National Standards Gain Steam

By David J. Hoff — March 02, 2009 7 min read
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National standards—once the untouchable “third rail” of American education policy—now have the backing of the nation’s governors, a growing number of education leaders, and the U.S. secretary of education.

The National Governors Association last week adopted a policy statement endorsing a process to develop common academic standards by comparing student performance on international tests.

The governors join several education groups—the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Federation of Teachers among them—in endorsing the idea that the nation should set a common definition of what students should know and be able to do.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he wants the federal government to be “a catalyst” for the development of national standards, and wants to support the NGA and other groups working to set them.

Governors leave the White House on Feb. 23 after meeting with President Barack Obama in the State Dining Room. From left are Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Jim Douglas of Vermont.

“We want to get into this game, … and I’m not leading this game,” Mr. Duncan said during an interview broadcast Feb. 22 on C-SPAN. “There are many great governors out there who have been talking about this, and not just talking about this, but working on this for a while.”

Despite the convergence of high-powered opinion in favor of national standards, the work of creating them and winning public support will be difficult, one longtime advocate for such standards said.

“The United States does not have an obvious mechanism for doing them,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “As a result, everything is improvisational and has drawbacks.”

While common standards have the support of some leading policymakers, some educators argue they would take another step toward nationalizing school policy and usurping teachers’ judgment of what to teach and how to teach it.

“What I’m mostly concerned about ... is doing on a national level what we’re doing too much of on the state and local levels,” said Deborah Meier, a former New York City principal and a senior scholar at New York University. (Ms. Meier contributes to the Bridging Differences blog on

“We’re governing by distance authority,” she added.

Hot Topic

Proposals for such standards are now gathering support, unlike previous attempts to nationalize standards and testing.

During the term of President George H.W. Bush, the federal government made grants to groups of education experts to craft definitions of what students should know in several subjects.

The standards produced under the process by some groups came under harsh criticism, especially from conservatives such as Lynne V. Cheney. In 1993, Ms. Cheney, who had supported efforts for national standards as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, faulted the history standards for de-emphasizing important events and people in U.S. history.

Shortly thereafter, in a nonbinding resolution, the U.S. Senate criticized the proposed history standards.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton proposed creating national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics. Congress eventually blocked funding for the proposal.

After those experiences, President George W. Bush avoided national standards in proposing the No Child Left Behind Act, his signature education initiative. The NCLB law requires states to set their own standards and hold schools accountable based on whether students tested in grades 3-8 and one year in high school attain proficiency under them.

States Seen as Inconsistent

The recent endorsements of national standards have emerged, in part, because critics say the patchwork of state standards under the NCLB law set inconsistent goals for reading and math. In those two subjects, supporters say, educators should be able to agree on common standards.

Governors also are arguing that they want to improve students’ academic performance in an effort to ensure the nation’s economic success.

“International benchmarking will move the American education system beyond comparing student performance against peers in neighboring cities or states—it will shift the focus to the skills students need to compete with other students around the world,” the NGA policy statement says.

The Obama administration included a similar argument in its fiscal 2010 budget proposal, released last week.

“Building on the [economic-stimulus law], the new administration will help states increase the rigor of their standards so they prepare students for success in college and a career,” the summary of the Education Department budget said.

The NGA statement was based on a December report, “Benchmarking for Success,” released by the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, a nonprofit group organized by governors and business leaders that seeks to improve the quality of schools through more-rigorous standards.

The agreement among governors and education policy leaders suggests to some observers that the development of national standards, in some form, is inevitable.

“The question is much more how it will happen,” said Bruno V. Manno, a senior program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Education under the first President Bush. “Will it happen in a haphazard way, or will it happen in a thoughtful way?”

National, Not Federal

While many of those questions remain unanswered, advocates for common standards agree on one thing: The federal government should not define the content of such standards.

“We don’t want to federalize education,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, said in an Feb. 23 interview, shortly after the governors formally approved the new NGA position at their winter meeting in Washington. “We want states to improve their standards, and one way to look at that is through international benchmarking. It’s got to be done through the states and local governments.”

The combined effort of the NGA and the CCSSO would supplement Achieve’s ongoing work with the American Diploma Project, in which 34 states are creating policies aimed at preparing all students for postsecondary education.

Part of the undertaking is setting standards for high school English and math. The Fordham Institute and the Education Trust, a Washington group that supports improvements in the education of low-income children, are partners in the diploma project.

In the December report, the NGA, the CCSSO, and Achieve outlined a process of comparing U.S. students’ achievement on the Program for International Student Assessment, or pisa, with that of students in high-achieving countries. The work would yield standards outlining what U.S. students should know and be able to do to match that performance, the policy statement says.

But policymakers shouldn’t be relying on the content of PISA, according to Tom Loveless, a senior fellow for the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

In math, he said, PISA questions are more focused on applying general math principles in real-life situations than on algebra, geometry, and other mathematical material taught in high schools.

“There’s almost no higher-level mathematics in them,” said Mr. Loveless, who published a report last week that criticized PISA as being ideologically biased. (“PISA Called Inappropriate for U.S. Benchmarking,” this issue.)

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS—another major test examining student performance across the world—assesses students in the 4th and 8th grades and lacks the challenging mathematical content expected of high school students, Mr. Loveless said.

“There’s nothing out there to benchmark high school achievement against internationally,” he said.

Difficulties Ahead

Even with the growing support for the concept of national standards, putting them in place won’t be easy, said Mr. Finn, who served in the federal Education Department under President Ronald Reagan and has advocated national standards for more than two decades.

Congress isn’t yet on record supporting any effort or proposal to set such standards. And although language arts and mathematics may appear to be relatively easy subjects on which to find common ground, each field has experienced polarizing debates.

In beginning reading, the debate has been over whether to emphasize the decoding and other basic skills or to emphasize the development of reading habits. In math, educators and mathematicians disagree over whether to emphasize algorithms or conceptual knowledge.

“Saying you’re for [national standards] is almost the easy part,” said Mr. Finn. “There are 999 tough issues that will follow. I sort of feel like we’re nowhere near tackling them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as National Standards Gain Steam


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