A Breakthrough for Local-Control-Loving U.S. Schools

It’s a moment many education reformers have dreamed of for decades and many thought they’d never see: a set of high-quality national education standards designed to set a higher bar for American schools that states seem eager to adopt. The goal, much discussed since George H. W. Bush was president, was finally accomplished because the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (rather than the federal government) took the lead, and states were invited to join the process voluntarily. In a country where local control of schools often outranks other educational considerations, the key to success was finding a way to create national but not federal standards.

The lack of nation-wide education standards has long been a key difference between US schools and those of most other developed countries, many of which score higher on international comparisons.   

It didn’t hurt, however, that the need for such standards became more apparent by the day. While President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind hoped to accomplish a similar goal by urging states to create their own standards and tests, the results were disappointing. While some states, like Massachusetts, set their sights high, many more states set the bar low to give the illusion of more progress than was actually being achieved, or diluted their standards over time, when progress failed to materialize, in order the avoid federal sanctions. Rather than increasing school accountability, the resulting patchwork of standards (defined as “what all students are expected to know and be able to do”) made it impossible to compare student achievement in one state with another, or even to monitor how many individual states were faring year to year.

One of the coups of the new math and English standards: They are designed to encourage educators to teach deeper knowledge and understanding, rather than laundry lists of superficial facts, but don’t specify how teachers should transmit information. If those goals are achieved, the result should be less worry about teaching to the test, and more schools encouraging students to do higher-level thinking. At least, that’s the theory. Skeptics have reason to worry whether reality will match the hype. After all, not every state participated. Texas  and Alaska were high profile decliners who said they preferred to go their own way. But reformers are encouraged that the Obama administration’s second round of the $4 billion Race to the Top reform competition will reward states that adopt the new standards by Aug. 2. In the meantime, Massachusetts should get extra points for setting their standards so high from the start.

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