Teachers union against educational standards before it was for them

Patrick Gibbons

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers—one of the largest teacher unions in the country—recently published an opinion article in the Washington Post stating that she favors strong national education standards.

It is interesting to see this commentary, considering the teacher unions spent the last eight years complaining about No Child Left Behind. Apparently, now that "their guy" is in power, it's OK. Turns out, she was against it before she supported it.

In her commentary, she tries to use the National Football League (NFL) as an analogy to suggest how "unfair" it is for states to set their own standards.

"Imagine the outrage," she writes, "if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move the ball the full 10 yards for a first down during the Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals had to go only seven. Imagine if this scenario were sanctioned by the National Football League. Such a system would be unfair and preposterous."

Her analogy does not work, for two reasons. First, the particular flaw in the national No Child Left Behind legislation to which she refers is one that both national teacher unions sought. And given the states' obvious desires to keep federal dollars flowing, it was clear that the federal government was setting perverse incentives.

Although NCLB requires states to achieve 100 percent reading proficiency by 2015, "proficiency" was left to each individual state to define. The entirely foreseeable result has been that states dummy down their standards so that they can pretend education is improving and can receive federal dollars without interruption. Nevada is no exception to this rule.

The final problem with Weingarten's analogy is that national standards federalize education. It would almost certainly mean a uniform, one-size-fits-all education system for millions of students across the 50 states.                         

The proper NFL analogy would be a scenario in which the NFL required all teams to run the exact same playbook, using only the I-Formation on offense and the 4-3 formation on defense. No stunts, blitzes, motion plays, play action passes, fourth-down conversions or onside kicks. No one would have developed the spread offense that allowed Kurt Warner to go from bagging groceries to throwing for over 4,000 yards in a single season, becoming an NFL MVP. Nobody would have been allowed to create innovative systems molded to the unique skills of their players, approaches allowing them to develop and achieve the new heights that innovation alone allows.

The federal government needs to drop its ultimately irresponsible mandate for 100 percent reading proficiency by 2015. This has, unfortunately, given states incentive to harm students by dumbing down requirements. But we also need to keep the federal government out of setting academic curricula and standards.

States need to operate as experimental laboratories for education and democracy. We need innovations from the states, in order to see what works and what does not.

One-size-fits-all means everyone fails together—and no one knows how to succeed.