For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.
The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.
We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:
Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.
That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...