Slipping Standards?

August 18, 2009|By Robert Holland and Don Soifer

The movement to adopt national education standards is hurtling down the tracks to acceptance, even as many of the decision-makers behind it are laying eyes on the draft for the first time. While "voluntary" is the word that proponents routinely use to describe the proposed standards, that label is seriously misleading.

The idea is that states are coming together of their own volition to support the drafting of these guidelines for teaching reading and math, and they will be free to accept or reject the final product.

The effort will be truly voluntary only if governors and state legislatures are willing to reject hundreds of millions of federal dollars being tied to accepting the standards. How many political leaders have the guts to do that?

On July 29, the Obama administration announced that states seeking to receive shares of the $4.35 billion Congress allocated to states for education reform must adopt the new standards as their own, along with the national standardized tests to which they are aligned. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he will pay for the tests with another $350 million of federal taxpayer money. So there is little surprise that 47 states have already agreed to sign on, most of them before a draft of the standards had even been released.

Other signs the fix is in: Work groups of largely little-known academics assembled by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association have just completed a first draft of the Common Core State Standards, and a veritable who's who of powerful education interests, including the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, has already endorsed not only the standards but "aligned curriculums and aligned assessments."

Supporters of the standards argue that when everyone is taking the same test of the same curricular standards, it will be easier to ensure that all kids really do keep up.

But will really children learn more if and when there is a single national curriculum and tests subject to the influence of Washington interest groups and the shifting whims of politicians and federal bureaucrats?

An analysis of the first draft suggests a state like Maryland, which has invested much time and money into developing and refining its own standards during the past decade, might take several steps backward by discarding its work in exchange for the one-size-fits-all national model.

Maryland's English standards, for instance, are well-organized and provide rich detail on how to ensure children have the phonemic awareness and grasp of phonics to enable them to begin reading, the skill critical to all other learning. They also provide much direction about reading comprehension, both literary and informational, and offer useful ideas for adding complex words to student vocabularies grade by grade.

By contrast, the National Standards for English in their current form seem more nebulous and group-oriented than what Maryland and most other states have. They glaringly lack grade-by-grade specifics for such basic tools as phonics and the multiplication tables. Consider this mouthful:

"When communicating in a group and building on the ideas of others with group goals in mind, a student will have to respond constructively by taking turns, using non-verbal cues such as raising a hand. When communicating one-to-one, a student will be able to respond constructively in a more immediate manner such as by asking a question directly of the speaker."

Granted, state standards do vary widely, and some states (including the president's home state of Illinois) have kept the bar low. Standards-raters such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have rated Maryland's standards near the middle of the pack nationally, largely because of a degree of vagueness in later grades.

But the reasons behind different state standards have as much to do with the value of differing academic models as they do with gaming state results on No Child Left Behind testing.

Giving Washington control over national education standards would deny states one of their most effective tools for improving student learning. Even with state budgets stretched tighter than ever, is the gleam of Mr. Duncan's billions really worth compromising away something as crucial to school quality as education standards?

Robert Holland and Don Soifer are education analysts with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Their e-mail addresses are rholl1176@aol.com and soifer@lexing toninstitute.org.

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