CHECKING IT OUT: The Push for National Standards--and Why You Should Care
The new release of a draft of national standards for math and language arts brings into sharp focus an effort to reform public education--based on the notion that all Americans should have the same basic foundation of knowledge and skills. Here is what is behind the push:
Public education today is what we call “standards-based.” That means that curriculum is designed around "content standards" that spell out the knowledge and skills deemed essential for students to know at every grade. Performance standards are designed to assess how well students have learned the content.
The No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush, allows each state to set its content standards as well as its own tests to measure student achievement. The NCLB system was criticized, however, for allowing states to set uneven standards that were in many cases said to be too low. That fueled a new call for “national standards” that has been debated for decades.
Other countries have had their own national standards for years. The U.S. federal government has never pushed to create national standards, however, because public education has long been a local endeavor and resistance to changing that dynamic has been strong.
Earlier this year, however, 48 states and the District of Columbia agreed to draft and adopt the same standards in math and language arts. (Texas and Alaska are not participating.) A panel was convened by governors and state school chiefs, composed of experts affiliated with organizations that oversee the SAT and ACT college admissions tests, as well as Achieve Inc., a nonprofit standards advocacy group based in the District.
The effort is voluntary but the Obama administration supports it, and President Obama’s education secretary has promised to reward cooperating states with millions of dollars.
Yesterday the panel released a draft of national math and language arts standards that it had written over the summer.
As my colleague Nick Anderson reported, the proposed standards in math call for students to be able to solve systems of equations; find and interpret rates of change; and adapt probability models to solve real-world problems.
In English language arts, students should be able to analyze how specific word choices shape the meaning and tone of a text; develop a style and tone of writing appropriate to a task, purpose and audience; and respond constructively to advance a discussion and build on the input of others.
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON:
Behind the renewed interest in national standards is, in part, a fear that the United States has fallen behind in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and will not remain economically competitive with other industrialized nations.
Proponents say national standards will set high standards that can help the country catch up.
Critics attack the arguments for national standards from different points. Some say that public education in the United States has long been a local affair, and that national standards will lead to a national curriculum and a national test that will inevitably lead to a narrowing of education.
Some opponents reject the notion that the United States has fallen behind in STEM education. Educator Stephen Krashen notes that the World Economic Forum ranks the United States second in the world--out of 133 countries--in the quality of its scientific research institutions, fifth in the availability of scientists and engineers and third in the number of patents for inventions per capita.
The Answer Sheet understands the impetus behind national standards but believes that Americans have different educational needs. The problems that confront many public schools are not a result of a lack of tough, uniform standards.
The fact that math and language arts are being highlighted raises a concern that other subjects will continue to receive short shrift by teachers worried about meeting the new standards--a situation that evolved under NCLB's regime of high-stakes standardized tests and its emphasis on math and reading.
Furthermore, the notion that a group of people can over the course of a few months write math and language arts standards for the whole country leaves open the question of how thorough the work was done.
Educator David Marshak notes that there was not among the standards development group “a single person” who “actually interacts with children or adolescents.” It is worth remembering that No Child Left Behind was drawn up by a group that included not a single teacher.
Opponents to national standards are not arguing that there should be no assessments or benchmarks of student achievement. But as educator Deborah Meier has written:
“Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment. It thus decreases the chances that young people will grow up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements. And it squeezes out those schools and educators that seek to show alternate possibilities, to explore other paths.”
| September 22, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: National Standards, Standardized Tests | Tags: content standards, education secretary arne duncan, national standards, no child left behind, school reform
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