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Guest Columnist Kevin Kosar: Do National Standards Have A Chance?

By Alexander Russo — January 19, 2007 1 min read

National standards expert Kevin Kosar writes in with the following guest column on the current national standards debate:

While researching my dissertation on the politics of education standards just a few years ago, I conducted a number of interviews with smart people in the education policy world. One of them was Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Just over four years ago, Checker graciously fit me into his dense schedule and we spoke at length. When I raised the question of national standards, Checker responded, that “nobody wants” national standards and that idea “isn’t even being discussed.”
Four years later, Finn and Fordham have taken the lead in promoting national education standards, and H.R. 325, a bill to create national standards, has been introduced in the House. What changed? Not much; yet, we still may end up with national standards. In part, this proposal is a rational response to states’ struggle to create good education standards. Yes, some states have done well; most, though, have floundered. Hence, why not have the federal government create the standards and give them to the states? But for the longest time, it has seemed that national standards were a hopeless cause. Elsewhere I have argued that “While national education standards may make good sense as policy, politically they would appear to be as doomed as they were 15 years ago.” Why the grim forecast? In part, my sense was that politics would torpedo any national education standards bill. What schools teach always has been an intensely political issue. That said, I must confess, H.R. 325 could actually be enacted. The bill is adroitly drafted. It would require the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the overseer of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), to “create or adopt voluntary American education content standards in mathematics and science.” States would receive grants for adopting the standards. It is a clever proposal that does its darnedest to avoid politics. For one, the national standards would be voluntary. For another, the standards are not to be created de novo; rather, they must be based on the NAEP frameworks that guide the NAEP examinations. So, it is unlikely that we would see a repeat of the standards debacles of the early 1990s when academics produced standards that the media and politicians blasted for political correctness. Finally, the choice of NAGB is a clever because NAGB already has, arguably, established something akin to national standards. So, supporters of H.R. 325 can argue that the bill is a modest evolution in policy. Perils, however, remain for H.R. 325. Issue #1: H.R. 325 offers a measly $4 million to a state in exchange for adoption of the standards and carrying out a number of onerous mandates (e.g., aligning teacher certification or licensure with the standards.) It is hard to see many states seeing that at an attractive deal. Issue #2: Those who distrust the federal government likely will argue that H.R. 325 makes a mockery of current law. 20 U.S.C. 1232(a) forbids “any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum [of schools].” Issue #3: Members (ex officio ones excepted) of NAGB are appointed by the Secretary of Education. No doubt, some folks will growl that this bill would give the Secretary an unfettered power to establish politicized curricula and assessments. When you have the U.S. Park Service peddling creation science booklets , such fears cannot be dismissed out of hand. Issue #4: H.R. 325 wisely steers clear of the most politicized parts of the curricula, health/sex education, history, and English. Science, though, may be a problem. I would be surprised if hardcore religious groups would stay mum if H.R. 325 does not require NAGB to include creationism in the science standards. President Bush himself has said he thinks students should hear “both sides.” If this bill can somehow get around these remaining obstacles, it could find itself in the clear. If not, it will find itself where many other such proposals have ended up: on a shelf, waiting for another time.

Mr. Kosar is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

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