National Standards: Rush to Judgment?

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 But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is obsolete and dysfunctional—as well as mediocre or worse in many states.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.

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