International lessons about national standards

The 1997 release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results was a wake-up call for the United States--and for Germany. But what's notable about this particular event was not that both countries were outperformed by some 20 other nations or that the disappointing results spurred prolific and apocalyptic pontification on the dire implications and consequences on both sides of the Atlantic. What's notable is how Berlin and Washington responded in drastically different ways. 

Germany serves as a particularly informative example because of the structural similarities it shares with the U.S.; not only do neither country's central governments have constitutional authority over education, but control of the sector is located, for the most part, at the state level. In addition, they boast similar state-level organizational leadership models (Germany has a conference of state education ministers, Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder or KMK, which is somewhat akin to America's Council of Chief State School Officers or CCSSO). 

But there the differences end. Today, Germany boasts a set of national standards and tests that grew out of the 1997 TIMSS results while the U.S. still struggles with a patchwork of standards and assessments that vary widely across states. The No Child Left Behind Act only served to exacerbate this incongruity by embracing standards-based reform while rejecting national standards; the law, in fact, pushes the system in the opposite direction by requiring states to get virtually all of their students to "proficiency" but explicitly allowing states to define "proficient" as they saw fit. Unfortunately, the latest international test scores remind us that the U.S. still lags behind.

Twelve years later, another opportunity is at hand for Washington to follow in Berlin's footsteps. President Obama and Secretary Duncan find themselves with a rare chance to invest in the development of national standards and tests, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And the governors and state superintendents are talking seriously about making this happen from the bottom up, with states taking the lead. At this critical moment in time, can we avoid reinventing the national standards wheel as if it had never been designed anywhere before? What can we learn from our international neighbors? Our investigation of ten countries that have addressed this issue (Russia, France, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, and the Netherlands) reveals six lessons.

1. It's not true that national standards portend loss of local control. The international evidence here is clear: national standards are not--at least, need not be--developed in isolation by a distant central government that runs the education system and quashes local control. In most cases, in fact, the national set of standards is a floor and not a ceiling; in other words, the baseline is set by the central authority, but states and municipal governments retain the flexibility to add to the standards, choose textbooks, and handle the day-to-day operation of schools. We believe an approach that recognizes the authority of the nation, state, and local district is the best path for the U.S. And based on our research, we recommend that national content standards comprise 75 to 90 percent of the total, with states and local districts (and, as appropriate, individual schools) crafting the last 10 to 25 percent. 

2. Create an independent, quasi-governmental institution to oversee the development of national standards and assessments and produce reports to the nation.  This lesson has two components--the creation of an independent national center and what that center is charged to do. On the first count, we think the need for such a center on these shores is clear, especially because the U.S. suffers from location-based and socio-economically created fragmentation of opportunity and curriculum. Some assert that common standards could develop if states simply shared their standards with one another. But Germany tried this method for 60 years and the country retained its disparities of opportunity. Other countries found the same shortcomings. Thus, we conclude that it's not possible to create focused, coherent, and rigorous standards for all children without a national institution. We'd advocate an independent quasi-governmental type institution--more like the National Assessment Governing Board or the National Academy of Sciences, and not part of the U.S. Department of Education--created by the states. It would include an apolitical board of academics, educators, officials, and representatives of the public; appointments could be made through states. Besides developing standards, it would also update them periodically, as well as set policies for the development and administration of an accompanying national assessment.

3. Position the federal government to encourage and provide resources for the standards-setting process. Germany again sets an apt example. While the initial standards development work was supported financially by both the federal government and the states, the KMK, which led the effort, is not part of the federal government. In fact, the KMK's ability to convince states to play along was rooted in this separation: it could assure states that the standards and the assessment results would not be used to "punish" schools. We recommend that the U.S. government take a similar tack--encourager and resource provider, not itself the setter of standards. 

4. Develop coherent, focused, rigorous standards, beginning with English, math, and science. This lesson takes its clues from the 30-plus countries included in TIMSS. While curricular standards in top achieving countries were focused, rigorous, and coherent, U.S. state standards were generally not. The reason is simple: U.S. standards cover too many topics to go into any of them in depth--and then repeat the same topics grade after grade. Furthermore, instead of reflecting the inherent logic of the discipline from which curricular topics are drawn, standards are arbitrarily thrown together in a process governed more by politics than by content. So, for example, while most high-performing countries focus on algebra and geometry during middle school, the U.S. defers those topics to later grades and uses the middle years to repeat arithmetic topics already covered in grades one through five. To remedy these problems, American national standards should include the voices of subject-matter scholars and leaders from business, professional, or vocational fields with similar subject-matter knowledge as well as examine other countries' standards and international benchmarks, insofar as these are available. 

5. Administer national assessments (including open-ended questions) at Grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years. Since the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) already tests at these intervals, we should follow in its footsteps. And taking a lesson from our international brethren, who mostly do not test annually, we suggest that the U.S. administer our national assessment every other year. (The details, of course, are still to be worked out, especially in light of lesson six, below.) Taking another cue from international practice, these tests should include a variety of question formats--open-ended, multiple choice, and, budget permitting, also even a few reliable performance-based items. 

6. Hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for performance. Setting standards and administering assessments that go with them amount to little if they do not inform future decision making. When properly aligned with national standards, assessment results in many countries help determine whether students should progress from one level of schooling to the next, how administrators and teachers are rewarded, and how resources are allocated amongst schools. In order to best use test results, accountability should span multiple levels (student, classroom, school, regional, and national) and assessment results should be made public. Twelfth grade assessment results, over time, should also be used as an indicator of college and workplace readiness by using them to make postsecondary decisions. 

It's time for the United States to have its epiphany as Germany did 12 years ago. The results of our scattered approach are obvious: low standards by international comparisons, mediocre student performance (especially in eighth and twelfth grades), huge inequalities in curricular opportunities, and the resulting drag on our economy. The good news is that we know what the standards of top-achieving nations look like: focused, coherent, and rigorous. Not only that, but they are part of focused and coherent systems, and informed by scholars who understand the disciplines from which the content is drawn, by educators and teachers who know how children learn and how content is best taught, and by lay people who work in various fields and know how the content is applied in the workplace and society. 

The process of establishing national standards will surely require time, patience, and a great deal of compromise. But we postpone the inevitable at our own peril.

By William H. Schmidt, Richard T. Houang, and Sharif M. Shakrani

William H. Schmidt is a University Distinguished Professor of Statistics and Education at Michigan State University and co director of the MSU Education Policy Center. Richard T. Houang is Adjunct Professor of Statistics and Education and Director of Research for the Center of Research on Mathematics and Science Education at MSU. Sharif M. Shakrani is Professor of Statistics and Education and co-director of the Education Policy Center, also at MSU. This editorial is drawn from a policy brief presented at Tuesday's Fordham-sponsored conference, International Lessons about National Standards. Their full study will be available later this summer.

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