National Standards Nonsense Redux



By 06/08/2010

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The revised set of proposed national standards were released last week.  I don’t know what else to write about this without sounding like a  broken record.  The bottom line is that this is a really dangerous movement that is receiving support from some people who should know better.

As we’ve already pointed out at JPGB, there is nothing voluntary about these national standards.  Neal McCluskey over at Cato has also made this same point numerous times.  The federal government requires that states commit to adopting the national standards as a condition of applying for Race to the Top Funds.  And the Obama administration is floating the idea of making state adoption of these national standards a requirement for Title I or other federal funds.  So, the national standards are “voluntary” in the sense that states can choose not to do it as long as they don’t mind letting the federal government hand out the tax dollars their residents pay to residents of other states but not to them.

We’ve also pointed out numerous times that many credible people have raised strong concerns about the rigor and soundness of the proposed national standards (here, here, here, and here).  The Fordham Foundation has given passing grades to the proposed standards, but frankly it is not particularly persuasive to gather a group of your like-minded friends experts and ask them to give grades to something you favor — especially if the grades given by the experts might be changed if they are at odds with Fordham’s predisposition.

But perhaps the strongest objection to national standards that we have repeated at JPGB (here, here, and here) is that even if the current set of proposed national standards is an improvement for some states (and less good than others), there is strong reason to fear that people opposed to sensible, rigorous standards will gain control over the newly created national standards infrastructure and be in a position to impose their nonsense on everyone.  Remember that teacher unions, ed schools, and other opponents of tough standards that might expose the shortcomings of schools and teachers are much better organized and politically powerful than anyone else in education politics.  Over time they will gain control of the machinery of national standards even if they do not control it now.

None of the reasons typically given for national standards is compelling.  As I’ve written before,  ”We don’t need national standards to prevent states from dumbing down their own standards. We already have a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered by the U.S. Department of Education, to show how states are performing on a common yardstick and to shame those that set the bar too low. Illinois, for example, isn’t fooling anyone when it says that 82% of its 8th graders are proficient in reading because according to NAEP only 30% are proficient. The beauty of NAEP is that it provides information without forcing conformity to a single, national curriculum.”

And to repeat myself some more: “Nor is it the case that adopting national standards would close the achievement gap between the U.S. and our leading economic competitors. Yes, many of the countries that best us on international tests have national standards, but so do many of the countries that lag behind us. If there really were one true way to educate all children, why stop at national standards? Why not have global standards with a global curriculum?

We would oppose global standards for the same reasons we should oppose national standards. Making education uniform at too high of a level of aggregation ignores the diversity of needs of our children as well as the diversity of opinion about how best to serve those needs. And giving people at the national or global level the power to determine what everyone should learn is dangerous because they will someday use that power to promote unproductive or even harmful ideas.”

I’ve never seen any of the advocates of national standards adequately address any of these objections.  Until they do I guess I’ll just have to keep repeating myself.




Comment on this article
  • Bert says:

    You claim, “We already have a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) … to show how states are performing on a common yardstick and to shame those that set the bar too low. Illinois, for example, isn’t fooling anyone when it says that 82% of its 8th graders are proficient in reading because according to NAEP only 30% are proficient. ”

    NAEP says, “State assessments often define ‘proficiency’ as solid grade-level performance, often indicating readiness for promotion to the next grade. NAEP’s policy definition of its ‘Proficient’ achievement level is ‘competency over challenging subject matter’ and is implicitly intended to be higher than grade-level performance.” (Andrew Kolstad, Senior Technical Advisor, Assessment Division, National Center for Education Statistics)

    There is a short article that discusses and documents the difference between NAEP Proficient and state proficient. See http://www.pareonline.net/pdf/v12n5.pdf

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Thanks, Bert. And here is an article showing how NAEP can be used to shame states that set their standards too low:
    http://educationnext.org/keeping-an-eye-on-state-standards/

  • Andrew Ordover says:

    Re this: “If there really were one true way to educate all children, why stop at national standards? Why not have global standards with a global curriculum?”

    Let’s not confuse educational standards with “ways to educate all children.” The standards are not a “way.” They are the goalposts. As long as standards are reasonably general in nature (i.e., not so broad as to be meaningless, but not so narrow as to become provincial and restrictive), there is no reason not to have some common goals for what basic, minimum content information our students should have, and and what basic skills they should aquire–if not in every year of school, then at least at some key, benchmark years.

    The way in which students are taught should vary and must vary, based on student needs, interests, and abilities.

  • Bert says:

    I’m familiar with the Peterson and Hess piece that you reference. Unfortunately, they assume that “proficient” is “Proficient.” The 2001 NCLB required states to define proficient as meeting grade-level expectations. The 1990 NAEP definition focuses on ab0ve-grade-level performance. It doesn’t make sense to me to compare the percentage of students performing at the C-/C level and above with the percentage of students performing at the B+/A- level and above, and then declare the C-/C percentage a lie. Sorry.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Andrew,

    If the goals are specific enough to have any meaning, they will almost certainly have a profound effect on what is taught and how it is taught in each classroom. This is more true once we consider that there will also be national assessments linked to these national standards.

    If the assessment emphasizes project-based learning, I assure you that there will be a lot more projects-based lessons in schools.

  • Matthew Ladner says:

    Bert-

    Even if you focus on the percentage of children scoring “Basic” or better on NAEP, many state tests pull up lame.

  • [...] if there are superior alternatives to national standards. You can read Jay’s initial post here, Mike’s subsequent response here, and Jay’s most recent reply right [...]

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