Federal Opinion

The Secret Sixty Prepare to Write Standards for 50 Million

By Anthony Cody — July 06, 2009 4 min read
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Sixty individuals, ONE teacher among them, will write national education standards in the next five months, in a secret process that excludes effective input from students, parents or teachers.

As teachers we spend a lot of time thinking about what we teach our students, and how to engage them in learning. When the National Governor’s Association (NGA) called for national education standards a few months back, some educators optimistically believed that we might be consulted in the process. After all, didn’t the entire No Child Left Behind fiasco teach us what happens when policies are enacted without the active engagement of the professionals expected to carry them out?

However, I had a sinking feeling history might repeat itself, when I wrote this entry a few weeks back.

Now the other shoe has dropped. On Wednesday, the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released their plan for developing national standards for Mathematics and English.

They propose a process that will result in new national K-12 standards by next December, and launched a new website where we can watch the magic unfold. They also released the names of those on the Mathematics and English “Work Groups” that will draft the standards, and the “Feedback Groups” who will advise them once drafts have been offered. We are informed that “The Work Group’s deliberations will be confidential throughout the process.” As far as public input, “States and national education organizations will have an opportunity to review and provide evidence-based feedback on the draft documents throughout the process.” There does not appear to be any avenue for the public at large, students, parents or teachers to provide direct input.

So who makes up the two Work Groups? Of the 25 individuals on the two teams, (four people are on both) six are associated with the test-makers from the College Board, five are with fellow test-publishers ACT, and four are with Achieve. Zero teachers are on either Work Group. The Feedback Groups have 35 participants, almost all of whom are university professors. There appears to be exactly one classroom teacher involved in the entire process, on one of the Feedback Groups.

I am not personally or professionally acquainted with the sixty people who are being handed the power to determine the curriculum for our nation’s fifty million school children. But I know I have had zero say in selecting them, and there appears to be no opportunity for teachers to influence or even observe this process.

Dane Linn, one of the leaders of this project, states in a recent interview ”...if we can leverage resources from state to state -- for example, on student assessments -- we can stop spending the approximately $700 million we are spending collectively and reach an economy of scale that is not obtainable in one state alone.” This sets the stage for a national test, which presumably can be used in conjunction with No Child Left Behind to compare schools, teachers and students from coast to coast. Furthermore, the agreement reached by the NGA with the 49 states that signed on pledges that the national standards will not be “lower” than those of any state. You should be aware that current California math standards call for Algebra in the 8th grade, so that presumably will become national policy by fiat.

One might expect our newspapers to be champions of a democratic process. But my own newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote last month that secrecy in this project is "... a wise decision. A truly open process would result in the experts being lobbied by countless interest groups, and - given the still-controversial nature of national standards - it could torpedo the plan altogether.”

Heaven forbid “interest groups” such as teachers, parents and students should be given the opportunity to muck up these standards. They do not seem to be asking, but perhaps our first bit of input could be in the form of a collective howl of outrage. After the dismal failure of NCLB, which was caused in no small part by the exclusion of classroom teachers from its design, how can we launch another major reform effort in a similar way?

Teachers have a deep understanding of what is possible in a classroom. When academics, policy wonks and testing experts get together to write standards, they often leave reality behind. We experienced this first-hand in California, where we have highly prescriptive content standards that were drafted by such people, without the participation of teachers.

Would standards for the practice of medicine be written without the participation of doctors? Standards for the practice of law without lawyers? It is not only insulting, it is undemocratic and counterproductive in the extreme.

And how about students? We have made the schools all about passing the tests, and now a small group is poised to decide, over the next six months, what will be on the tests across the country in a few years? Shouldn’t this be the result of some broader dialogue, including our students?

I think we need to make our voices heard loud and clear on this. What do you think?

Update #1: Education activist Susan Ohanian has launched a new website: Stop National Standards.

Update # 2: Take a look at this short film featuring scholar Yong Zhao’s critique of the drive towards standardization.

Update # 3: This press release from the National Governor’s Association shows the individuals on the original team tasked with writing the standards.

By the way, here is contact information for the directors of the two organizations responsible for this process. And perhaps your governor and state superintendent of education might want to know what you think as well:

Mr. Ray Scheppach
Executive Director
National Governors Association
Hall of the States
444 North Capitol Street
Suite 267
Washington, DC 20001-1512

Mr. Gene Wilhoit
Executive Director
Council of Chief State School Officers
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001-1431

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.