Federal vs. National Standards

In recent reports about the movement for “common standards for core curriculums in mathematics and reading” spearheaded by various monopolies, state governors, and the U.S Department of Education, an important distinction has been raised. In today’s edition of Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman writes:

Today represents a milestone, though, for a potential breakthrough that could have major implications for higher education. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association will release common standards for core curriculums in mathematics and reading and writing that, because of a confluence of events, could create a set of widely embraced national (but not federal) standards for what high school students need to know to be “college ready” or to have the skills to enter the work force.

So, what is the difference between “Federal” and “National” Standards? I suggest that federal is used here to point to administrative oversight and power, and as such, “federal standards” as a phrase is avoided because it points to worries that federal education policy increasingly violates state rights, as the provision and administration of education is given, due to its absence in the U.S. constitution, as a state right by article X .

Supporters of the “common standards” have belittled objections citing article X. This suggests how uncomfortable “reformers” are with current constitutional arrangements — i.e., that the compromise of state’s rights during the founding of the U.S. is now seen as a key block by the most powerful reformers. It also suggests what “National Standards” means in terms of political justification. That is, “national” here refers to an interest, in the same way that “national security” refers to an interest that is not limited to an administrative structure (federal, state or local) but rather to the promotion and protection of an interest. Examination of the interests of those driving the “core standards” and the general absence of “real” educators in the formation of the standards (despite efforts to make the process appear “inclusive”) is key to understanding the emphasis on “national” vs. “federal” in discussions of “core standards.” It also points to the role of standard-setting in altering governing arrangements.

As a starting point for thinking more about the political significance of “National Standards”, I offer the following from Witold Kula’s 1986 book Measures and Men:

The right to determine measures is an attribute of authority in all advanced societies. It is the prerogative of the ruler to make measures mandatory and to retain the custody of the standards […] The controlling authority, moreover, seeks to unify all measures within its territory and claim the right to punish metrological transgressions. (p. 18)

He further notes that the “frequent struggles centered about metrological competence of the constituted power are but a manifestation of the rivalry between various organs of authority aspiring to control measures in order to bolster their standing,” emphasizing that “attempts to control measures [standards] have been an ever-present element in the struggle for power between interested representatives of the privileged class” (18-19).

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