.

Educational attainment is a reflection of culture.  As Charles Murray has written, America is, in this respect, “coming apart.”  The standards-based approach thinks of education as a technical matter, while evidence and experience shows that education is a matter of character and perseverance and ambition.  For this reason, Common Core is bound to fail.  If you do not like Common Core another reform effort is just around the corner.

The views expressed here are those solely of the author and do not represent Boise State University or R|W Investment Management.

Information in this article is derived from:

The National Center for Education Statistics “Education Expenditures by Country”

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development “Education at a Glance 2014” (page 216)

The Washington Post “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution” by Lyndsey Layton

Barton and Coley, “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped,” Policy Information Report. Educational Testing Service, July 2010, p. 35.


Dr. Scott YenorDr. Scott Yenor
Professor of Political Science
Boise State University

Scott Yenor is Professor of Political Science at Boise State University, where he teaches courses in political philosophy, American political thought, and constitutional law.  He is also Director of the American Founding Initiative, which aims to bring ideas of limited government and classical liberty to today’s university.  His publications include Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor, 2011), which concerns the way in which the ideas of contract and human autonomy have eclipsed the idea of marital unity in modern political thought. He is currently working on three books—one applies the idea of marital unity to today’s family policy; another concerns American Reconstruction; and the last is about the political thought of David Hume.   He lives in Meridian Idaho with his wife Amy and five children—Jackson, Travis, Sarah, Paul, and Biscuit (Mark!).  He enjoys basketball and reading (especially Russian novels and he has pledged to read only Russian novels until January 2017).