James V. Shuls
Last night, I conducted an experiment to test the impact of the Common Core State Standards. When my kids were asleep, I placed a copy of the standards under their pillows. I was hopeful that they would be “college- and career-ready” when they woke up, but to my dismay, they had not learned anything from the standards.

You might not be too surprised about the results of my experiment because you know, as do I, that standards do not teach kids; parents and teachers teach kids. That is part of the reason that state and national standards have had very little effect in improving student achievement.

For standards to have any effect, they have to change the behavior of teachers. The only way to accomplish that is with heavy-handed government coercion and intrusion into school systems through test-based accountability. These accountability systems restrict the freedom of local schools and teachers to effectively meet the needs of their unique students.

It is not that we should not have standards, it is that one set of standards centrally imposed does more harm than good. Absent state or national standards, there would still be rigorous content standards for students. As Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute writes, “standards are ubiquitous in free markets.”

Proponents of state or national standards might say “math is math, it shouldn’t matter where you learn it.” That is true in the sense that 2 + 2 always equals 4. But it is not true in the sense that we have discovered the exact right sequence or method of teaching math. On this, there is considerable disagreement.

In a free market, schools would still have standards; officials would just have more latitude to choose the standards for their school. Parents would also have more options in a free market to choose the school that they believe is the best fit for them. Choice is the best method of accountability.

McCluskey sums up the argument very well: “Only a free market can produce the mix of high standards, accountability, and flexibility that is essential to achieving optimal educational outcomes.”

We need to stop trying to standardize education and start trying to personalize education.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.