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'National Standards As Starting Points'

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I am one of five governors still in office who attended the national education summit convened by President Bush in 1989. That summit, in Charlottesville, Va., launched a nationwide effort to focus schools on results. Two of the national education goals we wrote then dealt with student performance and higher levels of achievement. The recent education summit in Palisades, N.Y., attended by governors and business leaders, reaffirmed this agenda.

Since 1989, the political landscape has changed. There has been a strong reaction against the idea of setting and implementing standards at the federal level. But what has not changed is the need for, and logic behind, setting standards and the strong support for standards across the country.

The effort to focus schools on results began with strong bipartisan agreement between the governors and President Bush. They agreed the idea of standards and assessments--established at the national level, with assistance from the federal government--was an essential first step to improving schools. The only area of significant disagreement was whether standards should be enforced by a national test that would measure student performance in every state.

There were three reasons why there was such strong support for the idea of national standards. First, national standards weren't expected to be mandatory. They instead were intended as a resource to support state and local standards-setting efforts. Second, national standards would be benchmarked to the highest student expectations across the world--thus letting citizens in every state and community know what world-class standards looked like. Third, national standards would represent a strong consensus about what children should be learning in each subject area.

Some of the agreement on these issues has waned in recent years. For a number of reasons, the national standards, with a few exceptions, did not provide the help and guidance governors and others had hoped for. Some were criticized for being fuzzy outcomes rather than solid academic content; others were just poorly written. These sub-par standards have become a convenient whipping boy for those who seek to win political points and shore up political bases. The fallout from these self-serving political attacks has assured a limited role for the federal government. But they haven't stopped the effort where it really matters: in states, school districts, and classrooms.

In Colorado, we never viewed standards-driven school reform as a top-down, federally imposed effort. We used the national standards--especially the math standards and draft versions of the science standards--as starting points. But we knew that standards for school and student performance would never change a thing if they didn't accurately reflect what Coloradans thought students should be learning in school.

So we took two years to write our state's standards and went through five drafts that thousands of citizens helped review and revise. We kept our efforts focused on key subject areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, and geography. We held public meetings, met with people at their places of employment, and broadcast an "infomercial" on cable television. As a result, we have developed standards that represent the strongest consensus about what Coloradans think students should know and be able to do.

Other statewide efforts to keep standards moving forward are very much alive:

  • States have created their own alliances--such as the New Standards project--to develop high-quality standards and assessments. The New Standards' writing of language arts, mathematics, and science standards remains some of the best in these curricular areas. These are some of the few sets of standards that have actually been benchmarked internationally.
  • Governors of both political parties are calling for national comparisons of student performance on a state-by-state basis. They recognize that their students need to be as good as the best in the world, and they want assessments that tell them how well students are learning essential skills and knowledge.
  • The American Federation of Teachers has completed a report on state standards-setting efforts, showing 49 states committed to individual state standards for student performance. The remaining state, Iowa, has asked each school district to write its own standards in place of state standards.
  • The education summit this spring reaffirmed the support of the nation's political and corporate leadership to higher, clearer standards and stronger systems of accountability. Governors of both political parties publicly announced their support for this agenda, and business leaders agreed to exert leadership to keep it moving forward. Together, these groups committed to having standards and assessments in place within two years, looking at academic transcripts when making hiring decisions, and creating a new organization that could help states improve their standards-setting efforts.

I am especially excited about the commitment governors and CEOs at the summit made to create an organization that could elevate and improve the standards-setting work of states and school districts. It would provide assistance and advice to states trying to implement standards and assessments. Such an organization is desperately needed and will be an important tool in the absence of national standards or assessments.

This country might never have national standards that are broadly accepted and used. However, I see great promise in the ongoing commitment of governors, business leaders, and others at the state and local levels to advance academic standards to improve student performance.

See the next commentary in this special report,

Joyce Elliott.

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