National standards have long been the third rail of education politics. The right chokes on the word national, with its implication that the feds will trample on the states’ traditional authority over public schools. And the left chokes on the word standards, with the intimations of assessments and testing that accompany it. The result is a K-12 education system in the U.S. that is burdened by an incoherent jumble of state and local curriculum standards, assessment tools, tests, texts and teaching materials. Even worse, many states have bumbled into a race to the bottom as they define their local standards downward in order to pretend to satisfy federal demands by showing that their students are proficient.
It’s time to take another look. Without national standards for what our students should learn, it will be hard for the U.S. to succeed in the 21st century economy. Today’s wacky patchwork makes it difficult to assess which methods work best or how to hold teachers and schools accountable. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that the politics surrounding national standards has become a little less contentious. A growing coalition of reformers from civil rights activist Al Sharpton to Georgia Republican governor Sonny Perdue believe that some form of common standards is necessary to achieve a wide array of other education reforms, including merit pay for good teachers and the expansion of the role of public charter schools.
The idea of “common schools” that adopt the same curriculum and standards isn’t new. It first arose in the 1840s, largely owing to the influence of the reformer Horace Mann. But the U.S. Constitution leaves public education to the states, and the states devolve much of the authority to local school districts, of which there are now more than 13,000 in the U.S. The Federal Government provides less than 9% of the funding for K-12 schools. That is why it has proved impossible thus far to create common curriculum standards nationwide. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush summoned the nation’s governors to Charlottesville, Va., to attempt a standards-based approach to school reform. The result was only a vague endorsement of “voluntary national standards,” which never gained much traction. In 1994, President Bill Clinton got federal money for standards-based reform, but the effort remained in the hands of the states, leading to a wildly varying hodgepodge of expectations for as well as ideological battles over math and English curriculums.
The No Child Left Behind Act pushed by President George W. Bush unintentionally exacerbated the problem. It required each state to ensure that its students achieve “universal proficiency” in reading and math but allowed each to define what that meant. The result was that many states made their job easier by setting their bar lower. This race to the bottom resulted in a Lake Wobegon world where every state declared that its kids were better than average. Take the amazing case of Mississippi. According to the standards it set for itself, 89% of its fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading, making them the best in the nation. Yet according to the random sampling done every few years by the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, a mere 18% of the state’s fourth-graders were proficient, making them the worst in the nation. Even in Lake Wobegon that doesn’t happen. Only in America. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, led by reformer Chester Finn Jr., has been analyzing state standards for more than a decade and concludes, “Two-thirds of U.S. children attend schools in states with mediocre standards or worse.”
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