Bill Schmidt’s ‘Tale of Two Countries’

By Debra Viadero — May 05, 2009 1 min read
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At the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s gabfest on national standards today, Michigan State University researcher William H. Schmidt told conference-goers a “a tale of two countries.” The two countries in this bedtime story are the United States and Germany, both of which in 1996 found their students scoring in the middle of the pack on international tests in mathematics.

Both countries have similar education systems, according to Schmidt. Germany places much of the control over what gets taught in schools in the hands of its 16 federal states, just as the U.S. cedes that authority to its 50 states.

The Germans took the bad news as a wake-up call to go to work on setting national standards for what their students ought to learn in school. The driving force for that effort was the Standige Konferenz der Kultusminister der Lander or KMK, which is an independent conference of state education ministers much like our Council of Chief State School Officers. The happy ending: By 2003, the nation had signed off on curricular standards for foreign languages, German, math, and science in grades 4, 9, 10, and 12, as well as a set of tests closely aligned with them.

It’s not that the U.S. hadn’t made similar sorts of efforts over the same time period, though. Policymakers here advocated voluntary national tests and national groups developed voluntary national standards. But, in the end, “in Washington,” Mr. Schmidt said, “they did not end up getting past the fear of federal control over the local system.”

Now, 12 years later, the call for national standards is being renewed in the U.S. And this time around, two KMK-like organizations—the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association—are leading the drive to develop common academic standards. (You can read more about their efforts so far in this EdWeek story.)Will the two nations’ stories converge this time around? That’s to be continued.

In the meantime, you can read more about Germany’s experience with national standards, as well as those of nine other countries, in this policy brief that Schmidt and his colleagues prepared for the Fordham conference.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.