Why Congress Is Not That Into National Standards

Those looking ahead to the reauthorization of NCLB or hoping for momentum towards national standards would do well to read Kevin Kosar's new book, Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards.

Kosar's book provides a vivid and detailed retelling of the standards wars in Washington that includes among other things elite politics, crazy-sounding politicians, and an unholy alliance of left and right.

More than anything, however, the book is a cautionary tale for those who would move towards national tests and a reminder of just how weak and watered-down laws like NCLB are once they get through the process. (Yes, weak and watered down in fundamental ways.)


Kosar's book focuses on the late 80s and 90s during which several standards-related bills were enacted or debated (America 2000, Goals 2000, proposals for voluntary national tests, and the No Child Left Behind Act).

In essence, Kosar argues that Congressional politics have had a negative effect on the creation of federal education standards, blunting the effort to create a rigorous, national curriculum. In this light, NCLB, for all its requirements, is fundamentally weak in that it leaves it up to states to set their own standards and assessments.

The following is a Q&A with Kosar, who works at the Congressional Research Service:

Q: What is the basic thesis of your findings about federal policymaking?

KK: That politics almost inevitably botches sound policy. Many of the problems with current federal standards policy are the result of politics. Hard-line leftists and rightists forced advocates of federal standards-raising policies to water down their policy proposals to get them enacted into law. Thus, to take a glaring example, we have the No Child Left Behind Act and its predecessor, Goals 2000. Both of these laws were intended to raise standards; neither, though, gave the federal government any power to review state standards to ensure that they are rigorous.

Q: What if anything was the biggest surprise or most unexpected thing that you learned in putting together the book, or that seems most surprising to others?

KK: I was surprised at how intensely ideological Congress’s debates on were on standards policies. It was, to put it a bit simplistically, Great Society liberalism versus conservative antistatism. The left argued that lack of money is the real problem while the right was loath to give the federal government more influence over the schools.

Q: What would you say to those who are again calling for national standards and tests due to discrepancies between state and NAEP standards?

KK: Well, my reading of history is that proposal for national tests or standards will get tripped up by the hard left and right. Inevitably the question comes up- who will decide the content of the standards? Multiculturalists will caterwaul that standards that emphasize knowledge of grammar are Eurocentric, creationists will holler about any mentions of evolution, and so forth. Even mathematics, a seemingly objective discipline, isn’t immune to intense debates about what gets taught and how.

Q: State and local educators often complain that NCLB is heavy handed, yet you seem to think that it is much weaker than it could have been - why is that?

KK: On the one hand, the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions are burdensome. So are the penalties of failing to make AYP, such as requiring states to pay for free tutoring for children and limited school choice. On the other hand, the federal government has left states with discretion over curricula. One can imagine a much more robust standards-based system, one where participating states would have to use an official national curricula, tests, etc.

Q: Based on what you learned, what would you expect from the next version of ESEA?

KK: If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Congress will muddle through. Some provisions of NCLB that have had unforeseen or overly harsh consequences will be changed. AYP provisions, for example, may be loosened. But I’d be surprised if there were many major changes.

Q: Who are/what are some of the main legislative/political dynamics that go into education policymaking at the federal level that educators, state and local officials, and parents might not appreciate or fully understand?

KK: Federal education politics is elite politics. The wants of interest groups have a far greater effect on policy than the desires of parents and the needs of children. Some of these groups are only interested in grabbing federal dollars; others, though, are intensely ideological. They have worldviews and they pressure Congress to make policy to comport with these views. So, for example, we have liberal members of Congress fighting to bills to create experimental programs that would provide federal funds to poor children in failing schools to use as a voucher, a ticket to a school where they can learn and not get pulled into a life of drugs and crime.

Q: What would you say is the most vivid anecdote or moment in the book?

KK: Politicians are, inevitably, entertaining- so I’m not sure I can finger just one. There’s an incident involving a Jesse Helms filibuster that’s quite precious. And on a number of occasions, the book relates incidents where politicians say things which are so far out, so incredibly divorced from reality, that one’s jaw falls slack and one wonders, “Has this person gone mad? Does he/she really believe this crazy talk?”

Q: How are things different or the same now than they were ten or more years ago when goals 2000 and the rest were first being discussed in congress?

KK: One difference stands out- today, neither political party has taken the position that we should roll-back the federal role in schooling. This is very new. Since at least the 1880s, one political party or the other has taken the position that schooling is a local and state affair. First it was the Democrats, then the Republicans. This ended in 1996, when Bob Dole ran on a platform to reduce federal intervention in schooling. He got creamed by Clinton, who favored a bigger federal role. Now both parties favor a significant federal role in K-12 education.