Bill Bennett Doesn’t Know What He Is Talking About

Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett is at it again. Even though a self-styled conservative, Bennett was a fan of the Common Core national standards pushed by the Obama administration and various progressive-education foundations. He recently wrote for Fox News (republished at the Fordham Institute’s blog) that the new fed-ed bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), restores state sovereignty over education policy, and he challenges states to step up to the plate, as Massachusetts and Kentucky supposedly have done. But some of the points he makes are, shall we say, confused.

First, Bennett expresses satisfaction that ESSA allows states to escape from the policies he supported in the past. Common Core was a centralized scheme of minimal, utilitarian workforce-development standards crafted in secret by unaccountable private organizations and pushed onto the states by the federal government. Although nothing about this scheme suggests “conservative,” Bennett was a supporter (he acknowledged he was paid for his public advocacy). The implicit concession is that what he advocated was bad and that states should celebrate ESSA’s freeing them from “compliance mode.” Odd.

Second, Bennett’s claim that ESSA reduces federal control over education is, unfortunately, not true. Observers who actually read the 1,061-page bill have pointed out that it, in fact, codifies some of the federal controls that had previously been present only in Obama policy (to the extent that former Education Secretary Arne Duncan chortled at what his side was able to get away with during negotiations on the bill).

Third, Bennett’s description of the recent history of Massachusetts education is a jumbled mess. He correctly states that “[i]n the 1990s, the Bay State dramatically raised standards . . . . Within several years, it became the nation’s leader in education and on par with some of the leading countries in the world.” But then he goes on to lament the “legitimate concern today that Massachusetts has begun watering down some of its rigorous standards and that performance is starting to backslide.” Bennett apparently doesn’t know what really happened in Massachusetts education.

As the Boston-based scholars at the Pioneer Institute have explained, the “watering down,” or more accurately gutting, of the Massachusetts standards occurred when that state yielded to the $250 million federal bribe to replace its first-rate standards with the demonstrably inferior Common Core. Since that happened in 2010, the performance of Massachusetts students has indeed begun to “backslide,” as Bennett puts it. But this happened under the training of Common Core – which Bennett assured us would be great – not the genuine education of the previous Massachusetts standards.

Bennett may have been awkwardly referring to Massachusetts’s current review of the Common Core English language arts and math standards. Perhaps he’s concerned that, impelled by the solid anti-Common Core movement in the state, the Massachusetts education establishment will creep away from the Common Core standards that Bennett thinks so highly of and back toward the previous excellent standards. But wait – the backsliding student performance Bennett bemoans came under Common Core, which he thinks is great, but which he’s happy states will be liberated from under ESSA. Confused yet?

Bennett ends by saying, “We know what works in education, but for years, states, districts, superintendents and teachers have had their focus distracted and hands tied by burdensome federal regulations.” Indeed. What works in education is the pre-Common Core education program that was in place in Massachusetts. The burdensome federal policies included coercing Massachusetts to replace its standards with Bennett’s preferred Common Core. One would almost conclude that Bill Bennett doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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