Are you loony if you see the Common Core State Standards – federally coerced K-12 standards formally adopted by 45 states – and experience some pangs of fear that Big Brother might be creeping into classrooms? In a generally insightful analysis of the Common Core debate, National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru suggests you might be. But look at the overall federal effort of which the Core – and higher education policy – are parts, and worry is justified.

As much as proponents would like you to think otherwise, the Common Core is a component of a much greater federal effort to increasingly standardize education, accumulate data, and, ultimately, manipulate education to produce “desirable” workforce outcomes. If you are in higher education, you know the latter part full well: A few months ago President Obama announced that he will have the U.S. Department of Education create a college rating system using graduates’ earnings as a major factor. The administration’s ultimate goal is to make access to federal student aid dependent on such outcomes.

Unfortunately, at least as evidenced by the national Common Core debate, few who focus on elementary and secondary education are either aware of this, or want to openly make the connection between Common Core and higher education policy. That’s likely in part because Core proponents don’t want to acknowledge evidence that justifies the concerns of opponents they insist are tinfoil hatters.

That said, you don’t have to look at what the administration envisions for higher ed to see the “big data” goal. Common Core adoption was coerced using federal Race to the Top funds, and the Race also included major data-use demands. The drive also isn't just from the Obama administration. Washington has been pushing massive collection longer than that, including an effort that suggests hundreds of student-level variables, ranging from religion to bus schedules, for states and districts to use.

It’s not hard to understand the “why” of the big data push. For roughly two decades federal K-12 policy has been focused on holding schools “accountable,” and to do that even close to reasonably one must control for myriad factors outside of school that affect educational outcomes. It is necessary to determine the much discussed “value-added” of a school, rather than simply declare a school with a thousand impoverished students – and low test scores – failing, and one with a hundred rich, relatively high-scoring kids great. In addition, it is easiest to have a single set of standards and tests, with one definition of proficiency, to compare the performance of, say, Elementary School X in Mississippi to Public School Y in New York City.

Then there’s college. As was pointed out in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece about the Department of Education's college ratings, to fairly assess the performance of institutions of higher learning it is, as in K-12 schooling, necessary to control for numerous factors affecting student performance outside of college. Almost certainly among those is the effect of the schools that students attended before college, as well as lots of personal characteristics.

When all that data is collected the well intentioned Big Brother can really get to work, with bureaucratic number crunchers able to declare which schools are “good,” which are “bad,” and make numerous pronouncements – and policy recommendations – about how education must be “reformed” to get the workforce outcomes Big Bro thinks optimal. And given all the data to play with, policies likely won’t just be targeted at schools, but, at the very least, also “nudging” the decisions and behaviors of parents, students, and anyone else who might affect a child.

Alas, as long as the goal is to “help,” many people will see no problem with a data-driven federal effort to micromanage Americans’ lives. But it will be Big Brother nonetheless, and not only is it reasonable to fear that, it is ultimately unreasonable not to. Unless, that is, you think the Federal government will do a much better job or running your life – or raising your child – than you would. And if you think that, I have a website to sell you.



Posted by: Neal McCluskey

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