Rigorous national standards: necessary but not sufficient

Oleksandr Nartov
Setting a high bar for academic performance is key to international competitiveness.
Photo by EO Kenny.

There is a reason big, modern countries care about education: Decades of experience and heaps of research have shown a close tie between the knowledge and skills of a nation's workforce and the productivity of that nation's economy.

One way to ensure that young people develop the skills they need to compete globally is to set clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land. Leaving such decisions to individual states, communities, and schools is no longer serving the U.S. well.

We know from multiple sources that today's young Americans are falling behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic performance. We also know that U.S. businesses are having trouble finding the talent they need within this country and, as a result, are outsourcing more and more of their work.

One major reason for this slipshod performance is the disorderly, dysfunctional way we've been handling academic standards for our primary- and secondary-school students. Yes, an effective education system also requires quality teachers, effective administrators, and a hundred other vital elements. But getting the expectations right, and making them the same everywhere, is important and getting more so.

Rewarding Mediocrity

Every state has gone through the motions of developing standards in core subject areas such as reading, math, and science, but few have done it with care and rigor. The Fordham Institute has been evaluating these state standards for fifteen years, and our findings are grim. In science, the subject our reviewers most recently appraised, just twelve states and the District of Columbia earned A's or B's. More than twice that number have standards that deserve grades of D or F.

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Read The State of State Science Standards 2012. 

Uncle Sam is partly to blame for pressing in ways that reward low standards. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, coerces states into deeming the maximum number of kids "proficient" on their tests, but leaves it up to the individual states to determine what score qualifies as passing.

Some argue that Washington could solve the problem by butting out. But the issues plaguing American education—low achievement, poor technical skills, too many dropouts, etc.—are nationwide, and so is the challenge of economic competitiveness. The federal government's screwy incentives are just part of the problem, and straightening them out needs to be part of a larger solution.

Perhaps most damaging to our international scores and economic competitiveness has been our reluctance to follow the example of nearly every other successful modern country and establish rigorous national standards for our schools and students. States, districts, schools, and individuals would, of course, be free to surpass those expectations—but not to fall below them.

We need rigorous national standards because we live in a mobile society where a fourth grader in Portland, Maine, may find herself in fifth grade in Portland, Oregon, just as a high school senior in Springfield, Illinois, may enter college in Springfield, Massachusetts. We need them because our employers increasingly span the entire country—and globe—and require a workforce that is both skilled and portable. This is no longer a country where children born in Cincinnati should expect to spend their entire lives there. They need to be ready for jobs in Nashville and San Diego, if not Singapore and São Paulo.

Yet our education system hasn't kept pace with these fundamental changes. It is still organized as if we were living in 1912.

Opponents contend that different youngsters need to learn different things in different ways, and that national standards will go too far in homogenizing curriculum and standardizing instruction. I would argue that good teachers, the imaginative use of technology, and widening school choice will allow for ample individualization.

A First Step

Just as important, uniform standards don't need to originate in Washington. Indeed, forty-five states have recently signaled they will shift over to new so-called Common Core standards for English language arts and math developed by a consortium of governors and state-level school chiefs. (A similar project is now under way in science, with no federal involvement whatsoever.)

To be sure, much progress in education can be made through choice and competition. But decentralization also makes it easier for states and school districts to lower their expectations, pander to interest groups such as teacher unions, and hide their own mediocrity.

In time, we'll be able to compare the achievement of the states that adopted the Common Core with those that chose to go it alone. But setting the right expectations is at least a first step in giving our entire K-12 education system the makeover it sorely needs.

This essay was originally published by the Wall Street Journal as part of a debate with Jay P. Greene on the value of national standards .

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