National standards--not if but when

In 2006, Fordham published a report with the playful name To Dream the Impossible Dream, which outlined several plausible paths to national academic standards. That dream seems less impossible today. As No Child Left Behind's flaws increasingly come to light, the winds behind the national standards movement gain force. They were gale-like on Monday, at least, at our very own event about The Accountability Illusion. The panel of four Fordham trustees disagreed about plenty but they did agree on this: it is time--past time, even--to revisit the idea of national standards. But how do we get from here to there?

Three years ago, we saw four options: have the federal government take the lead and mandate state adoption of national standards (a.k.a., "the whole enchilada"); have a non-governmental body create the standards and let states opt in ("if you build it, they will come"); get states to collude in a bottom-up approach ("let's all hold hands"); and tap into the power of "sunshine and shame," i.e., maintain separate standards on the state level but make comparisons with national and international standards a lot more feasible and prominent.

Fast forward to 2009 and the "let's all hold hands" approach is gaining steam. Achieve's American Diploma Project already provides a voluntary third party auditing system for states wishing to up their standards to a nationally-accepted college readiness level. And just a few days ago, the National Governors Association unanimously approved an effort to work toward a "common core" of standards (paralleling December's NGA, Achieve, and the Council of Chief State School Officers report, Benchmarking for Success). Under this approach, the states will drive the process and join voluntarily. Uncle Sam, meanwhile, will sit in the back seat, perhaps providing incentives (money, regulatory relief) but otherwise butting out.

It's clear that a revamped version of Achieve's ADP standards will rest at the heart of this state-led effort--revamped after some "benchmarking" to include a look at TIMSS, PISA, NAEP, and even ACT for inspiration. (Tom Loveless would take PISA off that list; see more below.)

Our event this week surfaced more contenders, however. Susan Sclafani, a former Bush Administration official now with the National Center on Education and the Economy, proposed the Cambridge (England) University standards, which are used in 150 countries and thus would truly provide us with international comparisons. Diane Ravitch suggested we might reach back in time and tap the comprehensive and rigorous College Board Exams of the early 20th Century.

Of course, a bottom-up, state-led effort is still only one way to skin the cat. There are other options. Senator Chris Dodd has suggested turning the NAEP into a national, kid-level test. Donald Langenberg, who once led the University of Maryland, suggested at our event that perhaps the National Institute for Standards and Technology could take the lead--the same apolitical federal agency that ensures a mile in Massachusetts is the same as a mile in Oklahoma. (Whether curricular standards are as cut and dried as weights and measures is unclear.)

Or consider this: let big cities secede from their state accountability systems and join among themselves to develop a set of standards. We suggested this last week, and were validated in so doing when the Council of the Great City Schools' Mike Casserly responded that his members were contemplating exactly that approach. 

All such options have cons as well as pros, risks as well as potential rewards. But one thing is for sure: it's time that the national standards conversation focused on "how" rather than "whether."

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