When Arne Duncan was made Secretary of Education, he brought in a group of advisors, largely from the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, to help him design what eventually became the Race to the Top, which was funded by Congress with $5 billion in discretionary money, to reform American education. Duncan asked Joanne Weiss to take charge of Race to the Top.


At the time, Joanne Weiss was CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, a California-based organization dedicated to spurring for-profit entrepreneurs and investing in charter schools, both start-ups and chains. Her previous experience was in educational technology. I can’t find any evidence that she ever worked in a school. She was an entrepreneur. She and her advisers came to the conclusion that the biggest problem in American education was its extreme decentralization (local control). They decided that if there were a national system of standards and assessments, then the businesses making textbooks, technology, and everything else would have a national market and the quality of their products would be far better. It was a rational decision for someone from the business world. She wrote on the blog of the Harvard Business Review, a brief essay that should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the philosophy behind the education policies of the Obama administration:


Technological innovation in education need not stay forever young. And one important change in the market for education technology is likely to accelerate its maturation markedly within the next several years. For the first time, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted rigorous common standards, and 44 states are working together in two consortia to create a new generation of assessments that will genuinely assess college and career-readiness.


The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.


In this new market, it will make sense for teachers in different regions to share curriculum materials and formative assessments. It will make sense for researchers to mine data to learn which materials and teaching strategies are effective for which students – and then feed that information back to students, teachers, and parents.


If we can match highly-effective educators with great entrepreneurs and if we can direct smart capital toward these projects, the market for technological innovation might just spurt from infancy into adolescence. That maturation would finally bring millions of America’s students the much-touted yet much-delayed benefits of the technology revolution in education.


The reason to standardize education across the nation is to create an attractive business climate for entrepreneurs. National standards and tests will encourage them to develop products for this new national market.


This is certainly the first time in American education that the U.S. Department of Education took on the role of creating a national market for entrepreneurs. This was the Obama administration’s idea of “reform.”


It was a risky bet. No effort was made to pilot the Common Core standards, to find out how they would really work in real classrooms with real students and real teachers. The rush to implementation created a backlash. Weiss was correct in assuming that every textbook publisher would revised their texts and online programs to align with the Common Core or claim to have done so. But, some states have dropped the Common Core. Some are reviewing them with the intention of tailoring them to the needs of their states. About half the states that agreed to join one of the two testing consortia have withdrawn, either because of political controversy or because of online testing.


The effort to establish a unified national system, for the benefit of entrepreneurs, was illegal, in my view. The federal law says very clearly that no officer of the federal government may seek to influence, direct, or control curriculum or instruction. Arne Duncan likes to say that he stayed far away from curriculum and instruction. That may explain why he insists that the Common Core is “only” standards, not a curriculum. Of course, he has been a vocal advocate for Common Core, and of course, states were not eligible for any of the Race to the Top funding unless they adopted “college-and-career standards” (aka Common Core). But, please, it is “only standards,” not curriculum. Note that the U.S. Department of Education, as part of its grand plan to re-arrange American education into a standardized national system, funded two testing consortia with $360 million. Is it possible to say with a straight face that the U.S. Department of Education is making no effort to “influence, direct or control” curriculum and instruction when it funds the tests and advocates for a common set of standards? Does anyone believe that tests have no immediate impact on curriculum and instruction?


What lessons are to be drawn from the rocky experience of the Common Core? First, those in charge of the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration did not understand the meaning of federalism and the limits of the federal role; second, programs speedily devised and imposed by bribery tend not to last; third, haste makes waste; fourth, if new programs are devised without the engagement of experienced educators, they are unlikely to meet the needs of practitioners or the classroom. Last, the federal government should not substitute its best ideas for those who know more than they do at the state and local level. Coercion just doesn’t work very well in a democratic society.