National Standards: Rush to Judgment?

By 08/22/2009

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Writing in the Baltimore Sun earlier this week, the Lexington Institute’s Robert Holland and Don Soifer reject the idea of national education standards on three grounds: that they’re not truly voluntary, that they’ll inevitably lead to a much-feared “national curriculum, and that part of the roadkill will be Maryland having to replace its “rich,” “well-organized” English standards with this unproven multi-state model.

It’s premature to evaluate the products of the current “common standards” project being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for the subjects of reading/writing and math. The first “public” draft is promised to be available for comment in mid-September. (I saw an earlier version of the reading/writing part a few weeks back and, within some important limits and caveats, found considerable merit there.)

Yes, those who abhor the thought of national education standards and tests for the United States will find all sorts of reasons to oppose them. I don’t know if the forthcoming product, once fully massaged, will be to my liking. But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is obsolete and dysfunctional—as well as mediocre or worse in many states. (There are a few happy exceptions.)

In Maryland, for example, the last time Fordham examined that state’s standards (2006), our evaluators gave them an overall C+ grade—including a flat C in English (down from B a few years earlier). Maybe Maryland has since cleaned up its act—we’re embarking on a new round of reviews—but otherwise the state is using expectations for its students and schools that ought not please Messrs. Holland and Soifer any better than they satisfied Fordham’s expert analysts.

As for the “voluntary” nature of the forthcoming common standards, Bob and Don focus on what they claim is a federal requirement that states “must adopt the new standards as their own” in order to qualify for funding under the sizable “race to the top” kitty that Secretary Duncan will be handing out. They’re partly right. For a state’s “phase 2? Race-to-the-Top application to be taken seriously, it must demonstrate “commitment to improving the quality of its standards by adopting, as part of a multi-state consortium, a common set of K-12 standards…that are internaitonally benchmarked” and must “participate” in a consortium to develop assessments aligned with those standards. (It doesn’t say states must use such assessments.)

States that don’t want to do any of this (or to comply with several other Arne Duncan priorities) may forego Race-to-the-Top funding. Fair enough. In a perfect world, the “common standards” would be finalized and subject to scrutiny before the Education Department pressured states to adopt them. In reality, however, the “carrot” here is one-time federal funding attached to an impatient economic stimulus measure. Duncan has only one shot at doing his best to exact some “reform” from all those billions rather than the simple budgetary back-filling that will otherwise occur in state and local education systems. It’s a risk, yes, but one well worth taking.

Comment on this article
  • tim-10-ber says:

    I hope your review of state standards will cover the standards being used in the 2009-2010 school year. Tennessee has supposedly raised its standards for this school year. I would love to get your opinion on them. I have heard mixed reviews with most of them being negative.

    Thank you!

  • Barry Garelick says:

    ” In a perfect world, the “common standards” would be finalized and subject to scrutiny before the Education Department pressured states to adopt them. In reality, however, the “carrot” here is one-time federal funding attached to an impatient economic stimulus measure”

    That explains the rush, I guess. Thanks for the clarification. I was a bit confused when I saw that the
    Dept of Ed., Institute of Education Sciences is looking for applications for research projects specified in a Request for Applications. One of the projects is to set up a research center that would, among other things, do research on what makes good math standards.

    “… the Institute is establishing the National Research and Development Center on Mathematics Standards and Assessment (Math Assessment Center). The Institute intends for the Math Assessment Center to work with a state or consortium of states to revise and/or develop standards and a framework for mathematics assessments, and to conduct research to improve the development of high-stakes mathematics assessments.”

    At first, it seemed like the cart before the horse. Why the push for national standards (via NGA/CCSSO) before the research is done on what makes good standards? But now it all makes sense. I guess.


    for a copy of the RFA.

  • Danaher Dempsey says:

    The federal government is taking over public education. It has no legal authority to do this, but it’s doing it anyway. This is not change I believe in.

    Is this “Race to the Top” really OK?

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