With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

National Education Standards: Here They Come Again!

Remarkably, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, has come out in favor of national education standards (Washington Post, February 16, 2009).  She declared that “Abundant evidence suggests that common, rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of achievement.”  She decried “the uneven patchwork of academic standards for students” across America, and asked, “Should fate, as determined by a student's Zip code, dictate how much algebra he or she is taught?”

I was stunned by Ms. Weingarten’s column.  I cannot recall the last time that a public school union head had stumped for national standards.  Indeed, the other major teacher union, the National Education Association, regularly has helped deep-six education standards proposals. 

For years, I and many other education reformers have argued for national education standards and tests.  We also have warned against allowing the states to continue to craft their own yardsticks for academic achievement.  Regrettably, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) failed to do the former and permitted this latter practice to continue.

Even worse, the NCLB established a fantastically complex metric, adequate yearly progress (AYP), to measure schools’ academics.  Put crudely, AYP measures the annual growth in the percentage of a school’s students who score at or above the state standard for competency in a subject area.  Though well intended, this policy rewards perverse behavior.  States’ can set low academic standards and then progressively water down their tests’ rigor so that more and more kids pass them each year. 

Abundant confusion has resulted.  Parents looking at school report cards are baffled.  One may read that a school made AYP last year, and that 72% of its third-graders scored at an “adequate” level in reading.  So, how well can these children read?  The answer is --- it is anybody’s guess. 

Now comes Ms. Weingarten’s conversion.  While national education standards advocates have cheered, it is far from clear whether the AFT head’s support will translate into success.  Close observers cannot help but wonder, “Why has Randi taken to this cause now?  Is she really willing to fight bruising legislative battles on behalf of national education standards?”

More significantly, Ms. Weingarten’s op-ed failed to provide good answers to two key policy questions.  First, how exactly are we supposed to craft these education standards?  She suggests that “a broad-based group --- made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content --- come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model.”  We tried something like this in the 1990s, and it ignited political firestorms.  Those needing a refresher on the ugly politics of national education standards creation should read Diane Ravitch’s  National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide (Brookings, 1994) or eyeball this HNN op-ed of mine.

Second, how would we get schools to adopt the national standards?  As Ms. Weingarten no doubt knows, we already have national education standards for a number of subjects.  Why are these standards not used in the schools?  Simple --- federal K-12 aid programs do not require states to implement the standards as a condition of aid.  Despite all the complaints about NCLB “federalizing” the curriculum, the truth is that states and localities continue to decide what to teach.

Perhaps the most sensible solution to the situation is to take produce national education standards from the national assessments that we already have.  For nearly 40 years,  the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been used to test students in a variety of subject areas.  These exams are widely respected.  Federal law could be amended to require the non-partisan National Center for Education Statistics or the bi-partisan National Assessment Governing Board to expand the NAEP frameworks (which are used to produce the exams) into detailed education standards.

And while we are at it, critics on the right and the left can be placated by eliminating the consequences attached to federal testing.  Under NCLB, schools that do not make AYP each year face escalating interventions by the school district or state.  Why not just test all the kids on the same national standards and make schools’, districts’, and states’ collective results available to the public?  Perhaps the shaming power of test scores can spur states and localities to more broadly experiment with different means for remedying educational under-achievement.