The Slow March Toward National Standards

For months now, the education chattering class has been talking about the behind-the-scenes efforts by the US Department of Education to craft national education standards.  We’ve heard that Achieve was slated to deliver draft math and reading standards to Maryland Avenue by early summer, with plans for a thorough and robust debate leading up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Maria Glod reports that 46 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the K-12 national education standards movement, offering “an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American Schools.”  The full story can be found here.   
The thinking here is a simple one.  In this era of AYP, it only makes sense that we have a single yardstick by which to measure student achievement, starting with math and reading.  For years now, we’ve heard how students are knocking it out of the park when it comes to state assessments (just look at elementary reading in Mississippi), but then we fail to see the progress when it comes to annual NAEP scores.  The common thinking is that some states have dropped their bars so low in order to demonstrate student achievement and student growth that some state tests have become complete irrelevant in determining actual student achievement and success.
So now National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have brought together most of the states to help develop these common standards for academic performance.  Most states have already anted in.  The only holdouts, according to WaPo, are Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina.  Their reason?  These Republican-controlled states are touting the need for local control of the schools, and national standards run contrary to local decisionmakers determining what is best for their local residents.
The current plan is to roll out “readiness standards” in July, benchmarks for high school graduates in reading and math.  Then folks would build out the grade-by-grade needs to reach those readiness standards.  It is important to note that the 46+ states have simply agreed to the process.  They would then need to agree to, adopt, fund, and implement the standards once they are developed.  So we are still a good ways away from national standards even being close to national policy.  Why?
First, every expert, quasi-expert, and member of the chattering class is going to want to get in on this discussion.  Everyone has ideas as to what should be in national standards.  Every political and ideological group will want to get in on the process, running the risk of taking a bold move and watering it down so much to appease all of the audiences that believe they should have a seat at the table.
Second, many will raise concerns that we are only addressing math and reading.  LIke AYP, this push is focusing on the corest of the core subjects.  But can we really have a true national standards system without addressing science, social studies, and foreign language?  In a month when NAEP is actually releasing national art education data (scheduled for June 15), can we settle for just reading and math?  Many an expert or an expert in training will call for a comprehensive system that addresses all academic subjects, worried that an initial focus on math and reading means we only value the two subjects and will only hold states and schools accountable on these two measures (much like we have with AYP).
Third, we need to give standards real teeth.  In many ways, national standards serve as a wish list for public education in the United States.  To put real power behind it, we need to develop and implement actual tests aligned with those standards.  Such tests seem to be the third rail of public education.  We fret about the costs, we worry about the quantitative and qualitative, and we struggle with the notion we are implementing another “high-stakes” test on our kids.  The end result?  We could end up with a lovely policy document outlining our national education expectations, but lacking a tangible way to transform that policy into instructional reality with real measurement and accountability.  National standards only work if we have one strong test that is implemented and enforced EQUALLY by all of the states.
Fourth, states actually need to agree to the final documents … and put them into practice.  In 2005, all 50 states agreed to common high school graduation standards, shepherded through the process by NGA.  At the time, every governor in the country agreed to a measure that called for grad rates to be calculated as the number of ninth graders who secure a diploma four years later.  We’re now four years later, and the majority of states have failed to actually implement the formula.  (In part because those who have have experienced a drop in their statewide grad rates.)  Former EdSec Margaret Spellings tried to institute the new grad rate through federal regulation, but the current talk about town is that EdSec Duncan will be turning back Spellings’ Christmas Eve Eve decision, leaving grad rate determination to the states.  So even if every governor in the country agrees to the idea of standards in principle, they all need to sign off on the final decisions and actually move them into practice, replacing the patchwork of states standards of various strengths and scopes with one common national standard.
Currently, the Nation’s Report Card — or NAEP — is the closest thing we have to national standards.  But as we take a look at the NAEP results, we see many a disturbing data set that must be addressed in developing national standards.  It stands to reason that NAEP measures for reading and math proficiency would be pretty close to national standards in the same subjects.  So what does it mean when slightly more than half of all U.S. fourth graders can score proficient or better on the NAEP reading exam?  What does it mean when only about a third of eighth graders are score proficient or better, and the best state in the union is clocking in at 43 percent proficiency on eighth grade reading?  And what do we do about the persistent achievement gap, particularly the 20-plus year problem we see in 11th grade math and reading?  How do we make sure that all students — even those from historically disadvantaged groups — are performing against the national standards and achieving?  When we set national standards, the goal needs to be all students hitting the mark.  We cannot and must not settle for a system where the majority of kids fail to achieve proficiency, and we still see that as a sign of a successful public school system.
Yes, Eduflack is a pessimist by nature.  But I also believe that today’s NGA/CCSSO announcement is a positive step forward.  In today’s transient society, with students changing schools and states as families change and jobs shift, we need some guarantees that a fifth grade education is the same, regardless of area code.  We need some promise that a high school diploma means the same thing, regardless of Zip code.  This is a non-negotiable if we are to prepare all students for the opportunities before them, particularly if we are looking for them to hold their own on international benchmarks such as TIMSS and PISA.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.  We need to get all states to overcome the notion of local control and embrace the guidance and framework of national standards.  We need to construct effective tests that move those standards into practice.  We need to move beyond just math and reading and ensure that all academic (and even those some would deem non-academic) are measured as well.  We need to give equal billing t
o elementary, middle, and secondary learning standards.  And we need to ensure that if all students are to be held to the same national standard, they all need to have equal access to the same educational resources.  That means national standards, if you will, when it comes to early childhood education, high-quality teachers, and other such measures.
But we are moving forward.  We just have to keep that momentum going, transforming challenges into opportunities and not allowing roadblocks to divert our attention (and subvert our public will) in the process.  If we believe that every student in the United States requires a high-quality, effective education, we need to measure every student with the same yardstick.  Quality and effectiveness should be universal, not subjective based on state borders.  National standards starts making that goal a reality.

364 thoughts on “The Slow March Toward National Standards

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