In Standards Push, Lawmakers Cheer States’ Initiative

By Alyson Klein — May 12, 2009 5 min read
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As state leaders push forward with an agreement to develop a set of common, voluntary academic standards, federal policymakers seem inclined to nurture the nascent effort by providing incentives, lending rhetorical support—and staying out of the way.

Lawmakers from both parties in Congress have applauded an effort already under way by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, both based in Washington, to come up with uniform, rigorous standards that states can adopt. (“Standards To Receive Fresh Push,” April 22, 2009.)

But some in Congress seem keenly aware that, for now, significant federal leadership would only hinder the movement, potentially bogging it down in partisan politics.

“I’m hearing a lot of enthusiasm [in Congress] because this is truly state-led,” said former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia, a Democrat who is now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group in Washington.

The alliance, along with the College Board, a New York City-based nonprofit group, ACT Inc., an Iowa City, Iowa-based test- maker, and Achieve, a Washington group formed by governors and business leaders, is participating in the CCSSO-NGA initiative. The groups convened a meeting in Chicago just last month along with representatives from 41 states to discuss the effort.

Treading Carefully

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001, Mr. Wise watched the federal government’s attempt in the early 1990s to develop national standards fizzle, in part because of political opposition. But he said the fact that states are taking charge this time has helped to transform the political dynamics.

“If you simply said that we want the Congress to mandate that the National Academies design national standards, that’s a non-starter,” Mr. Wise said. But he said even lawmakers who are careful about expanding the federal role in education are willing to get behind the state-driven, voluntary effort.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and another proponent of common standards, suggested Congress should proceed cautiously, to keep the effort from getting bogged down by political maneuvering.

“Right now, [Congress’] role should be to do as little as possible, other than saying, ‘Hurrah, keep at it,’?” Mr. Finn said.

For common standards to succeed, he said, the idea must remain nonpartisan or bipartisan. That could become tricky if Congress or the U.S. Department of Education decides to play a key role.

During a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on the topic April 29, lawmakers seemed to feel they must tread carefully—and limit their own roles in urging the effort along.

“We’re placing a very big bet on the states,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., an author of the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded the federal role in education. “My sense is that we’re placing the bet in the right place to get this done.”

The hearing was the committee’s first in the new Congress examining the overdue renewal of the 7-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which was up for reauthorization in 2007.

Under the law, which passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support before it was signed into law 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.” Critics of the law have pointed to this disparity as an indication that states’ standards aren’t high enough.

Mr. Finn suggested in an interview last week that Congress could use reauthorization to prod states towards voluntarily adopting a common set of standards. That might mean allowing states flexibility in meeting the law’s 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency, or by giving states extra resources.

Lawmakers have already approved a potentially enticing carrot in including the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” fund in the $787 billion economic-stimulus package. The program will dole out at least $4.35 billion in grants to reward states that show progress on improving data systems, assessments, standards, and the distribution of qualified teachers.

Both Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama have made the need for a more uniform, rigorous set of standards a prominent theme in their speeches.

Although there was much discussion at the recent House hearing of potential incentives, there was no mention of penalties for states that may opt out of common standards.

State leaders, many of whom have chafed under the increased federal role in education spurred by the NCLB law, are likely to be much more wary of common standards if the effort is seen as federally driven, T. Kenneth James, the commissioner of education in Arkansas and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in his testimony.

Still, Mr. James said he sees a limited role for the federal government in helping to spur the effort. Mr. Duncan and top congressional education leaders can try using the “bully pulpit” to help bolster the movement. And they can provide increased federal resources, particularly for assessments and professional development.

“I think it can be done without the perception that the federal government is driving the train,” Mr. James said.

Federal Role Debated

Some worry that if the federal government steps back completely, states may not be able to bring a common standards push to fruition.

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 common standards is going to be an uphill battle.

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, he said.

“I would hope they would be talking to you regularly,” Mr. Hunt said at the committee’s hearing. “It’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be tough” to get states to agree on common standards.

The hearing hinted at some of the political difficulty in getting the federal government involved in the common-standards movement—even if Congress doesn’t take a leadership role.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as In Standards Push, Lawmakers Cheer States’ Initiative


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