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House Panel Considers Federal Role in Standards

By Alyson Klein — April 29, 2009 4 min read
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Key state officials, congressional leaders, and the president of the one of the national teachers’ unions all agreed at a hearing today that the United States needs to move toward common academic standards to stay competitive in an increasingly globalized economy—and that states must be the vehicle for the change.

What was not as clear is what the federal role should be in adding momentum to the effort already under way in about 40 states to move toward a set of standards that is more uniform and rigorous.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which held the hearing on the topic, said he thinks states should take primary responsibility for moving the ball forward, but emphasized that they have an important task on their hands.

“We’re placing a very big bet on the states,” Mr. Miller said at the hearing, the first held by the new Congress to examine the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. “My sense is that we’re placing the bet in the right place to get this done.”

In contrast, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the top Republican on the committee, was much more explicit in saying that the federal government should step back from work already progressing in the states.

“There’s no reason why states can’t work together to create their own common academic standards,” he said. “In fact, states have already begun.” He mentioned recent major developments, including a meeting earlier this month in Chicago, led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, in which state education leaders discussed moving toward such standards.

“As far as I know, the federal government didn’t initiate these meetings, nor dictate their outcome,” Mr. McKeon said. “And they didn’t need to. The states took care of it all by themselves. … That’s how it should be, and I urge members of this committee to encourage these efforts—by staying out of their way.”

Who’s ‘Driving the Train?’

The No Child Left Behind Act was due for reauthorization in 2007. Under the law, which passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support before before it took effect in early 2002, states must set their own standards and test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

In many states, a high number of students score at the “proficient” level on state tests, but perform poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card.” That has led some policymakers to suggest that states should adopt a common, rigorous set of standards, and that Congress should encourage the move as it works to renew the law.

During the hearing, one state leader saw an important, albeit limited, role for the federal government. T. Kenneth James, the commissioner of education in Arkansas and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, agreed with Rep. McKeon that state leaders are likely to be much more wary about a movement toward common standards, if it appears to come with a federal mandate attached.

But he said Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should focus on using the “bully pulpit” to help bolster the movement and consider providing federal resources, particularly for assessments. “I think it can be done without the perception that the federal government is driving the train,” Mr. James said.

But James B. Hunt Jr., a former governor of North Carolina who is now foundation chairman of the Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy in Durham, N.C., said getting states to agree on a set of national standards is going to be an uphill battle. He said the federal government should provide structure, continuing to check in with states to ensure that the process is running smoothly, and perhaps set a timeline for fitting certain pieces of the puzzle in place.

Rep. Miller said states that aren’t interested in getting on board shouldn’t be allowed to water down the endeavor.

“My concern is that the Chicago meeting really mature into an effort of the willing. States [would be better off] deciding not to participate than to drag this process down,” he said.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, left, testifies before the House Committee on Education and Labor during a hearing on common academic standards in Washington on April 29.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.3 million-member union, was supportive of the idea of more common standards, saying a student’s educational prospects shouldn’t be dependent on his or her ZIP Code. But she emphasized that teachers should play a role in the process of crafting standards.

A Divided GOP

Despite the broad agreement among the panelists, the hearing hinted at some of the political difficulty in getting the federal government involved in the common-standards movement. Committee Republicans, for instance, seem sharply divided on the issue.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said he was worried that the undertaking could lead to a national curriculum and ultimately put states and districts in “a straitjacket.” If the effort proceeds with significant leadership from Washington, “everything is going to be run out of the all-knowing, all-wise” federal government, he said.

But other GOP leaders appeared much more receptive to the idea.

Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, a former governor, said more uniform standards could act as a competitive tool for states. And Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan, a scientist, touted a piece of legislation he introduced with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., to produce voluntary national standards for mathematics and science.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as House Panel Considers Federal Role in Standards

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