Ohio's catch-22 on standards

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

Policies aimed at creating and implementing better academic standards are spreading across the nation like a firestorm. Ohio is no exception to these winds of change. In the Buckeye State, the governor's budget proposal and the House-passed version of H.B. 1-the state's biennial budget bill-call for overhauling the state's academic standards by adding new standards that focus on "21st Century Skills." In contrast, the Senate-passed version of H.B. 1 would require the State Board of Education and superintendent to study and make recommendations by July 1, 2010 to: 1) address the necessity of implementing changes to the standard and assessment system, 2) develop a timeline that would be required for implementation, 3) estimate implementation costs, and 4) formulate necessary legislative changes. The Senate version also removes mention of standards for 21st Century Skills. As the House and Senate battle over these competing proposals in conference committee, the national discussion is just getting stoked.

Over the last year, the national standards movement-or what many refer to as "common standards" - has gathered momentum and energy with the release of several high-profile reports. In July 2008, Achieve released Out of Many, One: Toward Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up (see here). The National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve followed in December with Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-class Education (see here). In April, the Broad and Gates foundations pushed for developing common American standards in Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success (see here). The Carnegie Foundation this month recommended the creation of common math and science standards with accompanying assessments in The Opportunity Equation (see here).

Forty-nine states and territories are also voluntarily collaborating to push for common standards. Ohio has joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative (see here), an effort sponsored by CCSSO and NGA. Only Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas haven't signed up (see here). Alaska is monitoring the situation before signing on. Missouri and South Carolina are holding out for a mix of political and bureaucratic reasons. But Texas has balked because it just approved new English and math standards at a cost of an estimated $3 billion (see here).

Finally, the U.S. Department of Education has been vocal about both strengthening academic standards in America and pushing the creation of common standards across the states. Education Secretary Arne Duncan argues, "The idea of 50 states doing their own thing doesn't make sense," (see here). In order to receive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, states must agree to implement requirements to develop college and career-ready standards. Last week, Secretary Duncan called for putting $350 million to fund the tests that will be used to assess the standards determined by the Common Core State Standards Initiative (see here).

As the national movement toward common standards charges forward, the discussion becomes more controversial. States are expressing reservations about the rush toward national standards. Utah lawmakers worry that national standards will undermine the state's education authority (see here). California provided conditions for signing up to the Common Core State Standards Initiative (see here and here). Subject matter interest groups (such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the International Reading Association) also want a say in the development of the standards (see here).

Because of strong pushes at both the national and state levels, Ohio finds itself in a catch-22. Without a doubt, Ohio's mediocre standards, developed over a decade ago, need updating (see here). Yet, moving forward alone with significant revisions (as with the governor's proposal and House-passed version of H.B.1) poses challenges while the national firestorm intensifies. If the national standards movement leads to world-class standards, then Ohio's hard work to revise its standards risks becoming irrelevant or a costly and ultimately unnecessary effort. If Ohio waits and sees what comes of the national movement that, too, can backfire. Going along with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (or others like it) is not a sure-fire bet for better standards. Nothing may come of the effort as it could fall under competing political pressures. Or, it may take years for standards to be developed and agreed to by states and, in the end, they may not be what Ohio's children need.

What's Ohio to do? Ohio needs to be a leader in these national conversations and be seen as a full partner in the effort to develop common core standards. At home, Ohio needs to be prudent with any revisions it does make and not fall prone to fads or calls for giving all stakeholders a voice at the risk of subject content. The Senate version of H.B. 1 best approximates this position (see here for our H.B. 1 analyses). With thoughtful preparation, Ohio will be able capitalize on the national standards movement either by embracing the effort outright or taking what good work these efforts generate and customizing it to Ohio's needs.

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