National Education Standards: Here They Come Again!

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Mr. Kosar is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005),

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.

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Larry DeWitt - 3/9/2009


Nice essay. Just caught up with it.
Well done.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/4/2009

Aside from the politics of history standards, there are some practical problems. One that I have been grappling with is the utilization of state and local history to illustrate national trends.

That is something that can work extremely well. It also makes easier innovative use of local resources. Unfortunately national history tests are just that, national. State history exams, with some rare exceptions, are non-existent or (as in my state) exist only as a portion of a broader social studies exam. The odds of a state question alligning with a local project are not high.

To impose national standards in this context would exacerbate that problem of alligning what is taught with what is tested. Given the reality that such results would be used to reward or penalize schools, the effect would be to reduce drastically the ability of teachers to focus on the local, even if the intent is to illustrate larger trends.

That strikes me as harmful. Still, if someone has thoughts on how to deal with that, I would be willing to listen.

Kevin R Kosar - 3/3/2009

Quite right!

Luther Spoehr - 3/2/2009

Randi Weingarten is just now catching up with the late Albert Shanker, who led her own union:
"With a national curriculum, everybody knows what is required. If there also are clear and visible stakes--getting into university or an apprenticeship program--the pressure is on to make sure youngsters meet the standards. Without national standards and a national curriculum, there are no such pressures.''
--Where We Stand, Dec. 6, 1992
(Quoted in Education Week, March 5, 1997)

Kevin R Kosar - 3/2/2009

A couple readers have sent me e-mails suggesting that the NEA has gotten behind national standards. I'm dubious.

For one, the NEA's most recent statement on the subject appears to support creating standards through state, not federal, governmental action. (Read it here: http://www.nea.org/home/30696.htm)

For another, in the past the NEA has supported higher education standards but it also has demanded that these higher curricular standards come with large increases in funding for the public schools. "Opportunity-to-learn standards" was the term, and this demand proved to be a poison pill that deep-sixed standards-based reform efforts. It seems highly improbable to me that the NEA will de-couple its plea for more funding and support national education standards on their own. If anything, the NEA might demand that any new national education standards policy come with lots of federal funding to train teachers in the standards and to increase the pay of the teachers who complete this training.