Charting a Path to National Standards

Many an education blogger is suffering through a sagging jaw this morning over yesterday’s Gates Foundation convening.  On the whole, the Gates meeting was a reiteration of the Foundation’s mission, pledging to strengthen high school and get more students college ready.  As Eduflack hoped for yesterday, the issue of teacher quality has been added to the agenda.  But for the most part, the Gates Foundation is standing pat.  See the full story at Education Week —  

What has those jaws dropping and the eyes bugging is the notion of national standards.  As part of yesterday’s discussion, the Gates Foundation said it was going to develop national education standards and, as part of it, develop national exams that aligned with those standards.
Some are frightened by the notion that Gates is now setting policy, rather than engaging in improving practice.  Personally, I see the announcement on national standards as a bold move that is long overdue.  Without question, we are a country in need of national standards.  Too many states adjust their levels of proficiency on a yearly basis to ensure they meet AYP provisions.  As a result, reading proficiency in Mississippi isn’t the same as reading proficiency in Massachusetts, and while the data tells us those fourth graders in Mississippi are far stronger readers than those in the Boston area, we know that not to be the case.  The result?  We are unable to truly point to gaps in learning across the states, leading to slipping performance on international measures such as TIMSS and PISA.
National learning standards are a primary issue for Eduflack.  Personally, I spent my childhood moving from state to state, the son in a higher education administration equivalent of a military family.  I saw duplication in learning moving from seventh grade in New Jersey to eighth grade in New Mexico.  And I saw a massive slippage in requirements going from a 10th grader in New Mexico to an 11th grader in West Virginia.  Every step of the way, I had to fight against the need to repeat courses because I took them during the “wrong” academic year.  And I’ve long wondered why my life science in Massachusetts didn’t meet my biology in New Jersey.  
For many, this is rarely an issue.  But as we grow into a more and more transient population, a patchwork of curricula, a mis-match of standards, and an overall lack of educational leadership simply won’t stand.  Algebra II proficiency should be Algebra II proficiency,regardless of the state in which you live.  Fourth grade reading proficiency is fourth grade reading proficiency, regardless of which state history you are studying in middle school.  And high school proficiency is high school proficiency, with no employers caring that Michigan has a different perception of standards that Georgia or New York.
For the past 18 months, the Gates Foundation has invested heavily into the Ed in 08 effort.  As part of his stumping, Ed in 08 Chair Roy Romer regularly spoke of the need for national standards.  His solution?  Gather together six of the strongest education governors, lock them in a room, and have them develop a standard all six of their states can stand by.  Put those standards into practice in those half-dozen states.  Show they work.  Then have the remainder of the governors do the same in their states once we see the success.  Boom — national standards.  Created from the bottom up, but one standard that stands firm for all, no matter where you receive your mail.
At this point, the U.S. Department of Education’s “brand” is at a relative low.  ED doesn’t have the strength or the buy-in to move national standards into practice.  It requires an outside agent of change to move the ball forward.  Action taken today by Gates makes it easier for other groups or even ED itself to take the ball in for the final touchdown down the field.  Consider it the ole “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy.  Gates is now willing to take the ball, and run it up the gut of the education establishment.  And there are few in a position to stop them at the line of scrimmage.
Yes, it means Gates is now wading into the elementary and middle grades, a playground with few Gates resources and few Gates flags in the ground.  Will some fear Gates will try to strong arm their grantees or potential grantees into accepting these standards?  Sure.  But even if they did, that doesn’t get us anywhere close to national standards.  Should we worry about a non-government entity drafting student exams?  Of course.  We would never let third parties, unaffiliated with state or federal government to develop, say, entrance exams to college, would we College Board and ACT?
If not Gates, then who?  We’ve been talking national standards for decades now, and no one has stepped up to put their ideas up on the chalk board and let them stand the scrutiny of the industry.  The Gates Foundation has made a bold promise here.  With such promises come real action.  The final solution may not look anything like what Gates is proposing, or it may be an offshoot of a great idea coming out Seattle.  Regardless, the Gates commitment means the attention of others.  It means the commitment of others.  And it means a greater level of interest and concern for the construct of a meaningful national education standard.  That is a win-win for all involved.
Me, I’m not worried about this notion that Bill Gates is trying to be the “U.S. Superintendent of Education,” as one blogger recently put it.  If the man can eradicate malaria in Africa, certainly he can assemble a team to build a meaningful, clear, valuable national education standard and an assessment by which to measure every student against it.  He does that, and it means far more than any high school reformed and any small school constructed.  

2 thoughts on “Charting a Path to National Standards

  1. Blogging about national standards reduces your credibility. National standards are simply not a political reality in a country as diverse as the US. State rights will always trump any drive to implement a national education standard.

  2. I would agree that moving us to national standards right now is not politically possible.  There isn’t the will out there to do so, nor is there the sense of urgency necessary for so many needed stakeholders to implement a national education standard.  And I agree in terms of states rights, which is why I believe Romer’s idea — of letting the governor’s drive the development of such standards — is a practical approach to getting us where we need to go.  But discussing an issue like national standards, and pushing ideas that may be unpopular to some or impractical to others, is exactly what is needed.  If we can agree, as a nation, to a national Algebra II standards (as Achieve is developing), surely it is not inconceivable that we may one day move to a national standard for all core subject matter.

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