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 21st century 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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