The new “common core” standards for K-12 math and English might be just what the U.S. Senate needs to break through its partisan logjam. The last time the issue of standards came up, in the mid-1990s, senators united in a vote of 99-1. The vote, to reject the national history standards developed at the initiative of George H.W. Bush and later Bill Clinton, resulted from the standards’ perceived lack of support for American values. Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., led the charge. And the Democrats quickly fell in line.
With past failures in mind, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, begun by governors and chief state school officers, has worked to gain widespread support that cuts across party lines, includes a broad range of education interest groups, and specifically does not involve the federal government. But in the current political climate, President Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of the proposed standards and his administration’s linking of state participation in the initiative to federal K-12 education funding could quickly turn these standards into a partisan issue and scuttle this latest effort.
Before the issue gets framed in stark political terms, it might be useful to consider what benefits standards may actually bring.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative carefully avoids the term “national standards” and draws on familiar education jargon in stating its goals, using phrases such as “rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills” and “all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society.” Valid, perhaps, but other, more subtle benefits also would likely result.
A few years ago, using Japan as an example, my colleagues and I outlined a number of ways that national standards could improve U.S. education (National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States, Teachers College Press, 2002). Here are eight:
• Better articulation between grade levels. Teachers at all levels would know what content is important in preparing students for the next level. Parents, too, would know what is being taught. And a supplementary-curriculum industry would develop to provide targeted support for students and their parents in the form of new and old media and supplemental schooling.
• College-entrance examinations could be tied to the high school curriculum. A long-standing criticism of current examination options is that unspecified content leaves students, especially those from “disadvantaged backgrounds,” uncertain about how to prepare.
• Less disruption for students who move. Moving from one school district to another usually requires children to adjust to an entirely different curriculum. Common standards create consistency even among schools that use different textbooks.
• Textbooks would become more coherent and focused. Publishers would no longer need to rely on the pernicious marketing practice of creating books that make cursory reference to a wide range of disparate state standards. At present, American textbooks weigh much more than those in Japan, but contain far less meaningful content.
• Better textbooks could bring about improvements in teachers’ editions. Japanese teachers’ editions assume that the reader understands the content. The U.S. versions patronize teachers with marketing gimmicks and glitz that attempt to hide the low quality of the actual textbooks.
• Greater articulation between teacher-education standards and K-12 schooling. Subject-matter guidelines for future teachers could better address the content that they will teach.
• A lessening of local frictions. Curricular issues that divide U.S. school boards and communities, such as evolution or the politics of the 1960s, would more likely be contested at the national level, leaving local schools to focus on more-productive issues.
• A spur to collaboration. Judging from our study, this might be the greatest benefit of common standards for U.S. education: Teachers would have an incentive to work together to craft the best possible lessons. In a process called “lesson study,” small groups of Japanese teachers observe one another teaching a lesson from the shared curriculum. Then they discuss their observations, make revisions to their lesson plans, and share their results at professional conferences at the district, regional, and national levels. This process is possible because teachers in Japan teach the same content in each grade level or subject area. And they know that their efforts will have long-term use, because major revisions to the curriculum take place only every 10 years.
Will the new education standards be the panacea for all that is wrong with U.S. education? Certainly not. Bankrupt school districts, unworkable testing systems, high dropout rates—the many problems that plague our education system will remain. But a stable, common curriculum could provide the foundation that, in the midst of these problems, allows educators, parents, and the general public to focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for our children and young adults to lead productive and fulfilling lives.
With that basic foundation in place, local schools could concentrate on pedagogy, teacher professional development, and the goal of raising achievement for all students. States could work to provide adequate, equitable funding for education, create more-sophisticated means of assessment, and develop certification standards that attract and nurture talented teachers. And the federal government could use its leverage to reduce achievement gaps, provide support for “failing schools,” and encourage states to develop additional standards documents in other subjects that will result in a broad curriculum with high expectations for all students.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Beyond the Rhetoric of National Standards