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State-Federal Tensions Loom in Standards Effort

By Michele McNeil — January 07, 2010 7 min read
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In the latest push for common academic standards, coming up with the standards themselves may be the easy part: The political sensitivities that scuttled virtually every previous attempt are very much on the minds of those leading the effort this time around.

How much of a federal role is appropriate—or even legal—in a quest for common standards nationwide? Is local control in education an outdated tradition or an immutable political reality? And to what extent is there societal consensus about the skills and knowledge every student should be expected to master?

In the 1990s, Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton both ran into state, school district, and congressional opposition on just those issues as they tried to steer the country toward national standards.

Aware of that history—and the lesson that a push for nationwide standards will not work if it stems from the federal government, no matter which political party is in charge—the nation’s governors and chief state school officers are proceeding cautiously.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, has the clear backing of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, not least through the pledge of $350 million in federal economic-stimulus money to help states develop common assessments.

But all the players have tried to make clear that the federal government’s role is that of a supporting cast—that the crux of the work rests with the states.

It is a delicate balance, many education policy experts say.

“They have kept a respectful distance,” Diane Ravitch, who worked under the first President Bush and then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander on the drive for national standards in the 1990s, says of the new leaders at the U.S. Department of Education.

“They have significant, stable state organizations leading this. It’s not at all analogous to what happened in [the 1990s],” says Ravitch. (“We’ve Always Had National Standards,” this issue.)

The groups leading the current effort also are employing the more soothing label of “common,” rather than “national,” standards.

Offering an added measure of political cover—and incentive for action—is the economy, according to some longtime observers of the standards movement.

“There is a new dimension to modern American politics,” says former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, who chaired the National Education Goals Panel in the 1990s and has been a vocal supporter of national standards. “The public knows we’re in deep trouble, and the politics of common standards is going to be driven by the economy.”

Hurdles Loom

Navigating Politics and Process

The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center asked states to describe the challenges they expected to face in adopting the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and implementing the common assessments that many see as a necessary complement to the standards initiative. States often cited concerns related to the process of developing the common academic standards themselves, as well as the larger political and fiscal landscape surrounding the effort.

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SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2010

Still, the political hurdles remain daunting at all levels—federal, state, and local.

New survey data collected by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, for example, show that 18 states foresee difficulty in getting stakeholding buy-in as a barrier to adopting common standards.

One gauge of just how difficult the task of reaching a 50-state consensus may be: the challenges Northeastern states faced in hammering out the common standards and assessments that now make up the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP.

When New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont implemented NECAP in 2005, they had one significant motivating factor: the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 as the latest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. No state in the NECAP partnership, on its own, was prepared to go to annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school, as required under NCLB, but that law offered an opening, says Peter J. McWalters, who was Rhode Island’s education commissioner for more than 17 years before retiring last year.

Pointing to Practical Concerns

In describing the challenges they foresee in adopting common-core content standards and common assessments, states cited a host of practical concerns about the quality and content of the standards or assessments, as well as the feasibility of implementing them.

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SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2010

“I was worried: What if ... the [state board of] regents or the governor or the legislators flip out and say, ‘What is this?’ But NCLB gave us complete cover,” says McWalters, who is now a consultant to the CCSSO, leading the group’s initiative on workforce development.

Several factors led to NECAP’s success, McWalters says.

First, the subjects being addressed were reading and math. They are considered less politically charged than social studies (which can get embroiled in disputes over aspects and interpretations of history) and science (which can get caught up in debates over the teaching of evolution). Likewise, the NGA and the CCSSO are starting with English/language arts and mathematics in their common-standards project.

Second, teachers were at the table during the New England process. Although it’s impractical to offer the same level of involvement in an effort that includes nearly all the states, McWalters says it will be crucial to give teachers immediate access and training once the common standards are final.

In addition, he says, it became clear during NECAP negotiations that someone needed to keep the momentum going. He helped serve that role, staying in office during NECAP’s creation and implementation, while there was turnover in the other states’ top leadership posts.

“If there had not been some mechanism to hold it together, it could have drifted away,” McWalters says. “Every time there was a change, we all had to re-engage.”

Leadership turnover could complicate the nationwide common-standards push as well. This year, 37 states will elect new governors. Although most state schools chiefs are not elected, some are—and if they’re appointed, a change of governor could lead to a change of education chief.

The authority to adopt a common core of standards, meanwhile, will rest largely with state boards of education, according to the EPE Research Center’s state survey. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that state lawmakers do not have a prominent place in the effort, says David L. Shreve, an education lobbyist with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

“State legislators are feeling left out of this,” he says.

In addition, some state school board members from around the country have taken exception to the CCSSO- and NGA-led effort, which initially did not give the National Association of State Boards of Education a place at the table, says that group’s executive director, Brenda Welburn.

“The greatest stability in a state rests in the board,” says Welburn. She gives the CCSSO and the NGA credit for trying to be more inclusive, however, in more recent months.

History shows that leaving out important players can prove fatal to such a movement.

Consider what happened in 1995, when Congress voted to denounce national history standards three years after the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education announced federal funding for the effort. Ravitch says the standards effort, which got started under the first President Bush, lacked crucial support from an entire branch of government: Congress.

“They were federal standards, but they were never authorized by Congress,” Ravitch says.

Fiscal Concerns?

The experience of the New England Common Assessment Program also illustrates another pitfall: States may be reluctant to get rid of standards in which they’ve invested time and money.

Although Maine initially joined NECAP, it subsequently dropped out because the state had just adopted standards—which required legislative approval—and state officials couldn’t justify returning to the legislature and asking for approval of a new system. Maine recently rejoined the group. All of the states taking part in NECAP also have signed on to the common-core initiative.

Somewhat unexpectedly, education policymakers say the economic slump may actually have added momentum for the nationwide common-standards project, in a couple of ways.

First, with unemployment at 10 percent as of late 2009, many observers argue that education—perhaps now more than ever—is essential to landing a good job.

“People are sitting around their kitchen tables wondering, ‘How are we going to get out of this?’ ” says Romer, the former Colorado governor. “And it’s by getting a good job, and they know the key to good jobs is education.”

Second, the recession that began more than two years ago has put so much stress on state budgets that lawmakers will look for ways to save money, and a common set of standards and assessments could result in financial efficiencies in the long run.

That was one of the key reasons the participating New England states forged their standards-and-testing alliance in the NECAP effort—for economies of scale, says McWalters, the former Rhode Island chief.

Not all states foresee financial benefits. Eleven states surveyed by the EPE Research Center about the latest push for common standards specifically cited cost or their budget situations as a barrier.

But Welburn, of the state boards’ group, says the hefty price tags for state testing systems are weighing on most states in these tough budget times.

“The cost savings from common assessments might drive states to support them, rather than the principles behind the standards,” Welburn says. “It simply might save money.”

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