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Anxieties of Federalism and Common Core

Standardizing Administration Across Borders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Meg Streams and Alex Frederick
August 18, 2015

Much has been made of the political dimensions of the Common Core standards controversy. It is indeed fascinating to see an initiative of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) turn into a “hot potato” for the left and the right. As observers like Kirp in a 2014 New York Times op-ed have noted, the association between Common Core adoption, testing and teacher accountability raises the stakes. Any examination of advocacy against Common Core reveals concerns arising from various points on the political spectrum, and not limited to their content — including cost; whose voices were heard in development; student privacy; the “corporatization” of education reform; etc. However, the debate also highlights the federal role in an area where local autonomy has been an American tradition.

CommonCoreioDespite involvement of many governors, for some Common Core symbolizes federal overreach. With these points of public concern, we can lose sight of what could motivate NGA and CCSSO to make such a proposal and more than 85 percent of states to sign on. Our goal is not to advocate, but rather to consider from a public administration perspective what drives standardization in government (and governance) and its connection to federalism.

Why Standards?

Although it can mean simply “to make comparable,” standardization often encompasses a benchmark as well the measurement that allows comparison. Certainly, for Common Core, those dimensions are linked.

Google’s N-gram tool shows that use of “standardize” in American books shot up during the Progressive era.  Many have observed, such as Russell’s 2005 essay on standards through history, how the drive for standards followed the Industrial Revolution while fitting into reformers’ efforts to bring science to bear on social conditions. Since governments as well as nonprofits often play a role in standards creation and implementation, they are of natural interest for students of public administration.

There are many ways to conceptualize motivations for standards. Here we emphasize continuity and quality. In terms of continuity, standardization is required for a networked good. Consider classic examples like railroads or the Internet.  Without standards for track gauge or data format, these networks would experience costly discontinuities or fail altogether.

As economists have argued, standards can address problems of coordination between individuals, organizations and states separated in time, space or both, by navigating a dynamic tension between the value of uniformity and desire for novelty. Politically, standards can be seen as an effort to fight “technical nationalism,” facilitating resource flows across borders of many types.

With respect to quality, standards can increase reliability. Standards, plus information dissemination mandates, can remedy information asymmetries, permitting market forces to drive quality improvement (e.g., Federal policy regarding nutrition labeling or appliance energy use reporting).  Within the “black box” of the organization where market forces attenuate, standards for institutional processes, rather than good or service parameters, can create systems that improve quality over time (e.g., ISO 9001 or the Baldrige Criteria). Indeed, the professions derive part of their legitimacy as quality guardians from involvement in standard-setting and maintenance. 

Standards, Common Core and Federalism 

Both standardization’s continuity and quality dimensions are clear in advocacy for Common Core. Higher education stakeholders emphasize continuity by asserting that higher standards will smooth the transition from secondary to postsecondary schooling, reducing costly remediation. Regarding achieving quality in a global marketplace for talent, proponents argue local and state judgments of educational quality are no longer enough to guarantee competitiveness and international benchmarks can drive state system improvement.

Despite this non-exhaustive catalog of positive potential, like most human activities standardization entails risk as well as benefit.  Standards may be strategically designed or manipulated post hoc. They do not emerge fully formed from a historical vacuum, free from the legacy of past self-reinforcing conventions. Changing standards in human measurement have always reflected evolving conceptions of what, and who, “counts” in society. Essential public administration values of equity and respect for the individual are at risk in such cases. Yet without measurement and standardization, how we will know when we make social advances or meet social needs?

Policymakers and bureaucrats know these challenges cannot be sidestepped. Organizations and states walk a line between trust and control as they negotiate standards. We see this tension in the Common Core debate, accentuated by the complex relationships between local, state and national governments.

Few policy areas have a tradition of local control as celebrated — even mythologized — as American public education. It is no surprise that implementation of these standards has become a focal point not only for societal concerns about education but also our perpetual federalist anxieties.

Author: Meg Streams, Ph.D. is an associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University. Streams can be reached at [email protected]. Alex Frederick is an MPA student at Tennessee State University.

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