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Published in Print: December 6, 2006, as State Ed. Leaders Debate National Standards

State Ed. Leaders Debate National Standards

Chiefs' conference renews discussion among policymakers.

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When the country’s chief state school officers met here last month to discuss education policy, they talked a lot about national academic standards.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, talks to state education leaders at the council's fall conference in Little Rock, Ark., last month.
Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, talks to state education leaders at the council's fall conference in Little Rock, Ark., last month.
—Courtesy of Kevin Briggs/Arkansas Department of Education

“I submit to you that in a system of education that serves such a highly diverse and transitory culture, . . . shared standards aren’t simply an option, but a mandatory conversation,” the Council of Chief State School Officers’ executive director, Gene Wilhoit, said in a speech at the conference’s opening session. He took over the helm at the CCSSO Nov. 1.

Mr. Wilhoit’s appeal followed similar comments made this year by Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and others. Such discussion, which comes as policymakers and educators compare education systems across the states and the world and prepare for the renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act next year, appears to be rekindling a push for national standards.

“Does anyone in this room honestly believe that this issue is not coming to a head, and if we ignore it, it will go away?” Mr. Wilhoit, a former state schools chief in Arkansas and Kentucky, asked the 28 state chiefs and roughly 130 other state officials, educators, and others in the crowd.

“I think we’re all very open to the discussion,” Elizabeth Burmaster, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction and the CCSSO’s president, said in an interview last week.

The last concerted drive to set national standards for what students should know and be able to do in major subjects occurred in the early 1990’s, when the first Bush administration provided grants to develop voluntary national standards and tests. That effort ran into controversy over subject matter, the role of the federal government in setting curricula, and whether the standards should define the programs, staffing, and resources to support student achievement.

Some education experts are deeply skeptical that the issue of national standards has gained much traction since the last time it was discussed.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, told the chiefs at a panel discussion here that the national-standards discussion is no more than a “think-tank hothouse,” and that the coalition supporting the idea, at least in Washington, is actually losing steam.

Plus, he said, “[the states] don’t enforce their own [standards], why would they enforce ours?”

‘Powerful Voice’

That the state chiefs are willing to talk about the issue at all is a welcome surprise, meanwhile, to some advocates of national standards.

“They could make a tremendous contribution to the discussion,” Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and the former director of the CCSSO’s Resource Center on Educational Equity, said about the chiefs. “If they were to support the notion of national standards, they would be a powerful voice.”

Where that discussion will go, however, remains unclear.

“One option is that we’ll have this conversation and [decide that national standards aren’t] the best way to go,” Mr. Wilhoit said during an interview in Little Rock.

During a breakout session at the Nov. 17-19 conference, opinions on the issue were about as varied as the states represented.

Some chiefs proposed aligning standards with the skills sought by the business community. Some proposed developing a national pre-K-16 or pre-K-20 agenda. Some suggested focusing on national standards for student outcomes and leaving states and districts the freedom to decide how to attain them.

Most acknowledged, though, that national standards would have to be part of a broader policy plan that would include assessment and accountability, data systems, and teacher education, among other measures.

“The reason we’re birthing these creative ideas—and people may have different reasons—is a convergence of opinion in this country that [the current system] isn’t OK,” Ms. Burmaster said. She would like to see a “national agenda for children,” which would include health and dental care, nutrition, and early-childhood education, on the same scale as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

But some chiefs were reluctant to jump on the standards bandwagon.

“If [the chiefs] think that national standards will get rid of rules and regulations, they’re wrong,” Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren said in an interview last week. “The rules and regulations will come with them.”

And, she said, “we’re not excited about walking away from all the work we’ve done [to raise standards in Minnesota]” in order to comply with a possible national plan.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary

Despite their differences, the chiefs agreed on a few points.

“I think everyone agreed that they didn’t want a situation where the U.S. Congress has to vote on standards,” Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Fordham Foundation and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education during the current Bush administration, said to a group of state chiefs at the breakout session in Little Rock.

And no one wanted to be forced into compliance, either.

The standards would have to be voluntary initially, according to Ms. Brown of the Center for American Progress, for them to be politically practical.

“Once you get a significant number of states buying into it, the others will fall in line,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 14, Pages 20,22

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