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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/22/2009

CHECKING IT OUT: The Push for National Standards--and Why You Should Care

By Valerie Strauss

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.

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.”

By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Column: "...public education in the United States has long been a local affair..."

"Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment."

"...public education has long been a local endeavor and resistance to changing that dynamic has been strong."

Have we forgotten about Brown vs. Board of Ed.? Among other things, that case required 5 LOCAL school districts around the country to integrate. One in VA fought so hard, they closed schools for 5 years.

We've let a 1950s mentality control our modern approach to education, whereby people thought of the school (and church) as a key part of what held a community together. People came together at schools because that's where their kids convened, that's where moms volunteered, and that's where they felt they belonged. If we want our kids to progress, we must focus less on making the schools reflect our community values and more on the students' academic needs.

If you visit Achieve Inc.'s website, you'll find this statement: "In some states, raising high school diploma requirements has been difficult given strong traditions of local control of schools." (

My hunch is that the same "local" people who complain about a rise in academic standards are either concerned about kids with learning delays and/or the perceived stress on kids, or they're conservatives who resist any form of national control. Not to mention the parents who don't accept or don't know how to accept their roles in helping their kids achieve these standards. Education is personal, no doubt.

Meanwhile, Achieve Inc.'s "Common Concerns" section argues that most teens want more rigorous academic standards as long as they have the help to meet them. College professors have repeatedly said high schoolers are not ready for college-level work. This is one of the few times I'll have to side with American teens: these local complainers need to step aside and let the teens flourish.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 22, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

You will always have local communities and states, in this case Texas and Alaska, push back any type of nationalization of education if there is any indication of a perceived notion that the local governing board will lose control over what to administer in the classroom.

I know of local school boards that would sacrifice student achievement for power and authority in what they administer in the school system.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 22, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

"The problems that confront many public schools are not a result of a lack of tough, uniform standards."

And the problems that confront many public schools ARE a result of a lack of tough, uniform standards.

Look, I don't like the current mania for standardized testing any more than you do. And, yeah, they should have teachers involved. But have you seen what some kids are taught in parts of the country that do not include, say, DC or NY? Educational standards = political tools; school boards argue and pontificate about which scientific theories and books teachers should be allowed to teach. And the kids lose out. So, yeah, I'm all for setting minimum standards and expectations for all kids, wherever we can. At least that might give those kids a fair chance to learn the basic things they will need in college.

Posted by: laura33 | September 22, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Broken link! can't access the draft.

Yesterday the panel released a draft of national math and language arts standards that it had written over the summer.

Posted by: angie12106 | September 22, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Why don't we have a little discussion on the politics of math education: whenever politicians want to grandstand on what the US educational system needs, they resort to the need for advanced math in order to compete economically with other nations.

With the exception of the hard sciences, accounting and economics, very few people need or use trigonometry,calculus, upper level statistics, etc. etc., and that is true in any country.

What most people DO need in math skills are
deeper understanding of the pragmatics of math in managing their financial affairs so that they aren't ripped off by credit card or insurance companies,mislead by the dabblings of wall street or mortgage companies, and for everyone's sake, know how to track their own bank accounts so that they will not be destitute in their old age and reliant on the ever-shrinking goodwill of society.

Could we please get real?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 22, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

seriously this is horrible. I have friends who are teachers. when you are teaching 25 students, and there are 17 different languages in the classroom, and the kid's parents don''t care about taking them out of school for a month cause they're going to visit family, well, natl standards are meaningless.

We are all WELL AWARE of the good and bad schools. I do not need standardized tests for that AT ALL. Why we bother with them is beyond me. it's a terrible waste of time and doesn't help in teaching our children.

If we had school choice...well, the kids would be incredibly better off. Parents know what schools are good. It's no secret.

national standards are just not feasible. each child enters school at a different level. In most schools, that's 'standard' but it's hardly standard across this diverse country.

I don't typically think nationalized anything - in our country - is a good thing. In someplace like france or norway - well, they have tiny countries and the countries are mostly homogenized. Not the case in our country. People can vote with their feet here, and they do - and again - we are all well aware of the good and not so good schools. Some parents care and some don't. The biggest indicator of whether a kid will do well in school is his/her parents. You can't force a parent to care.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 22, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Education is a civil right. Rigorous standards for all students are the only answer. European counties are not homogeneous. Singapore is not homogeneous, it is Malay, Chinese and Indian and they teach in English.

I have been looking at the standardized scores in my school district. The wealthy school scored 60% failure in science in 2003, the first year the score was published. Last year 80% passed. Why? They focused on curriculum and cross-grade ability grouping. In the poor schools, they scored 12% in 2003 and 12% last year. Why, the blame is put on who the students are. Can't blame the wealthy students so the principal has to address the problem academically. The poor students continued failure reinforces people's prejudices.

Local school boards aren't going to change anything. They have seen the principals' and administrators' childrens' baby pictures. They will never say any thing harsh to them. The federal government has to set the standards and the sanctions. Local school boards will always blame the student or the parent. Never will the local school boards demand change in anything when they can let the status quo roll on and blame the students' race or class and the lack of homogeneity.

Posted by: suenoir | September 22, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

education is not a right. you have a right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Having said that, this is what I always tell people: You can pay for education now or prisons later. your choice. Of course we want to have education for our children, what type of society would we be if we didn't?

Anyone can teach 'well prepared' students to the test. Any test any child can fail. It doesn't mean the student is bad, sometimes it means the test is bad. So after the first test, said school system had the information they needed to teach to the test. How is that so great?

Again - we need more competition in the schools. We do not need more testing to tell us the good schools. We are all well aware of them. If ALL parents had the ability to choose, well, the worst schools aren't going to get worse, now, are they?

I have school choice. I suppose that most people on this board have school choice. It's the people who don't have school choice who need it the most.

I can send my kids to private school if I wanted, I can move to another district if I wanted. What about people who don't have those choices?

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 22, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

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