National standards: Do we have the will?

For 40 years the United States has struggled to find the right approach to academic standards for K-12 education. Oversimplifying, this quest was catalyzed by the Coleman Report (1966) and A Nation at Risk (1983). The former said we can't rely on fiddling with school inputs to boost school outcomes, while the latter said our outcomes are sorely inadequate.

If we can't rely on inputs, but we need to do something about outcomes, the logical move is to spell out the outcomes we want and then work to ensure that kids and schools attain them.

That had long been done for college-bound kids via Regents exams, AP tests, colleges' own entrance prerequisites, etc. But it had never been done for all kids. And it needed to be.

This effort grew serious in 1989 when, at the Charlottesville summit, the governors and President George H.W. Bush set national education goals for the year 2000. One of these said, "American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography."

The word they used was "competency." Today, we're more apt to say "proficiency." Still, the question instantly arose, who determines competency in particular subjects, and how would anyone know whether a kid or a school, a district or a state, had attained that level?

Now we're 16 years into answering that question and, frankly, it's a muddle, arising in large part from America's arcane education federalism.

Bush 41 and the governors assumed that states would be responsible for that sort of thing and that Washington would help and encourage in various ways.

Three things were bound to go wrong with that approach, however, and all of them have.

First, there is vast variability, inefficiency, duplication, and overlap in standards across fifty states.

Second, Uncle Sam's efforts to foster and encourage have made this process unbelievably complicated and confusing, including undesirable conflicts between the federally prompted standards and the states' own.

Third, the more pressure placed on attaining standards via high-stakes testing, incentives, interventions, and other forms of accountability - whether from state capitals or Washington - the likelier that those setting the standards would dumb them down.

The 1990s saw several abortive efforts to move toward something akin to national standards. Bush 41 put some money into the development of voluntary national standards by professional groups such as the National Council of Teachers of English. President Clinton proposed a national testing program based on NAEP. The Goals 2000 act included an ill-starred body called the National Education Standards and Assessment Council (NESAC) to oversee state standards, but it proved so controversial it was never appointed.

All these endeavors succeeded mainly in reinforcing the assumption that national standards and tests are not politically viable in contemporary America.

Meanwhile, the National Assessment Governing Board did set a form of national standards by specifying "achievement levels" - basic, proficient and advanced - for reporting NAEP scores. But NAEP doesn't report on units smaller than states, so in a sense we had national standards with little traction.

Comes 2001, Bush 43 and NCLB, and, in retrospect, a bad decision (see here) was made (though it was foreshadowed by Goals 2000 and all that had come before). Instead of embracing national standards in core subjects, then giving states flexibility as to how and when to get there, states were admonished to set their own standards, then obliged to get there all on the same timetable and via the same mechanisms.

A "race for the bottom" was inevitable, and now we're beginning to glimpse it (see here). It takes several forms, the most vivid of which is that many states have clearly set their expectations below NAEP's and are taking advantage of myriad ways to finagle even those expectations.

This is no solution to the nation being at risk. It's more like the old game of take the federal money but find ways to avoid making the changes that the money is supposed to induce.

So I conclude, as my friend Diane Ravitch and many others have, that we'd be better off with national standards, at least in reading, math, and science, and probably also history. States, districts, schools and teachers should be free to amplify and augment those standards and to specialize in various ways, within a regimen of school choice, but the core of the K-12 curriculum should be the same everywhere. And the tests by which progress is measured should also be the same everywhere.

Conceptually, that's easy. But anyone who is serious about it must begin to grapple with the tough implementation questions that instantly arise. Two are paramount.

First, who sets the standards? I don't have much use for the professional groups that bungled the job in the early 1990s, and I'm beginning to worry about the National Assessment Governing Board, too (see here).

Second, is it possible to have national standards and tests without, in effect, federalizing the delivery system? Three years at the Department of Education left me disbelieving that this can be run competently by Uncle Sam, even if that prospect weren't accompanied by profound constitutional, historical, and budgetary issues.

Plenty of other challenging questions also need to be addressed, and I'm not certain we have the will to tackle them, nor the requisite political consensus, especially between now and the reauthorization of NCLB. But surely the place to start is to recognize, as Ravitch makes clear, that the current NCLB approach isn't working well and probably cannot, so fraught is it with perverse incentives for states and districts and schools to do the wrong thing.

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