Are "common standards" good for American education?

For five good reasons, conservatives should take seriously the potential of the newly released (in draft form) “common” education standards to strengthen U.S. education.

First, they’re good, solid--indeed very ambitious--academic standards for primary and secondary schooling, at least in the two essential subjects of English and math. Students who attained them would be better off--readier for college, readier to get good jobs, readier to compete in the global economy--than most are today. (An overwhelming majority of states, according to analyses by Fordham and other organizations, currently rely on standards that range from mediocre to abysmal.)

Second, they respect basic skills, mathematical computation, the conventions of the English language, good literature, and America’s founding documents. That’s why they’ve been endorsed by the likes of E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation, and Lynne Munson of Common Core.

Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it’s now using.

Fourth, they do not represent a national curriculum--though to gain traction they’ll need to be joined by solid curricula, effective instruction, and quality testing.

Fifth, one little-noted benefit of properly implemented common standards is a better-functioning education marketplace, in which parents will be able to make choices about schools on the basis of more accurate information about how school A’s performance compares with that of school B--not just within communities and states but also when considering a move from state to state. Entrepreneurial school operators (such as KIPP and Edison) will also be better able to gauge and manage school performance in locations across the land.

Of course there are risks, too, four of which bear mentioning:

First, the standards are currently in draft form and subject to comment and revision. One hopes they’ll get even better (and in several key ways they would bear improving), but they could get worse.

Second, federal officials could mess things up by attaching too many inappropriate “strings” to states’ use of these standards. Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama have already dropped worrisome hints. (But of course they can mess things up without these standards, too!)

Third, the long-term governance of these standards--and of the assessments to follow--is unknown. Something more durable will need to be found or created than the consortium of states that produced the present draft. (Fordham is developing ideas and options for this, and others will surely weigh in as well.)

Fourth, standards alone don’t make for better education. (California, for example, has had impressive academic standards for years, and yet its student performance remains weak.) Standards just describe a desirable destination. Getting there demands good schools, too, with competent teachers, hard-working students, attentive parents, and a solid curriculum.

Still and all, these draft “common core” standards are light years better than we had any right to expect. They appear to be better than the standards most states now rely on. And they represent a vision of well-educated girls and boys that conservatives should applaud. Remember, it’s liberals who believe that people should be held to different standards.

This piece first appeared on National Review Online.

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