A decade after attempts to establish national standards in core subject areas set off a firestorm, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has joined a growing chorus of scholars and pundits who say the approach to school improvement again deserves serious consideration.
In a panel discussion here, and in two reports released this week, the foundation suggests that voluntary national standards and assessments could displace what it sees as the inconsistent and low standards set by most states and provide more equitable educational opportunities for all students.
“There is some evidence that good standards lead to stronger achievement,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education during the current Bush administration. “But our evidence shows state standards are as mediocre as ever,” he said. “The only solution is to move to national standards and national tests.”
To bolster its case, the think tank unveiled its latest comprehensive review of state standards, its first since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. The report gives the academic standards set by each state and the District of Columbia a C-minus overall, but more than half the states earned a failing grade for their guidelines on what students should know and be able to do in core subjects. California, Indiana, and Massachusetts received straight A’s.
“The state standards are as diverse as the states are diverse,” Fordham President Chester E. Finn Jr. said during the Aug. 29 panel discussion organized by the foundation, a conservative-leaning research and advocacy group. “There are [all kinds of] patterns of error and folly.”
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation offers four approaches to national standards and tests for America’s schools.
• The Whole Enchilada: The U.S. moves to a national accountability system for K-12 education by charging the federal government with the establishment and enforcement of mandatory academic standards and assessments to replace the current state-by-state system.
• If You Build It, They Will Come: A voluntary version of the first option, whereby the federal government sets up national standards, tests, and accountability metrics, and provides incentives to states (more money, fewer regulations) to opt into such a system. A variant would ask a private group to frame the standards. Participation is optional for states, which remain free to set their own standards.
• Let’s All Hold Hands: Under this approach, states are encouraged to join together to devise common standards and tests. Washington would provide incentives for such collaboration.
• Sunshine and Shame: This less-ambitious model makes state standards and tests more transparent by making them easier to compare with one another and with the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
SOURCE: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
The second report suggests four approaches, including mandatory and voluntary, to setting up a system of national standards and accountability.
The title of the report, “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” alludes to the difficulty of crafting national standards, given the legal authority of states and districts to set education policy.
Mr. Finn, who served as an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, favors a voluntary approach for national standards led by the federal government that includes incentives for states. Other panelists agreed that setting voluntary national standards would be the preferred method of improving schools, but there was less consensus over how to do so, or if it could be achieved.
“There is no reason that a child in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 3rd grade should learn anything different than a 3rd grader in Des Moines,” said Joan Baratz-Snowden, who recently retired as the director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.
Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, who now directs the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes secondary school reform, said that American students are going to have to meet international standards to compete with workers in India and other countries.
Even if national standards could withstand the political pressures associated with identifying required academic content, the effort might force greater federal intrusion into related areas, such as school financing, curriculum, and scheduling, said Eugene W. Hickok, a top official in the Department of Education from 2001 to 2005.
History has not been kind to national-standards efforts—undertaken during the first Bush administration chiefly by subject- matter groups.
The federal grant awarded to the National Council of Teachers of English was rescinded after criticism that the Urbana, Ill.-based organization’s approach to teaching early reading did not emphasize enough skills. After caustic public debate over what content should and should not be included in the national history standards, the guidelines written by the National Center for History in the Schools were denounced, 99-1, by the U.S. Senate in a nonbinding resolution.
Congress derailed a national assessment proposed by President Clinton in the late 1990s.
In the past year, the idea of national standards has gained renewed attention. The scholar Diane Ravitch, an assistant education secretary under the first President Bush, and the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress are among those pushing such standards as a way to address wide variations in what states demand of students. (“Nationwide Standards Eyed Anew,” Dec. 7, 2005.)
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Fordham Pushes National Standards