Speaking Locally, Thinking Nationally

To put it mildly, it’s no secret that state legislatures and local governments have been resistant to NCLB, particularly its accountability provisions.  The reason is fairly simple.  K-12 education has long been perceived as a local issue.  Local school boards make curricular decisions, state legislatures set funding priorities, and all are focused on the educational needs at the very local of levels.

It’s only been in recent years that the federal role in K-12 has gained a spotlight.  NCLB moved the feds from the role of funder to the role of active participant.  Sure, the feds provide less than 10% of the money spent on education in this country.  But it carries a big stick.  NCLB provides a lot of new money if you’re willing to play ball, and poses the threat of pulling funding if you don’t play by the rules.

So yesterday’s vote at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual conference should come as no surprise.  NCSL members rejected national education standards, even voluntary ones.  Education Week has the story, as disappointing as it is.  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/08/06/45ncsl_web.h26.html

We all know the great Tip O’Neill adage that all politics is local.  That was surely the case for NCSL.  In carefully chosen language, they embraced the notion of “rigorous state standards” and “individual state refinement of standards.”  This should be no surprise.  When you are a member of a state legislature, you want to keep the power in your hands.  You want to be the one to write the standards, fund the standards, and evaluate the standards.  It’s your best chance to control the outcomes, particularly if you are to be held accountable by your constituency.

No, Eduflack isn’t going to fault NCSL for defending its turf and speaking strongly on a key issue.  For that they should be applauded.  But I will take issue with, yet again, the attack on NCLB as a justification for the such a policy stance.  So I issue a rhetorical challenge to all, stand up for what you believe in, without needing to tear down or tear into NCLB.  It’s a great communications bogeyman, sure, but NCLB is not responsible for all that ills our schools, despite the urban legend.

Yes, we all know there is room for improvement in NCLB.  We all know that many states have felt the financial sting of meeting the accountability standards in the law, with some seeing it as an unfunded mandate.  But you also can’t ignore that Reading First has given the states more than $5 billion in additional funding to date to implement SBRR.  And a quarter of that — more than $1 billion — was intended for stronger, more relevant teacher professional development.

Like it or not, local control is quickly intersecting with national expectations.  Blame the “world is flat” economy, blame NAFTA, blame the little that has been done since we discovered we were a “Nation at Risk.”  If we expect our kids to thrive once they leave the schoolhouse doors for the last time, living up to the expectations and standards of the local community is no longer enough.

Today’s students are being asked to compete with students across the state, across the nation, and around the world.  Employers are looking for core competencies in all of their corporate locations.  They expect employees in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Phoenix, Hartford, and even Bangalore to bring the same skills and the same abilities.  Our institutions of higher education are usually screening applicants with one master rubric.  National standards (even the voluntary ones) are coming.

My K-12 years were spent in public schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and West Virginia.  Did I notice the differences?  You bet.  Did I feel one state’s education was stronger than another’s?  Of course.

More and more, we are becoming a transient society.  Unlike generations past (even mine), it is now a rarity for a student to finish high school with the same cohort of students he or she started kindergarten with.  A little sad, sure, but it is the reality.  Whether NCLB is on the books or not, national education standards are an important tool in our changing education system and our evolving economy.  They are the great equalizer, ensuring that a public education is worth the same in Alabama as it is in Oregon, the same in Nevada as it is in New York.

If we want a public education to mean something again, we need to restore its value and we need to quantify its impact.  The era where one could say, “well it is good enough for <insert state here>” is over.  This should be the new frontier, where we demonstrate that students in our state are outperforming those in our neighboring states.  The only way that works is when we measure with the same ruler.  Groups like NCSL should be a key part of the dialogue to choose the right national ruler; they shouldn’t be hiding it from those who really need a good measure.

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