Despite the Obama Administration’s assertion that the push for states to adopt national education standards and tests is completely voluntary, concerns have been raised from the beginning about the federal “carrot and stick” approach driving their adoption.

A key qualification for a Race to the Top grant was moving toward adoption of “common” standards and tests, and the Department of Education has indicated that receipt of federal Title I money—the largest federal obligation to public schools—could be contingent upon a state’s adoption of the standards. Catherine Gewertz at Education Week outlines some of those concerns:

The federal-intrusion sentiment pre-existed Race to the Top, of course. That resentment was one of the ingredients in the implosion of earlier attempts at national standards. Keen awareness of that history shaped the name and rhetoric around this effort (think state, not national, standards). …That put the leaders of the common-standards work in the position of having to disentangle the initiative from the Education Department’s support of it. …

Making the rounds at conferences and such, the organizers made no secret of their view that the feds’ messaging was complicating their own. They uttered the phrase “state-led” so often that I began to see it bannered, as if dragged by a shoreline advertising plane, in my dreams. They squirmed under the public perception that states were adopting the standards in a Race to the Trough driven by tough economic times, rather than for their own inherent merit.

But with 36 states and D.C. having adopted the common standards, it would seem that the feds’ discomfiting embrace has paid off richly for the initiative. There was no mistaking the RTT [Race to the Top]-induced adoption pattern: Every single state that either won a grant or was still vying for one adopted the standards. Quite neatly, that allowed the common-standards organizers to keep highlighting the state-led nature of the work and keep shooting down the national-standards bugaboo, while also benefiting from the accelerated adoption schedule fueled by Race to the Top.

“Discomfiting embrace” is a perfect description of the Obama Administration’s approach to education reform. But thankfully, national standards are by no means a fait accompli, and states should shake off this federal overreach into their educational decision-making authority.