Double dose of standards

Standards-based reform is one of the two driving engines of education improvement in the United States and has been at least since 1989. (The other engine, of course, is school choice in its infinite variety.) Though many states commenced this process on their own, federal encouragement--beginning with the Improving America's Schools and Goals 2000 Acts, both passed in 1994, then NCLB in 2001--has caused them all to do so.

Over the past decade, 49 states and the District of Columbia have created, replaced, substantially revised, or augmented their English and math standards. NCLB, of course, raised the stakes inasmuch as states, districts, and schools are now judged by how well they are educating their students in relation to those standards. (Science will soon be tested, though it won't count.) Moreover, billions of dollars in federal aid now hinge on whether states hold their schools and districts to account for student learning as defined in those standards and measured on assessments that are supposed to be aligned with those standards.

Given all that, one would assume that, overall, state standards must be pretty robust. One would also be completely wrong.

Enter Fordham's latest report The State of State Standards 2006, which evaluates each state's English, math, science, U.S. history, and world history standards. (The individual subject evaluations were done, and reported, earlier. This report brings them all together with interpretation.) But for a handful of laudable exceptions, the academic standards in use in most states today range from mediocre to dreadful.

The average grade that states earned from our standards-raters is still C-minus, the same as in 2000 (this despite the fact that most states have since revised or replaced their standards). Two-thirds of U.S. children today attend school in states with academic standards in the C, D, and F ranges.

Yes, there's been much volatility. Some states--Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, and New York--significantly improved their grades. But plenty of others deteriorated. The big backsliders include Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Looking at individual subjects, our reviewers found math standards generally getting worse while English got better. (Science and U.S. history stayed about the same; world history was not previously reviewed.)

What exactly do we mean by bad standards? Much the same as six years ago. Too many states still produce vague platitudes instead of clear expectations.

Knowledge is still subordinated to skills. Trendy educational fads like "multiple intelligences" and "constructivism" still sneak into state documents. And kitchen-sinkism is alive and well, as states refuse to make choices and instead develop encyclopedic standards that no teacher could possibly cover in the course of a year, thus rendering the standards useless rather than ambitious.

States fall short for four main reasons:

  1. Consensus Instead of Vision. Many state standards are camels designed by committees. This leads to kitchen-sinkism (excuse the mixing of metaphors) as well as shoddy writing, convoluted organization, and educational confusion.
  2. Dearth of Real Expertise. At the very least, university-level subject matter experts (mathematicians, historians, etc.) could help states minimize factual errors. A better strategy is to include such experts fully in the development of the standards themselves. After all, these professors understand their own disciplines better than anyone. (We're not talking about professors of "math education." We're talking about real mathematicians.) Yet the ethos of many states has clearly been that only K-12 educators can develop K-12 standards. The results are not pretty.
  3. The Curse of 1990s' era National Standards. The standards developed by professional associations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics continue to create havoc, as states embrace their faulty fads and anti-knowledge orientation.
  4. Rampant Exceptionalism. Alternatively, many states continue to pretend that standards must be developed within their borders in order to be legitimate. As a result, they refuse to build on the excellent specimens devised by pacesetting states such as California, Indiana, and Massachusetts. (To learn how these three states managed to set such high expectations, read Joanne Jacobs's excellent essay here--or find it within the longer Fordham report.)

We've argued for a decade that solid standards are the foundation upon which modern education reform rests. They aren't sufficient for success, but they are necessary if a state wants to create strong incentives linked to test results that are based on the standards. The three-legged stool of standards, testing, and accountability must be sturdy lest the entire enterprise tip over.

But as our new study shows, most states continue to muck up the standards-setting process-and we see no end to it. The time has come to revisit the contentious but powerful alternative known as national standards and tests. How to do that? Start by reading our second new report, To Dream the Impossible Dream.

Yes, national standards face similar perils as state standards. If written by committee, or turned over to K-12 interest groups, they could turn out to be vague, politically correct, encyclopedic, and/or fuzzy. If linked with real consequences for schools, they could be pressured downward. They could even wind up doing more harm than good.

Done right, however, they could put the whole country on the sturdy path to standards-based reform. And if great standards can be written in Sacramento or Indianapolis or Boston, perhaps they could be created in Washington, D.C. Some people say that national standards and tests will never happen, that they will prove (yet again) to be politically impossible. Perhaps. But we've grown just as skeptical about the chances of state standards getting any better. So we'll hedge our bets: we'll push for better state standards even as we fight for great national standards. For the sake of the country, we hope that one of those strategies will finally come to fruition.

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