Education Chat

Reconsidering National Standards, Curricula, and Tests

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of many books about American education, takes your questions on this provocative topic.

Jan.18, 2006

Reconsidering National Standards, Curricula, and Tests: A Talk With Diane Ravitch

Lynn Olson (Moderator):
Good afternoon and welcome to the second in a series of online chats following the release of this year’s Quality Counts report, “Quality Counts at 10: A Decade of Standards-Based Education.” Today we’re joined by Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of many books about American education. Ms. Ravitch also was an assistant U.S. secretary of education for research under President George H.W. Bush and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She will discuss the commentary she wrote for this year’s report on the need for national standards in education.

Question from Ray Gen, Ed.D. Curriculum Specialist, El Segundo Unified Schools, CA:
Dr. Ravitch, wouldn’t the adoption of nationalized standards necessitate the nationalization of assessment, teacher credentialing, and educational funding as well? How can the fifty states have national standards when these other factors are not addressed nationally?

Diane Ravitch:
National standards surely imply national testing. My template is the old “College Boards,” which was run by a private organization (the College Entrance Examination Board), brought together teachers and professors to set the curriculum standards, and administered national tests based on those standards. In other words, it is possible or at least feasible to have national standards that are not run by the federal government. I would expect that states would want to align teacher credentialing with the standards (although not all subjects would be subject to national standards); I don’t see that it is necessary to have those established on a national basis. As for funding, I have no doubt that the federal government will continue to provide funding for equalization, as well as funding for programs that meet categorical needs and that stimulate improvement in targeted areas.

Question from Eless Battiste, Reform Coordinator, Vallejo Unified School District:
How would national standards take into consideration geographical and demographic differences and needs? How would it be unlike a “one size fits all” education and still meet the needs of a widely diverse society?

Diane Ravitch:
Let’s take math and science as starting points. We should have national standards in both subjects because there are already implicit international standards and our students fall way behind. If we had strong clear explicit national standards in those subjects, then teachers would know what they are expected to teach, textbooks would align their content to match the standards, tests would reflect the standards, and teacher education would embed those standards when preparing future teachers. Would this produce one-size-fits-all? I don’t think so. For one thing, teachers could use whatever teaching style they like best. Instruction could be tailored to meet the needs of students. But the fundamental knowledge and skills that our children need to know in math and science would be laid out clearly for all to see and teach and learn. There is not a different kind of math or science in different parts of the city or state or nation.

Question from Kathy Melendez, teacher, Grant MS, Albuquerque:
I agree that national standards should be applied across the board. Within states, each district has their own standards, based on the state’s, but not consistent. Within districts we are required to create “Power standards” which are diluted from the standards to make them “more readable and understandable”. Exactly what system would be proposed to require all states to follow one set of standards?

Diane Ravitch:
You get it. What we have now is a highly decentralized system in which the education children get depends on what district they live in, what school they enroll in, what teacher they happen to get assigned to. How to change it? If we really had national standards, whether privately managed or set by a government entity, I believe that states would feel compelled to teach to those standards, if they are truly the best in the nation. I suppose that states could say, “we don’t want to participate,” but how embarrassing that would be vis a vis the public and teachers!

Question from Lisa Ross, Federal Policy Director, Former Chief Counsel on Education to the US Senate:
It’s my recollection that when model national standards were developed for various subjects that so much content was included in each subject area that teaching just one of them would take up the whole school day and year. They were developed by groups of subject matter teachers but they were not realistic. How would you propose developing national standards for all subjects that fit into a school day?

Diane Ravitch:
I was involved in that earlier effort and I am well aware of everything that went wrong. The effort to create national standards started in the last year of the first Bush administration. The grants were awarded then, but when the standards were written, there was no entity in a position to review them, send them back for revision, insist on paring them down, look at them all together and acknowledge that the amount in them was simply overwhelming. Having participated in standard-writing in various states, I know that one of the biggest problems is what to leave out. There is a lot of old-fashioned log-rolling, where everyone agrees to cut nothing. But if we had a serious and sustained national conversation about what our kids need to know in math, science, history, literature, the arts, etc., then we would also need some oversight, some coordination from the top to make sure that the standards were reasonable as well as geared to high performance. When they are overwhelming in bulk, they can’t be taken seriously. Then they are just a wish list.

Question from Walter Paul, parent:
The “50 states, 50 standards” caveat applies not only to student testing but to to teacher testing. Under NCLB teachers in core subject areas are required to demonstrate subject matter competency by “passing” a test in subject matter content knowledge. However, each state selects its own test and determines it own passing standard. From what I can determine these passing standards are chosen primarily to yield an adequate supply of teachers and are largely unrelated to any objective standards of competency, despite the explicit promise of NCLB for highly qualified teachers. Do you wish to comment on the need for some national standards for teachers?

Diane Ravitch:
If we had national standards for subjects taught in school, then certainly we should have national standards for teachers as well, to demonstrate that they know what students need to learn. We already have national tests. All or nearly all of the teacher tests in wide use are national tests, developed nationally and distibuted nationally. The real variation by the states is the cut score, the point at which they say that a teacher has “passed,” and in many states the cut score is awfully low. We will never have a great education system unless we make sure that we have very well prepared and highly qualified teachers (and I would add, well compensated too!).

Question from Stephen Grant, Superintendent, Tri-County North Schools, OH:
Do you believe that we are missing the key point in the discussion of standards based education, that being the teachers ability to teach to the standard? If so, merely promoting a High Qualified Teacher is not enough, what would you suggest we do to truly address the teacher quality issue?

Diane Ravitch:
In my previous answer, I strongly agreed with you. Great standards are meaningless unless there are excellent teachers who know how to teach students and help them reach the standards. Pay is important; respect is important; improving teacher education is important. All of those things matter. Having the standard in place would help us to have better teacher tests, tied to the standards. It might even persuade the ed schools to care about teacher quality as it relates to subject matter.

Question from W. James Popham, Emeritus Professor, UCLA:
Although I favor the adoption of national standards, my fear is that reliance on NAEP content frameworks (in which all content bases seem to have been touched) would lead to the creation of the same sorts of instructionally insensitive tests we now see in almost every state’s ill-conceived NCLB tests. How do the proponents of national standards hope to arrive at an instructionally sensible set of content standards and instructionally sensitive tests to assess students’ mastery of those standards--or is the crucial assessment question simply on the “to-do” list?

Diane Ravitch:
I would hope that any effort to develop solid national standards would enlist the participation of some of our best scholars, like James Popham of UCLA! Right now, the NAEP standards are among the best in the nation, at least in the subject areas that I am familiar with. Many of the state standards are vacuous and no one could draw upon them to develop tests, textbooks, etc. We have to do better, and we have to take the time to do it right.

Question from Bonnie Granatir, School Board Member, Livingston, NJ:
What are the implications of National Standards upon the college admissions process?

Diane Ravitch:
As I mentioned in an earlier comment, my template for national standards is the old “College Boards,” where the standards were written by teachers and professors in each subject, the students sat for the tests, and experienced teachers and professors graded them. They were the equivalent of the SAT today, but they were far better tests. I would imagine that colleges would want to know how students had done on the national tests, and hopefully would find them to be very valuable in making admissions decisions.

Question from Lisa Ross, Federal Policy Director, Pre-K Now:
More and more states are starting or expanding pre-kindergraten programs so that children develop the proper pre-reading, pre-math, and emotional and behavioral skills necessary to start school prepared to succeed. Would you advocate at this time for national readiness standards to define what children should know and be able to do in pre-k so that they are ready for Kindergarten?

Diane Ravitch:
I am a very strong believer in PRE-K with a cognitive emphasis. From what I know of Headstart, it has not realized its full potential because it de-emphasized cognitive learning. If we want children to get to kindergarten or first grade “ready to learn,” then we should make sure that they have lots of exposure to letters, numbers, how to hold a book, concepts about size, time, colors, etc. Socialization is a good thing, but there is no reason to leave out the cognitive dimension. The best pre-K programs attend to cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children. Pre-K should be more than just daycare.

Question from Barbara Cleary, teacher, Miami Valley School:
Just as the College Board has spawned an entire panoply of support materials (test-prep,etc)whose profits accrue to the CB, people are making livings by creating materials relating to state-based standards. This trend represents one barrier to support for national standards. What are other barriers?

Diane Ravitch:
Gosh, there are so many barriers I hardly know where to begin. The commercial test-publishers are strongly opposed to national standards, unless they see a role for themselves in developing or selling the tests. They fear that national testing would spoil the testing market. I could imagine that good national standards would create lots of opportunities for people or companies to sell tutoring services, but that is not a reason to support standards! There of course is strong political opposition, based on fear that the standards will be taken over by “them” (whoever you happen to disagree with). The left mistrusts the right, the right mistrusts the left. All of which is reasonable, unless it is possible to create a national entity with real integrity. Having been on the NAGB board, having seen so many people who were dedicated to the well-being of America’s children, I think it can be done. But I do not question how hard it will be.

Question from Robert L. Collins, Ph.D., CEO, iLearn, Inc.:
Creating national standards could provide the much-needed benefits you suggest, but there is a downside - the potential to eliminate competitive forces (especially from the private sector) that could otherwise produce improvements in teaching. If the standards prescribe only one acceptable teaching methodology, for example, innovations in this area will be stifled, as they are now with the states’ adoption of the NCTM standards. Even worse, if the standards prescribe a single view of how best to “explain” math to students, a topic on which even experts do not agree, the opportunity to submit these view to empirical evaluation would be virtually eliminated. How do you propose to protect against such potential undesirable side effects of national standards?

Diane Ravitch:
I don’t think that national standards should say anything about pedagogy. There are many different ways to be a good teacher, but at the end of the day, there are certain things that students should know and be able to do. I would not imagine any standards prescribing the best way to teach: that would be a huge mistake. The standards should consist of a clear explication of what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the next level of education or for jobs or for participation in society as citizens. I don’t ever foresee a day when any nation or state or district should say that they have found the only way to teach. That would a formula for inertia, stagnation, and disaster.

Question from John Calvert, retired university professor:
You support national content standards not just for reading and math, but also for history, science, foreign languages and the arts. Isn’t this a national core curriculum -and shouldn’t we call it that? Should this curriculum be voluntary, or should it be required as a condition of federal funding?

Diane Ravitch:
Good question. I am fairly agnostic about whether national standards should be managed by a private entity (as the old College Boards were) or by the federal government. Therefore, I am not certain about whether the standards should be voluntary. I don’t like the idea of mandating things. My initial instinct says that good standards and assessments that produce good results will “sell” themselves to the public. Yet I know how fiercely the status quo of low standards (and the current regime of low national standards) will struggle to survive. And yes, I do believe in a national core curriculum, since I would like to see all American children have the ability to read, write and speak a foreign language and have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and have other experiences with the arts.

Question from Dea Conrad-Curry, litereracy consultant:
Although I agree with much you write in your commentary, you criticize the “intensive coaching” being provided to some students “to help them raise their marks on reading and math tests, since those are the only subjects that ‘count’ for NCLB purposes.” But aren’t reading and (sometimes) math integral functions for students to read, understand, and appreciate the “important subjects like history, science, foreign languages, and the arts”? Even if the states were to adopt national performance standards, many students would need coaching, that is as we kow how far behind we have fallen. What kind of coaching, would you suggest, could better raise scores in science, social studies and humanities than that of reading and/or math?

Diane Ravitch:
I am reacting to what I have seen in various school districts, where children are getting “24/7 test prep,” but not learning anything more than basic skills. I believe in the importance of learning to read and solve math problems, but it seems to me that the reading especially should be integrated with knowledge acquisition. The reason that we see a sharp fall-off in reading achievement when comparing 4th grade students with 8th grade students is the schools’ indifference to what children read. If they were reading stories and books that built their knowledge of the world, steadily, sequentially, purposefully, then reading skills would grow just as steadily. For many youngsters, their reading problems are vocabulary problems, and their vocabulary problems are knowledge problems. They just don’t know enough. And that is not their fault. It is our failure to integrate their reading with their learning about history, civics, literature, science, etc.

Question from Peggy Altoff, social studies facilitator, D-11 Colorado Springs:
We already have national standards in most content areas that are used as a basis for state standards. Is the call for using these to a greater extent or to replace them with a new set of government-driven national standards that will be required for use by all school systems?

Diane Ravitch:
We don’t really have national standards, except for the low expectations that are embedded in textbooks (written for a national market) and in standardized tests (developed for a national market). Whether you refer to these implicit, low-level standards, or to the documents produced in the 1990s by subject-matter groups, all are in real need of revision and upgrading. And all of them should be viewed in the context of the others, so that teachers are not overwhelmed by 6-10 sets of standards that exist independently of each other, without regard to the hours in the day or week. As I said in another post, I am not sure whether the standards should be government made or made by a private entity along the lines of the College Board/Achieve or other organizations dedicated to improving student achievement.

Question from Mike, English/IB Theory of Knowledge teacher on sabbatical:
Our nation has a heritage rich in creativity and innovation. Do you fear that a move toward national standards akin to Japan/Europe might result in a numbing drumbeat of rote memorization and practice testing, giving us young adults who can perform but not think?

Diane Ravitch:
I don’t think that is a danger at all. I see as a far greater danger the current path of do-your-own-thing, in which very creative youngsters are subjected to mind-numbing time-wasting activities; to anthologies in which there is no good literature; to history by textbook in which history is turned into a boring parade of disconnected facts; by math and science instruction that fails to prepare our youngsters to be at the top of international competition. National standards could be the equivalent of extending the virtues of IB to all students. Surely as an IB teacher, you don’t think it is stultifying to know that the syllabus has been prescribed in advance and that the tests will be based on the syllabus?

Question from Dan Berrett, education reporter, Pocono Record:
In my state, Pennsylvania, the percentage of students who pass the NAEP lags far behind those who do on the state assessments, which are called the PSSA. Most local and state educational administrators I’ve spoken to say that comparing these percentages, and the NAEP to the PSSA, is misleading for two reasons: who is tested (NAEP tests a sampling of students; PSSA is just about everybody) and for how long (NAEP is administered in one morning; PSSA is over several days). How much merit is there to this argument? How do you respond?

Diane Ravitch:
I think these are excuses. NAEP tests a scientifically drawn sample; the results should be the same for NAEP and the state tests. Most states have the same results that you see in PA: the state finds that huge numbers--say 80%-- are proficient, but NAEP says it is only 35%. The state tests are easier than NAEP. And the states have a cut score that produces larger numbers of proficient students. However, when you consider that in many states, a very large percentage of students require remedial courses when they get to college, then I think the state has simply got low standards. The NAEP shows them up, and it is embarrassing.

The length of time that students take the state test is not a reason for them to have higher scores. In general NAEP’s “basic” aligns with what most states call “proficient.” But NAEP (and its governing board) has consistently held out proficient as the goal for all students.

Question from Celinda Scott, member of PSMLA:
In my field and state--world languages in PA--national standards would be a great help. However, what’s blocking the adoption of state standards is the profession’s insistence that all students take a world language at some point. Is this a problem in other states, and would adopting national standards by local school districts help with broadening students’ exposure to languages?

Diane Ravitch:
I think that every student should study a foreign language and learn to speak it. National standards should help. We ought to be able to say what a student should be able to do to reach proficiency in that language. It would help if PA adopted a state standard embracing that idea. We know that with all the changes ahead in the next few decades, we need many people with fluency in other languages.

Question from Jared Rathje, Principal, Redeemer Lutheran School:
Have some states actually lowered standards in order to show student progress, or is this just a temptation for educators/legislators?

Diane Ravitch:
It is not clear whether states have actually lowered standards in order to claim progress on NCLB and avoid sanctions, but it is clear--when you compare NAEP scores to state scores--that very few states have standards as high as NAEP’s. Connecticut, for example, one of our highest achieving states, claims that 75% of its 8th grade students were proficient in reading in 2005, but on NAEP only 34% were. And that is typical.

Question from Junlei Li, Researcher, Carnegie Mellon Univ:
How do we make sure that the national standards are not set too unrealistically and unnecessarily high? NAEP 2000 had declared 2/3 our 4th graders below science proficiency whereas TIMSS consistently rank our 4th graders among the best in the world. On what valid/research-based basis should federal and state agencies draw the proficiency line?

Diane Ravitch:
I don’t think that NAEP is unrealistically high. These different figures are not necessarily contradictory. From what I have seen of the TIMSS questions (I reviewed them when the study was released), most of the questions were common knowledge questions that we would expect our students to know, either from their daily lives or from watching TV. Perhaps the NAEP questions are more closely aligned with what is supposedly taught in school. The questions are reviewed by 4th grade teachers and others who are knowledgeable about what students at each grade are supposed to have studied. The problem, of course, is that NAEP presumes national standards. And many students have not had the requisite instruction. Which is a good reason for national standards.

Question from Sandy Fletcher, Reading Coach, Hyde Park Elem.:
In our county we are presently using our state content standards, as well as performance standards by NCEE. Many teachers feel confused and pulled in many directions. We have school based standards coaches, district coaches, and regional coaches that do training,but I still hear so much frustration coming from teachers. More emphasis is put on having authentic performance student work on bulletin boards than on the actual teaching. Your views?

Diane Ravitch:
I feel sorry for teachers today, being bombarded from so many directions by people and officials and agencies, all of whom have different reform strategies. That is a good reason for national standards--one consistent set of goals with lots of different ways to reach it. Mainly what you seem to be describing is the effort to tell teachers how to teach, and to say that there is only one right way to teach. I see this in NYC, where the Teachers College workshop model is being imposed on every classroom and teachers are micromanaged throughout the day, on the assumption that there is only one way to teach. This coexists with a system in which there are literally no curriculum standards at all. I think teachers would be far more productive and certainly happier with the reverse: a system with a clearly defined curriculum/standards, and freedom to teach.

Question from Minna Zelch, Benchmarks Research, Edison Schools:
I can absolutely see many of the benefits of adopting national standards but I’m wondering how that could realistically happen when we have states that refuse to acknowledge even the most basic principles of certain subject areas, such as the debate over evolution, intelligent design and creationism in several states? Even if we could get the education community to agree that we should have national standards how could we get “the public” to agree?

Diane Ravitch:
If we were to find the right means to develop national standards, either through the federal government (NAEP) or through private organizations like the College Board, I can promise you that the debate over evolution would disappear. It would not disappear from the airwaves, but it would not be taken seriously in a national forum. Having worked on the NAEP board for seven years, I can tell you that I never heard anyone come forward to promote intelligent design in the science framework. These are issues that arise as the district is local or even on a state level, but never on a national level. The very act of making the discussion national will elevate it.

Question from Adrienne Sonnek Instructor St. Mary’s University:
Who would be members of the panel/team that determines what the national standards should be?

Diane Ravitch:
We may be talking about something that will/or/will not happen in five years, ten years. That’s my guess. To happen at all, it must have credibility, and that will only occur if there are people involved of unimpeachable integrity, respected by educators and the general public. There must be an iterative process, in which decisions are continually reviewed for accuracy, fairness, and academic excellence.

Question from L. Query, Reading Assessment Writer:
If national standards were adopted, do you believe states should have the freedom to expand upon them, etc., as long as the national standards are covered? In your mind, would each state still have its own high-stakes assessment or do you advocate also for a national high-stakes exam?

Diane Ravitch:
If we had national standards, states should be free to add as they wished, so long as they did not undercut or dilute the national standards. Last week I read Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” and if anything, it reinforced my view that it is past time for us to get serious about educating our children for a new world where other nations are competing to be leaders in science, technology and other fields. Yes, I think we should have a national examination, based on national standards. State exams would be superfluous.

Question from Dr. Sandy Rhodes, Kentucky NAEP Coordinator:
The NAEP was intended and designed to provide a periodic snapshot of student proficiency across states. State assessments provide diagnostic feedback to help educators ensure that all students are progressing towards the national goal of proficiency in reading and math by 2014. In going to a national standard, wouldn’t you have to assume that all states are culturally and academically the same?

Diane Ravitch:
No, no more than NAEP. Some states are way behind or way ahead of others. My hope is that chidren in all states will have equal opportunity to make choices in their lives, to go to college, to be prepared for good jobs, and to know enough about our system of government and our society to be good citizens. I don’t see why states should be all that different in meeting these goals.

Question from John Milburn, The Associated Press, Topeka, Kansas:
Since several states are already far down the road on establishing standards, how would the national standard be set? In theory, wouldn’t that require some states to lower their standards to meet the national level? Doesn’t this idea also have the potential to drive the cost of education significantly higher and lead to numerous court challenges that the standards are another unfunded mandate?

Diane Ravitch:
I have reviewed all of the state standards in history and English language arts. I have read the various reviews that have been conducted of state standards in math and science. I think it would not be too broad a generalization to say that state standards--with a few exceptions--are way below where they ought to be. My hope would be that all states would have access to the standards found in the very highest-achieving states --ie. national standards aligned with our best knowledge of what students should know and be able to do.

But a concrete example would help here. I am a huge fan of the Core Knowledge sequence, which describes what students should know and be able to do in all the core academic subjects, including the arts, from pre-K to 8th grade. Any school could become a CK school, but it involves retraining of the teachers so they know enough to teach the sequential content. That involves an additional start-up outlay. But don’t we want all our teachers to have the knowledge and skills that CK teachers must have?

People who want to litigate never need a new reason. They always will find one.

Question from Mary Campbell, Ed Program Specialist, U.S. Department of Education:
Given the states’ tradition of “local control,” do you have ideas on ways to effectively encourage states to voluntarily agree to national standards? Do you recommend specific organizations’ involvement and action steps?

Diane Ravitch:
The tradition of local control is a large obstacle to the adoption of national standards. I had to confront this question a few years ago, when I spoke in Wyoming to a state that is fierce about local control. I pointed out that there was very little in their education system that was actually “made in Wyoming.” Not their textbooks. Not their tests. Not the other materials in their classrooms. They were actually subject to decisions made by other people in other states in most of their education system. I believe that the movemet towards national standards is (maybe) inevitable, that over time there will be growing discontent with the poor results in international comparisons and other factors. The recent release of the adult literacy study showed that the proportion of college graduates who have a high degree of literacy is declining. Read Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” and you will see a sense of urgency. We can’t rest content. The rest of the world will pass us by. As for organizations, start with the American Federation of Teachers, which has long had enlightened leadership. Achieve. There are others.

Question from Regina Gilchrist Ash, Director of Instruction, Swain County Schools, North Carolina:
Would these national standards be structured so that students would truly be working toward attaining mastery DEPTH of the subject material? Our curriculum is so broad, math students (for example) never gain the depth they need to have a firm foundation. I am concerned, as past mistakes have told us, that not everything can fit into the traditional school day and year. (And that’s another subject for another day - but another reform that is needed in US education.)

Diane Ravitch:
I could not agree more. I mentioned in an earlier post that I have participated in writing state standards, and the hardest thing to persuade anyone to do is to leave something out. The consensus process is usually geared to pleasing everyone, so the log-rolling makes the ultimate document get bigger and bigger, to the point where it becomes unteachable. That must be the instruction to anyone working on national standards: identify what students absolutely need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the next level of education. But no more! Leave it to the states, districts, schools, and teachers to fill in everything else.

Question from Ross Dunn, Prof of History, San Diego State University:
I strongly support the idea of national standards-based education. In the 1990s teachers and scholars wrote national content standards for most of the basic subjects. Therefore, don’t national standards need to be revived and updated rather than created all over again? In regard to the National History Standards, for example, you and Arthur Schlesinger wrote in the WSJ in 1996 that “they will make a solid contribution to the improvement of history education in American schools.” If the national standards movement builds a new head of steam, don’t we already have a set of foundational documents for several disciplines, certainly for history?

Diane Ravitch:
I am well aware of the solid work on standards done in the 1990s, in particular by the world history group, which you headed. The problem with the world history document is that it was more than anyone could teach; it left out nothing. For those who wanted to teach a particular geographical area, it was extremely helpful. I agree that the documents produced in the early 1990s should be updated, where that is feasible. And they should relate to the actual time available for teachers and to the year-by-year courses that are likely to be taught. All these documents need to be updated, but also screened to be sure they are accurate and that they do not involve any political bias. One of the reasons that the US history standards literally blew up and became a controversial topic was that they did contain any number of activities that showed an implicit bias, and that is not acceptable in national standards, whether it comes from the right or the left.

Question from Adam Berlin, Social Studies teacher, Lawrence Middle School, Lawrence, NY:
It is my concern that Americans suffer from a sense of complacency about their rightful position in the world. However, in an increasingly global economy, I fear that future generations of Americans will be unable to compete with the highly educated and cheap labor coming from India, China, and elsewhere. Therefore, I believe, that if national standards are adopted, these facts need to be taken into account before they are created and methods of assessment are created. What are your thoughts about these considerations concerning the development of national standards?

Diane Ravitch:
You are correct, and as Americans begin to understand that we are not “entitled” to lead the world, and that our prosperity in the future hinges on our continued innovation, hard work, creativity, knowledge, skills, etc., then there will be a growing demand for better education and higher standards. Read “The World Is Flat,” don’t mean to sound like a broken record on this, but Friedman shows that the Indians and Chinese are gaining rapidly and intend to lead the world if they can elbow us aside in our fatness, complacency and lack of ambition.

Question from Juan Flores, Superintendent, Guam Public School System:
How much has been done to determine the extent to which each state’s standards vary from national standards? How far are we from using a set of national standards?

Diane Ravitch:
There are only two organizations that have regularly reviewed state standards and rated them. One is the American Federation of Teachers, the other is the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. They are not far apart in their judgment about state standards. Mainly their chief weakness is vagueness, lack of specificity.

We are nowhere near adopting national standards. As time goes by, however, I think we will move in that direction due to the continued poor performance of students in 8th and 12th grades, by international competition, by comparison of NAEP and state results, and by concern about our future.

Question from Miriam Kroeger, Ed. Prog. Specialist, AZ Dept. of Education, Adult Education:
One of the problems that I have seen with standards is that they are grade-leveled. What happens is that teachers, schools, districts etc., get caught up in the grade a learner is in as opposed to what the learner needs to learn. So a 13 year old with little education is placed in an 8th grade class and is expected to perform to the standards for that grade, when what he/she really needs is to start where he is at (maybe 3rd grade) and proceed from there. That would mean that standards are the basis of instruction, not the grade level. Wouldn’t this mean a major change in the educational system, but one that responds to the needs of the learner??

Diane Ravitch:
I understand your concern and every teacher and guidance counselor has to address it with every child. However it is important to have standards keyed to grade level, otherwise no teacher knows the expectations for most students in the grade she or he is teaching. It is important for the 6th grade teacher to know what the students learned the previous year, etc. The value of standards comes about if they are explicit, clear, and sequential. They can’t be sequential--that is, build on what was done before--if they have no relationship to grade level.

Question from Valerie Vallade,Adjunct, Bank Street College of Education, Leadership Preparation Institute:
As one who teaches those preparing to become school building leaders, what relevant discussions, strategies,and protocols should be included in their preparation to address the development of a national, high-level, baseline standard?

Diane Ravitch:
Good question and hard question, because it is hard to answer it. I would want school building leaders to understand that most of what is taught in school is organized by academic disciplines; each leader, I hope, would have a discipline that they have mastered. If their field is science or history, for example, they should understand what is required in the best state standards, they should be knowledgeable enough to review their own state standards and where warranted to be able to criticize them in relation to other states or nations. They should be able to see the connection between state standards and what happens in the classrooms of their school. If they see a disconnect, tell it to the state supt and soon they will be on the state standards committee and be in a position to do something to make them better.

Question from Charles French School Liaison Officer, Fort Monroe, VA:
You discuss the impact on states meeting NCLB requirements, but will you also address the ultimate impact on the student?

The highly mobile population of military-connected students, are significantly impacted by the 50 standards/50 states accountability. Children of our military usually attend from 6-9 schools from kindergarten to graduation. They almost always attend two high schools and frequently three or more high schools in different systems with different standards and accountability. With only a few exceptions, high stakes testing has no reciprocity across state lines either.

Diane Ravitch:
The Defense Department schools are rather unusual in that they do achieve excellent results, on the whole, with a highly mobile and diverse population. My sense--and I am no expert about the DOD schools--is that they exist in an almost unitary system, so the effects of student mobility are minimized. It may be that DOD schools already have a sort-of national standard. To the extent that they are subject to different standards and different tests, it may serve as a demonstration that the states really aren’t all that different in what they are teaching and what they are testing. Let’s face it, reading is reading, regardless of what district you live in.

Question from Jane Leibbrand, VP Communications, NCATE:

I must object to your answer to Stephen Grant in saying that having a national standard “might even persuade ed schools to care about teacher quality as it relates to subject matter.” Diane, a majority of states now require a degree or the equivalent in subject matter. Candidates must know the subject they plan to teach to be recommended for licensure in accredited schools of education. Knowledge of subject matter is front and center, Standard 1, in NCATE’s accreditation system. The problem comes when individuals who never planned to teach enter the system, usually teaching at-risk children in low-income areas. These individuals are not from ‘ed schools.’ Many teachers are also assigned to teach out-of-field. Ed schools are not responsible for this distribution problem. The entire education system must work to come up with reasonable solutions to this intractable problem. We can work at reallocating resources in the at-risk schools so that more adults are in the classroom with these students--student teachers, interns, career teachers, board certified teachers (as part-time supervisors), so that one unqualified teacher is not left on her or his own in a class of at-risk students.

Diane Ravitch:
Gosh, I have loads of scars from years of contending with ed schools on the issue of subject matter. If NCATE is now putting teachers’ subject matter knowledge front and center, I am very happy to hear it.

Question from Douglas Levin, Director, Education Policy, Cable in the Classroom:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita involuntarily and all at the same time displaced about 372,000 K-12 students - many across district and even state lines. Having been deeply involved in coordinating relief to these students (, it is apparent that our education systems have struggled to rise to the task. It would seem that national standards (content and performance) would, in fact, help improve the responsiveness of our education system to future disaster-related displacements of students. Would you agree?

Diane Ravitch:
That is an excellent point. It really reinforces the idea that many of our students move in a year. The hurricane disasters were a dramatic example, but in an ordinary year, I have heard, the population movement is large. This argues for having consistency in what is expected. That would be helpful for students, for teachers, for school boards. In general, textbooks and tests have already gone national. It would be good if the rest of us figured this out.

Question from Rafael Ramirez, Executive Director, Extended Horizons Academy:
David Gardner in his book, “The Disciplined Mind” argues that by the completion of secondary school, all students should have a reasonable sense of what it is like to think scientifically, mathematically, historically, and artistically and to have a deep knowledge of at least one discipline. How would you measure competence in the different disciplines in the deeper sense that Gardner beleives is important?

Diane Ravitch:
Of course, he is right. But you can’t do any of these things without having a very large immersion in the ideas, knowledge, facts, experiences, and skills of these disciplines. If we could identify how to reach the end point, then we would be on our way to having genuine national standards that aim for depth, not superficial knowledge.

Question from Chuck Ruebling, consultant, The Ruebling Group,LLC:
In addition to performance standards varying from state-to-state, there is also great variance in the teacher resources available in districts and schools both inter-state and intra-state. Although there is a need for commonality of performance standards, could you comment on the variance in resources to help students achieve the performance standards?

Diane Ravitch:
Critical point: Teachers will need lots of help, lots of resources to meet high standards. But first they need to know what the standards are!

Question from Pamela Sisemore, Parent and Advocate, Tampa FL:
I am a parent actively advocating for improved math standards in my district and the state. After reviewing The State of State Math Standards 2005 published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, there appears to be continued significant discrepancies and inadequacies in standards across the country. Our children may not be able to compete with their counterparts across state lines much less globally! And, I believe many states have inaccurately represented their progress. My concern would be who would determine the standards and making sure they are rigorous. How do you recommend making sure the bar is set high enough?

Diane Ravitch:
Best way to make progress along these lines is to protect an external audit, to tell the truth. Right now that is NAEP. Without it, we would have meagre ways to know that we are not succeeding. Of course, the real world will move on without waiting for us to wake up.

Question from Maria Estela Carrion:
The constitution limits the powers and duties of the federal government. Setting Education policy has always been a “right” of the state. What changes are needed to provide for this transfer of power to feds? What other arguments against national standards are state governors and officials putting forward?

Diane Ravitch:
As I mentioned before, I am not sure that this authority should be vested in the federal government or in a private entity. If it were in the federal government, it would not require a constitutional amendment, as the Constitution does not mention education. Yet we do have a federal Department of Education and many programs. We would need federal authorization by Congress to create such an activity. Which is why we might be better served by getting the whole activity into the private sector, minimizing political interference and dumbing down by politicians.

Question from Rachel May grad student:
There are legal processes that must be addressed to change the power from local control to national control. What legal steps have been taken to move this in the the “national” direction?

Diane Ravitch:
No one is doing anything to make this happen. I predict it will happen, because of the changing world and competitive pressures. All depends on whether the authority is federal or private/national.

Question from Ann Foster SVP eLearning Harcourt Education:
In the light of the issues that Thomas Friedman highlights, don’t you think 5-10 years is too long? How can more urgency be generated around this issue of raising standards nationally - should it start in just one (math) or maybe two subjects (science) where the issues are most critical and set aside others while these bed down and the debate runs its course? I am from the UK where we have already done all this - and I remember the introduction of sets of standards for 10+ subjects in 3 years was overwhelming for everyone - especially elementary teachers.

Diane Ravitch:
Yes, 5-10 years is too long, but it won’t happen sooner. The national issue today is NCLB, but NCLB seeks to raise the minimum bar, not to set high standards. After the next presidential election, the new president might make this a central goal, but there remains the question as to whether it should be national or federal. If such a program were to be launched, it would take 3-5 years to reach a point where it was ready to launch in American schools. Even though the need is critical, there is nonetheless great opposition (some people hate any kind of standards), great divisiveness (some will argue about which route or defintion is better and which way to go), and some are just too complacent to see that there is a problem.

Question from Michelle D. Ungurait, Director of Social Studies, Texas Education Agency:
Please explain how a national standards movement might address the enormous variations found from state to state in mandated social studies curriculum such as the disconnect between the 4th grade NAEP American History examination and most states’ 4th grade social studies curriculum which often includes state history.

Diane Ravitch:
Anything in the history curriculum--at least the sequencing--is to a large extent arbitrary. Who is to say that state history should be taught in 4th grade, 5th grade, or 8th grade or 12th grade? Yet states make these decisions because they have to put it somewhere. Same thing could be said about when to teach certain subjects in US history--in which grade. The only way to have history standards is to agree on an arbitrary order (chronology helps, but not in establishing which grade). In terms of national standards, they would apply only to US history and world history, but state history would remain a matter of state control.

Question from Emily Cruse, Director of Curriculum Metadata, Library Video Company:
Standards are often interpreted through the medium of the tests, so that often the methods of instruction and types of materials used in classes are those most geared to achieving success on multiple choice, paper-and-pencil tests, rather than the more holistic and integrated studies that you are proposing. What forms of assessment would be most supportive of the national standards?

Diane Ravitch:
Depending on the subject, tests should go way beyond multiple choice (although they should not be discarded as sometimes they can be the best way to efficiently answer questions). I always prefer short answer or constructed response questions, where students demonstrate what they know, where guessing is not possible. Also, computer adaptive testing has progressed to a point where it will actually shorten the time needed for testing.

Question from Dr. Sandy Rhodes, Kentucky NAEP Coordinator:
Several states, including Kentucky, has participated in several benchmarking activities between the state assessment content and NAEP content in several content areas (reading, math and science). Wouldn’t this benchmarking serve to align the state assessment to NAEP?

Diane Ravitch:
Yes. The question remains about why states are using different cut scores from NAEP and producing lots of impressive results that don’t show up on NAEP.

Question from Charles Schiller, Coord. of IT Educ., UMass Pesident’s Office:
Adding to the discussion generated from Dan Berret’s Question re: state tests vs. NAEP, it seems that Massachusetts is the exception to the rule where Massachusetts students score very well on NAEP and the state MCAS test is much more rigorous. There is a gap in scores based on “race” which we need to address which is the result of social and ethnic differences, but fundamentally issues of pedagogy. If we don’t address how we teach, especially in reference to “race”, how do national standards ensure minorities and people of color receive an “equal” education?

Diane Ravitch:
Massachusetts has a state test that is as rigorous as NAEP and as you point out, MASS students do well and MASS results align well with NAEP results. It is not clear to me that the racial gap is caused by fundamental issues of pedagogy. To the extent that they are (KIPP schools for example apparently get impressive results), more research is needed to demonstrate that pedagogy causes or narrows the gap. I don’t think national standards should dictate on matters of pedagogy absent definite proof that one way is best. I have not seen that.

Lynn Olson (Moderator):
I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Diane, thanks for participating. Next Wednesday, from 3 to 4 EST, we’ll host another chat with Christopher B. Swanson, the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, about the findings in Quality Counts 2006, including the relationship between states’ standards-based education efforts and gains in student achievement.