Federal

Standards To Receive Fresh Push

By Michele McNeil — April 21, 2009 4 min read
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After years of debating the idea of national content standards, representatives from 37 states were set to convene in Chicago last week in what organizers hoped would be a first, concrete step toward common guidelines in mathematics and English language arts.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—the Washington-based groups that co-sponsored the meeting—want to build a prototype of high school graduation standards by summer, and grade-by-grade academic standards in math and language arts by the end of the year.

The effort would start with rigorous math and language arts standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations and made available for states to adopt voluntarily.

Following the April 17 meeting—which was to occur after press time—states ready to support common standards were to be asked to put their commitment in writing within weeks.

“I’ve been in education for more than 35 years, and we’ve had major meetings that have called for progress before, but I see [this] meeting as the first step to really taking aggressive action,” Eric J. Smith, Florida’s education commissioner, said in an interview before the meeting.

It remains to be seen how significant a milestone the meeting will prove. The long path to national standards is often dated to 1983, with the release of A Nation at Risk, a report that warned the American education system was slipping into mediocrity and losing ground against international competitors. (“International Exams Yield Less-Than-Clear Lessons,” this issue.)

Over the past quarter century, the push has advanced in fits and starts. For example, an advisory panel on education under then-President George H.W. Bush recommended national standards and national tests. That fizzled. In 1997, President Bill Clinton proposed creating national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. Congress stopped that move in its tracks.

More recently, at the state level, the Washington-based Achieve has been working to improve and align standards in 34 states that are part of its American Diploma Project.

And within the past few months, momentum on the issue has seemed to escalate.

In December, the NGA, the CCSSO, and Achieve released a report urging states to start pursuing an agenda of common standards. (“Common Academic Standards Get Influential Push,” Jan. 7, 2009.)

Then in March, the governors at their annual winter meeting adopted a policy endorsing common standards. (“National Standards Gain Steam,” March 4, 2009.)

At the federal level, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he wants to use part of the $5 billion in “Race to the Top” incentive funds included in the economic-stimulus package to help fuel the drive for common standards. (“To Duncan, Incentives a Priority,” Feb. 4, 2009).

A representative of the Education Department was slated to attend the Chicago meeting.

“I think this is really a milestone; we have never seen the states come together to commit to doing national standards,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been a vocal supporter for improving standards.

Commitment Varies

The states that planned to take part in last week’s meeting—organizers declined to name them in advance—were to be represented by their schools chiefs, their governors’ education advisers or other policy aides, or all such parties.

Not all 37 states were ready to fully embrace common standards, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO. But some—including Arkansas and Florida—are prepared to take the lead, and with their governors’ support.

Mr. Smith said he has the support of Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, to actively pursue common standards.

T. Kenneth James, the Arkansas education commissioner and the president of the CCSSO, said his state is postponing a planned revision of the English language arts standards pending the outcome of the standards effort. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, was to send two of his policy-staff members to the Chicago meeting.

Other states that seem likely to sign on are Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, supports common standards and international benchmarking, and Georgia, where GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue helps lead the NGA’s task force examining those two issues.

“We have 50 different versions of what standards are, ... and that has led to a thick stack of standards that sit on teachers’ desks,” said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. “The goal of this work is to bring states together ... to narrow that list of standards.”

Challenges Ahead

Even with the meeting, it’s clear there is a long way to go—especially in terms of who will actually be writing the standards.

“There are a couple of important questions: Who is going to do the work? And if college readiness is going to mean anything, then the colleges need to be pretty heavily involved,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of low-income students. Still, she said she was optimistic about this latest effort to create common standards.

Mr. Wilhoit said the chiefs’ and governors’ staffs will work with groups active in crafting college-ready standards, such as Achieve, the New York City-based College Board, and Iowa City-based ACT.

States would still have to figure out how to get those new, common standards adopted—a process that can vary from state to state. Some may need to work with their legislatures, others through their state boards of education.

Finally, states would have to get those standards down to the district level and then onto teachers’ desks and into lesson plans.

“Having new standards does us exactly no good until we have curriculum and assessments that go with it,” Ms. Haycock said. “The big risk is: So we have standards. Now what?”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Standards To Receive Fresh Push

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