International lessons about national standards

Like comets, elections, Olympics, and the moon, education policy
ideas come and go in cycles. Consider America's on-again, off-again
enthusiasm for national standards and tests. Way back in 1959, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower called for "national goals" in education,
including "standards." A decade later, President Richard M. Nixon called
"the fear of ‘national standards'" one of the "bugaboos of education."
President George H.W. Bush embraced them in the early 1990s, only to see
an angry Senate denounce the draft U.S. history standards. President
Bill Clinton pushed for voluntary national testing, only to see an angry
House pull the plug on their funding. And now the Obama administration
is prodding states to participate in the Common Core State Standards
Initiative and offering big bucks for the development of assessments to
accompany those standards.

Another up-and-down-and-up-again notion is that U.S. education might
learn something from the rest of the world. Anxiety about Soviet
scientific progress spurred the National Defense Education Act of 1958. A Nation at Risk
unleashed a wave of interest in the Japanese school system. Recent
assessments and reports, particularly those from TIMSS, McKinsey, and
the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),
have made "international benchmarking" all the rage. And widespread
concern about America's economic competitiveness in the 21stcentury
is rekindling interest in how other countries--especially those that
seem to be gaining on us--successfully develop their human capital.

 

Fordham's hot-off-the-presses report
represents the current waxing of both ideas: interest in national
standards and curiosity about our international competitors. As America
contemplates its own transition toward national standards and tests,
what lessons can be gleaned from the experience of our global peers,
rivals, and allies?

We asked Michigan State's William H. Schmidt, Richard Houang, and
Sharif Shakrani to find out. Briefly stated, they drew six lessons that
the U.S. would be wise to learn:

1.      It's not true that national standards portend loss of local control.
2.      An independent institution is needed to oversee the development of national standards and assessments.
3.      Uncle Sam should encourage all this but not meddle, much less control.
4.      We ought to focus first on standards for English, math, and science.
5.      National assessments should be administered every other year in grades 4, 8, and 12.
6.      Students, teachers and schools should all be held accountable for performance.

Observe that these insights are both sensible and unsurprising.
Observe, too, that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is mostly
in sync with them--but doesn't come close to completing the job.

That effort by the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers
(CCSSO), supported by the Gates Foundation and enlisting (among others)
Achieve, ACT, and the College Board, is more akin to what Churchill
might term "the beginning of the beginning." It's primarily aligned with
lessons one and three. Which is good. "Local control," along with
"states' rights," were the trolls under the bridge of past moves toward
national standards and tests; the Common Core Initiative is striving to
demonstrate both its bottom-up bona fides and its independence from
Uncle Sam.

It's starting with reading/writing and math. (Our authors would
prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we'd like to
get to history sooner rather than later.) As for the testing and
accountability regimes associated with the standards, well, those are
decisions to be made later.

But there's one glaring hole in the Common Core strategy, represented
by this report's second lesson: As yet America has no durable
organizational structure for the standards-setting and
standards-revising process, much less one to operate an ongoing
assessment system based on these processes. It's all ad hoc. And that's a problem that needs to be fixed lest this valiant effort collapse under its own weight.

That's no slap at leaders of the Common Core initiative; it was
surely smart politics to build momentum for the standards before hashing
out all the organizational details. But hash out they--and we, and
you--must.

Over the long haul, someone, or something, must "own" these
standards. That means enlisting first-class content experts, educators,
and lay persons to develop them. Keeping them up to date and relevant.
Adding other subjects. Then, something or someone needs to shoulder
responsibility for the assessment system. That means developing,
piloting, and operationalizing the tests. Refreshing them with valid
items. Seeing that they are administered, scored, and reported with
fidelity, security, reliability, and timeliness. Rationally relating
them to other crucial policies and programs with which they inevitably
intersect (e.g., TIMSS, PISA, NCLB, NAEP). Making sure that their
financial, organizational, and political underpinnings are solid. And
fastidiously solving the prickly problems and challenges that will
inevitably arise.

In 2009, the United States has no suitable organizational
arrangement for handling all this, and we need to devise one. This
challenge calls, in fact, for a major act of organizational creativity,
not unlike--in various eras--inventing the Pension Office, National
Academy of Sciences, National Assessment Governing Board, Securities and
Exchange Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, Smithsonian
Institution, Education Commission of the States, Tennessee Valley
Authority, National Institute of Standards and Technology, or Federal
Reserve Board.

None of these existed before it was created. Yet we can't quite
imagine America today without them. Note, too, that all of them have
painstakingly crafted relationships with the federal government--often
including funding--but no two of them have exactly the same
relationship.

Comets don't come around often. Neither do serious chances to adopt
national standards and tests in a country that has previously had mixed
feelings and mixed experiences with such endeavors. Our hope is that the
new Fordham report--and the lessons it draws from around the
world--make it a little more likely that we won't have to wait for
another complete orbit before we tackle this national obligation again.

 

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