Mandatory Volunteerism

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The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of middle and high schools mandating volunteerism.  I am not a fan of forcing volunteerism, and “mandatory volunteerism” offends those who treasure meaningful language.  But within a set of courses and activities aimed at rounding out children so that they will become effective participants in civil society, such requirements may make sense.  That is especially so if students can choose the volunteer program and not be restricted to school-approved activities.  Choosing what you are passionate about is critical to being a good citizen.

Clearly, such mandates are not things we impose on adults.  Which is why it is so disconcerting to see the federal department of education treat state and local education leaders like children.

Way back in 2009, when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top competition, it was couched in closely scripted remarks about how this was a voluntary competition that would not upend 200 years of history around state and local primacy in education policy.  Even as he saluted former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt in June 2009 for supporting “common national standards when it wasn’t politically popular,” Sec. Duncan extolled the federalist system:

I am continually struck by the profound wisdom underlying the American political experiment. The genius of our system is that much of the power to shape our future has, wisely, been distributed to the states instead of being confined to Washington.Our best ideas have always come from state and local governments, which are the real hothouses of innovation in America.


That hymnal was clearly distributed to national and local partners, with the National School Boards AssociationAchieve, Inc., the National Governors Association’s lobby and other fellow travelers who made a point of employing words like “state-led,” “voluntary,” and “partnership” to counter suggestions that the feds were driving the effort.  Anyone who questioned how long this representation of intent would last was relegated to the realm of overly dramatic, a kvetcher, or a conspiracy theorist.

We are now on the second and perhaps third act of this piece of theater.  In round one, legislatures made affirmative choices to expand charter schools.  In round two, states only got funding if they complied with federal definitions of reform and innovation; and in all but five cases without legislative action and, frankly, without legislative awareness.  Round three has the federal government directly funding the development of national assessments that explicitly come with curricular materials and instructional practice guides.

And now a number of states are getting antsy.  The photo-op public announcements of federal grants long past, we are now into implementation—and state legislators are facing a rude awakening.  Only now are they hearing about the mediocre quality of the national standards, the as-yet-undefined assessments, the imposition of curricular materials, the never stated costs, and the possibility that this whole effort actually breaks three federal laws.  Only now are they recognizing the potential political mess to come with the feds’ establishment of definitions of proficiency.

The great innovators inside the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building did not take kindly to the barrage of reports on the mediocre quality of the national education standards (1, 2, 3, 4).  Nor did they take kindly to reports showing that they are breaking three federal laws by directing and funding the development of national tests, curricular materials and instructional practice guides.  A recent report that implementation of the national standards and tests will cost $16-plus billion (90% of which will come from states and localities) didn’t sit well with them  either.

In addition to the lagging time to grasp the real policy questions before them, the past three years have brought a sea-change in the political landscape.  The 2010 elections changed the make-up of state legislatures dramatically, with a greater number of fiscal conservatives who look warily at unfunded federal mandates and overreach. With the new conditions, never approved by Congress, that Sec. Duncan is advancing, there is a growing realization among state legislators that the national standards are not truly voluntary.  Even a stalwart supporter of a big USDOE like Mike Petrilli of the DC-based Fordham Institute recognizes that with the No Child Left Behind waivers Sec. Duncan:

seems compelled to attach mandates to his forthcoming NCLB waivers that will require adoption of the Common Core standards.No, his team won’t mention the Common Core, but everybody knows that’s what he’s talking about when he calls for “college and career-ready standards.”


Fearful of stoking a backlash that will “lose many of the states that have already signed on,” Petrilli in his blog is reduced to begging Sec. Duncan not to overreach:

Walk away from this one, Mr. Secretary. Please, those of us who support the Common Core are begging you.

That’s a rather unbecoming act for a citizen in a free republic: We don’t generally like begging our federal officials.  That is in fact something state legislators abhor.

Unsurprisingly, there are state officials who are running for the exits.  Hearings have been held in Indiana and South Carolina on bills that would prohibit implementation of the national standards and tests.  More bills are working their way toward hearings in other states, as a number of state legislators and governors are showing the audacity to question whether national standards and assessments are actually a good idea.

In Indiana, notwithstanding former Bush budgetmaster and sitting Governor Mitch Daniels’ support for Common Core, the legislature is insisting on a study of the cost of implementation:

Members of the Senate Committee on Education today unanimously approved a resolution authored by Sen. Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis) urging a more in-depth study on Common Core State Standards and the impact on Indiana’s nationally recognized education benchmarks.

In some states, both governors and legislators are asking questions–and even reaching a position of opposition.  For example, in South Carolina, prior to an education subcommittee hearing on S.604, a bill that would prohibit the state from implementing the national standards and tests, Governor Nikki Haley took the bold step of calling for the state to pull out.

My testimony to the subcommittee drew on reports on the lack of quality, the cost and the illegality of the national standards and assessment project.  But I also made one additional important argument, which is built off of the fact that South Carolina has been recognized as having the best U.S. History standards in the country.  South Carolina and other states that choose to exit the national standards should not simply say no.  They could draw from Texas’ efforts:

Consulting with top academicians in the U.S. and taking note of Singapore’s much-vaunted standards, Texas re-designed its state standards. Today, Texas not only has excellent English standards but also has among the best math standards in the country—far stronger than the Common Core.South Carolina has rigorous US history standards and high-quality state standards. Saying “no” to Common Core is a matter of good judgment—but I would urge you additionally to use the opportunity of this debate to move forward with positive improvements to the Palmetto State’s standards and assessments.


States must aim higher than Common Core.  Common Core aims at community college readiness, and that is not good enough for Massachusetts–and not going to make the U.S. internationally competitive.

As Catherine Gewertz of EdWeek noted, the bill “got voted down in a state Senate subcommittee, but was still going to move on to the full education committee.”

But US Ed Secretary’s reaction to the South Carolina legislature’s and the governor’s actions was instructive.  The day after the subcommittee vote, Sec. Duncan issued a formal statement on the happenings in South Carolina, which Gewertz described as “swipe” at the Palmetto State and “designed to dismantle support for the proposed legislation”:

The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support.

Noting that states must stop “dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools,” he accused the Palmetto State of “lower[ing] the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009.”

You could analyze the secretary’s formal statement for style points, such as

  1. Why didn’t Sec. Duncan ask a surrogate to make such a statement rather than personally get involved?  Previous secretaries would certainly not have been so heavy-handed.
  2. Who writes the secretary’s releases?  “Dummying down”?  They don’t teach that at Harvard, so I am going to guess it’s a Chicago-ism.  And does the secretary hope to convince state legislators toward a course of action by berating them as if they were little children?


But there are two important, substantive conclusions to draw from the secretary’s broadside.

    1. The secretary is, in essence, accusing South Carolina of cooking the books on student performance.  As Jay Greene notes, that is factually inaccurate, and the secretary is either ignorant of state practice or his is shading the truth to suit his argument:

South Carolina did significantly lower its performance standards between 2005 and 2009. But they did so because they had earlier raised those performance standards to well-above the national average.  In the end, South Carolina had math and reading performance standards that were close to the national average and close to the NAEP standard for Basic.

  1. It’s unseemly for the secretary of education of the federal government to make a formal statement about a legislative proposal related to education standards in the state of South Carolina.  That is especially true if Common Core is truly a state-led effort.  More directly: if all this talk about state-led standards is true, why is the U.S. Secretary of Education flying off the handle when a single state expresses interest in pulling out?  As CATO’s Neal McCluskey put it, “Apparently, if you try to undo something the feds want you to do, they’ll slap you around until you confess they’ve never threatened you.”


The feds want Common Core really bad.  This is mandatory volunteerism of the worst kind.   It is a power play that is advancing a mediocre product, with high undisclosed and unfunded costs for states and localities, and it is illegal.  Those are three really big strikes against it.

But worst of all, it treats states like children.  However critical I can be of education leaders in our and other states, I cannot see a record of any accomplishment by the so-called adults in Washington that compares with the demonstrated gains in Massachusetts, Florida and many other states.

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs and Education News