The Time Has Come for National Standards

State education officials have adopted a new mantra: "Fewer, clearer, higher." The term refers to education standards -- what each state feels its ...
by | April 30, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

Magnify1 State education officials have adopted a new mantra: "Fewer, clearer, higher."

The term refers to education standards -- what each state feels its students must learn about math, language arts and other subjects. Each state has its own set of standards, which vary widely. There's a new effort underway to craft common standards that would be adopted by states nationwide.

"The most basic way to impact student achievement," said Ken James, Arkansas commissioner of education, "is to guarantee that what is being taught in classrooms in every Zip code of this nation is both rigorous and relevant."

Building on two years of discussions, officials from 41 states and territories met last week in Chicago to launch the drafting process. The nascent effort was the subject of a congressional hearing Wednesday.

There appears to be little debate about the need for a set of standards that is more demanding, better tailored to college and workplace requirements, and widely shared. "The standards are all over the place," Jim Hunt, the former North Carolina governor who heads an education institute at UNC, told the House Education and Labor Committee. "They are too many, they are too vague. We need a set of common standards all over the country."

State education departments have clearly gamed accountability requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires certain percentages of students to be proficient in subject areas but lets states determine how proficiency is defined.

Commonly, states with poor standards score well under NCLB -- Mississippi being a frequently cited example -- while other states that hold themselves and their students to a higher standard, such as Massachusetts, do poorly. And many states that look fine judged by their own tests fare much worse as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores.

"We continually face legal and legislative challenges to lower our content standards and make our state tests easier," echoed Greg Jones, chairman of the California Business Roundtable and a member of the California board of education.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for a national set of standards. She told the House panel that there is "now a huge consensus to raise and lift standards."

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which are leading the voluntary effort, hope to craft standards for high schools in the coming months and for elementary grades by the end of the year.

Getting all 50 states to agree to new standards that James suggests need to be higher than any state currently has -- and helping them grapple with the challenge of getting ready to implement such standards by designing new assessments and teacher development programs -- will take enormous lifting.

It's not clear where the funding will come from -- whether the feds or a group such as the Gates Foundation will pony up the cash needed even to craft the standards. One possible source would be some of the $5 billion in discretionary funds given to Education Secretary Arne Duncan under the recent stimulus law.

House Education Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat, said that leaving the creation of national standards up to states is "a very big bet," but said he thought it was a good one.

Hunt agreed that a state-led effort was the best approach, but he suggested that if the states failed in the task, the federal government should step in. "America has to do it," he said. "We must stop fooling around."

Alan Greenblatt | Senior Staff Writer |