Let Progress Trickle Up on Standards

By 06/28/2012

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When it comes to education, one size doesn’t fit all. Yet that is exactly the kind of system we would get if the U.S. required all students to meet a single set of national academic standards.

Proposing that all children meet the same standards is essentially proposing a nationalized system of education. Some reformers may argue otherwise, but the truth is that standards drive testing, which in turn drives what material is covered, as well as how and when it is taught.

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.

Who Has the Power?

Even if we could identify a single, best way to educate all children, who is to say the people controlling the nationalized education system would pursue those correct approaches? Reformers would do well to remember that they are politically weaker than teacher unions and other entrenched interests. Minority religions shouldn’t favor building national churches because inevitably it won’t be their gospel being preached.

A number of prominent reformers nevertheless seem determined to lay the foundations for this nationalized education church. What might be inspiring them to do so?

Some are convinced that national standards will be more rigorous than what most states and districts have today. Yet independent evaluations of a proposed set of national standards, known as Common Core, show that they are rather mediocre and significantly worse than those in several states.

Supporters say states, districts and individual schools would be free to surpass the national standards, just not fall below them. But testing would constrain what was taught and when. Say California wanted to maintain its more rigorous standard of covering algebra in eighth grade, rather than teaching it in ninth grade as required in Common Core. If national assessments aligned with Common Core call for children to be tested on their knowledge of algebra in ninth grade, California students who had already moved on to geometry would fare poorly being tested on material they hadn’t covered for a year. States would be penalized with lower scores on the national test if they taught subjects at a different time and in a different manner than what Common Core requires.


It is also a mistake to believe that progress can only occur with a mandate from above. This ignores how advances historically were made in education. Consider this: A little more than a century ago, many communities didn’t offer high-school education. Eighth-grade skills were considered sufficient. But over time, as local communities sought to attract residents and capital, they began offering higher-level schooling. Virtually every community in the U.S. ended up building high schools and over the years steadily raised the bar for graduation without any central authority ordering it.

Interestingly, this system of choice and competition resulted in a fair amount of uniformity across U.S. school systems. But because schools don’t have to be completely uniform they can still experiment with different approaches and customize their efforts for the specific students they serve. It is that possibility of experimenting with different standards, assessments and curricula that allows us to learn about what does and doesn’t work and make progress.

Where Is the Link?

Unfortunately, that progress largely stalled; student achievement has been flat for four decades. But this lack of progress wasn’t caused by a lack of national standards. Instead, unionization of educators and the resulting imposition of uniformity and restraints on competition are largely to blame. Imposing even more uniformity with national standards will only compound that problem.

Countries with national standards generally don’t have higher achievement. Canada and Australia are large, diverse countries like the U.S., with significantly stronger student performance as measured on international tests. Yet neither has national standards, tests or curricula. It is true that some high-achieving countries do have national standards—examples include Singapore and Finland—but these countries contain small homogeneous populations that might be more comparable to one of our states or large districts than to the U.S. as a whole. And many lower-achieving countries, such as Greece and Thailand, have national standards and curricula.

The way to improve our students’ performance is to reinvigorate choice and competition, not stifle it. We should be as wary of central planning for our education system as we would for our economy.

-Jay P. Greene

This essay was originally published by the Wall Street Journal as part of a debate on the value of national standards with Chester E. Finn.

Comment on this article
  • Anne Clark says:

    Why wouldn’t the annual standardized testing for math be based on curricula, not year in school? That way a California student in 8th grade could take either the Algebra 1 test or the Geometry test, whichever was appropriate given what they studied in school that year. The testing consortia should develop the math assessments as modules that can be administered as students complete different topics.

    Your argument leads me to conclude that there should be wide latitude in how the standards are implemented and assessed. But you haven’t convinced me that there is harm in setting uniform math standards for states to voluntarily adopt. They are flexible in that they are just a minimum, and it will be interesting to see how states react when their students do not compare favorably to other states’ students. As you say, progress has stalled, and student achievement has been flat for four decades.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    The California example was meant to illustrate the point simply, but imagine a more complicated and probably common circumstance. Suppose a state wanted to teach a component of a year’s math or English at a different time (or in a different way) than prescribed by national standards rather than teach an entire year of material at a different time. Would the state then get to pick and choose when to administer each of the sub-components of the assessments? Besides, I haven’t heard anyone offering wide latitude in how standards are implemented and assessed, so hoping for that hardly seems like a solution to the problems of centrally imposed uniformity.

  • Eric Jones says:

    As a preface, I want to stress that I have not yet determined my views on national standards. Your arguments, though, include several troubling fallacies or assumptions. First, you point out that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education and use that as an argument against national standards, but that same argument can be applied to state standards as well. In either case you have a group of people determining what everyone within a certain population should know and by when. The only difference is the size of the group affected. You fail to point out why one is acceptable and the other is not. You also fail to consider the other side of the argument. Is it fair to the students if different states have vastly different standards and/or curricula – particularly in terms of preparing those students for college?

    Second, you imply that students simply retain information (e.g., algebra skills) until they take the test and then forget it, never to see it again. That’s simply not the case – at least in the schools where I’ve worked. Instead, we build on the skills and information students have developed previously and use those to help introduce the students to new information and skills. Yes, they may lose specific information (e.g., historical dates) over time but standardized tests rarely (if ever) test anything to that level. In fact, returning to your example, if you look at trends on college entrance exams you’ll see that students who have taken geometry tend to do as well or better on the basic algebra sections than those who have only taken algebra.

    Third, your own statistics fail to support your point. You point out that there are some high performing countries which have national standards and some that don’t. Similarly you point out that there are some low performing countries which have national standards and some that don’t. As presented, your data is meaningless and shows absolutely no correlation between performance and national standards.

    Finally, you assume that standards have a direct impact on the quality of education. They don’t. In fact, standards are more or less meaningless without effective teachers in the classrooms. The reality is the better the quality of your education, the better your chances of consistently performing well on tests – regardless of the standards in place.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Thanks for your comments, Eric. Let me try to respond to the points you raise.

    First, I have no particular love for state standards. I would prefer that standards be set by schools and parents choose the schools and standards they desire. But state standards would still be better than national standards because decentralization facilitates choice, competition, experimentation, and progress. States and localities can try different things in the absence of national standards, which allows everyone to learn about and imitate what might be working better, allows some choice between different systems, and provides some competitive incentive for states and localities to innovate. This is called Tiebout choice and is part of the genius of our federal system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiebout_model ). And there is little reason to fear that states will be vastly different because competitive pressures often push localities to the same solutions, which is why we have as much uniformity as we do without national standards. We just don’t require the uniformity, which would squash experimentation.

    Second, you may be right that knowledge and skills do not fade dramatically with time, but they do fade. When and how things are tested will drive instruction.

    On your third and fourth points, you are right to say that there is no strong connection between standards and achievement either across countries or across states. But this is because standards are often empty and meaningless. If they mean anything, they drive testing and then instruction. If your claim is that national standards are OK because they will also be toothless, then why bother with them. If they will actually drive testing and instruction, then they are even worse.

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