Last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-GA) pulled his state out of the Race to the Top competition, a $4 billion initiative that provides states with grants for implementing education reforms. In March, Delaware and Tennessee won the first round of the competition — receiving a total of $600 million — and applications for the second round are due today.
McDonnell claimed to take issue with the competition’s emphasis on states adopting the National Governors Association’s common set of academic standards, saying that Virginia’s current standards are “much superior.” Today, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, McDonnell went one step further, claiming that Race to the Top would actually mandate that Virginia lower its standards, as the common standards act as a “ceiling” that states cannot go beyond:
The problem is one of the criteria Joe, in this federal program, is to adopt a common core set of standards, academic standards, to get the points you need to be competitive, and we can’t do that. We’ve had a great set of standards here in Virginia for 15 years, and we think those common standards ought to be a floor not a ceiling, and so they would require us to essentially reduce the quality of Virginia’s standards, and we just can’t do that. It’s more, I think, overburdensome federal standards.
Mika Brzezinski asked, “and for sure it would have you lower the standards?” She was right to be skeptical. While states do receive 40 points on their Race to the Top application for adopting the NGA’s standards, the program’s executive summary clearly states that they are a floor, not a ceiling, and that states wishing to put in place more ambitious standards are free to do so:
Common set of K-12 standards means a set of content standards that define what students must know and be able to do and that are substantially identical across all States in a consortium. A State may supplement the common standards with additional standards, provided that the additional standards do not exceed 15 percent of the State’s total standards for that content area.
And it’s not like Virginia was in danger of having its hands tied by common standards anyway. According to the Fordham Institute, “in the upper grades [in Virginia], progress in algebra is slow, with students not introduced to the concept of slope by the end of eighth grade,” and “there are serious deficiencies in the Algebra I and II and Geometry requirements, especially in the latter’s development of mathematical reasoning.” Between 2003 and 2009, Virginia made only slight progress in closing the gap between average achievement between low-income and other 8th graders on math scores.
And for McDonnell to call this a “federal mandate” conveniently obscures the fact that the standards were developed by the nation’s governors, not by the Department of Education or anyone else within the Obama administration. Virginia finished 31st out of 41 applicants in the competition’s first round, and now McDonnell is simply digging for excuses for his state’s inability to implement more ambitious reforms that would strengthen its bid.