Imagine it’s September 2012. The Yankees are on their way to their fourth consecutive championship, the economy is booming again and for the first time in American history educators will open classrooms around the country with a common understanding of what their students must learn. I can dream, can’t I?
But this may not be so crazy. In April of last year, the governors and education chiefs of 41 states announced a joint endeavor to create national standards in English and math. Since then, five more states and the District of Columbia have jumped on the bandwagon, President Obama has given the group his blessing, and the coalition’s expert panel has released a draft of core standards — not bad for a few months. By January 2010, these 46 states aim to have approved a final version of K-12 grade standards and to begin adopting them into curricula.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the adoption of national standards will be a watershed moment in American history. Why? Because our federalist education patchwork has always meant that students in one state are required to learn profoundly different material than those in another. That’s wasn’t a big deal until a few decades ago, when we entered a national — and more important, global — economy where all Americans need certain skills to compete.
Before conservatives run to tell congressmen to keep their government hands off public schools, let’s review what standards mean. In their simplest form, standards are baseline skills that all students should have mastered by a certain time. At the end of fourth grade, for example, we could expect that all students be able to do long division and understand chapter books. Also remember that as of now, the federal government is totally uninvolved; the standards are being created by state entities on a strictly voluntary basis.
And who was the greatest proponent of the modern standards movement? None other than that famously liberal activist, George W. Bush. Indeed, this is one area where the otherwise-disgraced former president deserves a lot of credit. Before the passage in 2002 of No Child Left Behind, co-authored by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, states weren’t required to have any standards at all. More important, schools were never held accountable for their students meeting these standards via yearly testing.
But No Child Left Behind created an unintended and perverse incentive by allowing each state to develop its own standards and write its own tests. States are rewarded for creating low standards and easy tests, since student failure could mean a loss of federal funding. In Mississippi, for example, the percentage of Mississippi fourth graders in 2003 determined to be proficient in reading, according to the well-esteemed National Assessment of Education Process, was just 18 percent. And how many passed the NCLB-mandated state test? Unbelievably, a staggering 87 percent. In mathematics, only 17 percent were proficient on NAEP, while 74 percent passed the state test. Clearly something is wrong, and Mississippi is only the most egregious example of low standards and easy tests.
Fortunately, Mississippi and 45 other states have finally agreed that something needs to be done. It’s too early to tell how tough the national standards will be, or whether states will follow through in rigorously adopting them. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that incompliant states will be ineligible for any of the $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grants from the stimulus package — a good start, but President Obama should consider pushing for legislation that makes all federal funding contingent on the adoption of these standards. In addition, the governors and state education chiefs should consider developing yearly tests along with their standards to ensure that states don’t take assessment shortcuts. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that 66 percent of Americans favor national testing over state testing.
Strong common standards are only one component among many that are required to bring our nation’s schools up to par. But they would be a start, and a profound statement to kids, parents and the rest of the world that the United States expects great things from all of its children.
George W. Bush asked, “Is our children learning?” Now let’s ask, and agree upon an answer to the question: “What are our children learning?”
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.