Should States Let the Federal Government Set Education Standards for Schools?

Comprehensive guide to the debate over national standards

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Wednesday may prove a decisive victory for those in favor of national education standards in primary and secondary school. Massachusetts may become the next state to adopt the national standards advocated by the Obama administration, which is offering extra funding in the Race to the Top competition to states agreeing to the standards by August 2. Why is Massachusetts so important? In many ways, it stands at the center of a fierce debate over standards. The state is widely regarded as "having the nation's best education system," explains as Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, and many "see the common core standards as a comedown," even though "states that adopt the standards are allowed to have additional standards, as long as the common core represents at least 85 percent of their English and mathematics standards." Comparisons of the two sets of standards have been mixed; reviews claiming the national ones to be equal or better have been criticized for getting funding from the same groups supporting the national standards.

So should Massachusetts hop aboard the national train? And what about other states? Lewin notes, for example, a study "determin[ing] that the new common core standards are stronger than the English standards in 37 states and the math standards in 39 states." Some think the national system is a no-brainer, but others say the convenience of having everyone on the same page isn't worth what might be lost.

  • National Standards: The One Thing We Can All Agree On  "Interestingly, uniform standards is one area where teachers' unions and the education reform community can come together," observes Richard Kahlenberg in The New York Times' Room for Debate. Far from stifling creativity in the classroom, national standards are supported by the American Federation of Teachers for "mak[ing] a teacher's job more manageable ... a strong set of common standards would free teachers from both writing the script and performing it. They could, like actors, focus on interpretation and delivery."
  • National Standards: Lowering the Bar  The Boston Herald editorial board is outraged at Massachusetts's predicted capitulation to the national standards, pointing out that the "three sets of reviewers" claiming the standards were on par with the state's current ones were "hardly independent." In fact, the review by Sandra Stotsky, formerly on the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and another participant in the Times Room for Debate discussion, found that the national standards were below those in Massachusetts. "Do we really want literature to be only 50 percent of assigned high school reading?" ask Herald editors. "Do we really want to wait until fourth grade to have students sound out multi-syllable words? No, we don't."
  • On the Contrary: Students Will Benefit from These ReformThe Boston Globe, though, disagrees with both Stotsky and the Herald.
When the Common Core diverges from the state’s standards, it’s usually for sensible reasons. The federal standard, for example, puts less emphasis on poetry, drama, and literary studies in the lower grades. But it does put more emphasis on nonfiction, with the expectation that students will be better prepared by high school to read and interpret complicated texts in science and history ... the standards draw heavily on nations with the highest achievement levels in science and technology, including Singapore.
  • If So, Only In a Decidedly Anti-Enlightenment Way  The Globe's argument is unlikely to convince U.C. Berkeley professor of education and public policy Bruce Fuller, who thinks "standards threaten to further routinize pedagogy." The new initiative abandons, he argues, the lessons of "the Enlightenment when progressives first nudged educators to nurture in children a sense of curiosity and how to question dominant doctrine persuasively." The Obama administration's "surgical" approach to education reform may be "understandable," he says, but it's also "wrong." Fellow Room for Debate participant Alfie Kohn agrees, writing that "the biggest fans of standardizing education are those who look at our children and see only future employees." Meanwhile, "no good data support the value of national standards. Even if you regard standardized test results as evidence of meaningful achievement (which I do not)," he writes, "it turns out that while most high-scoring countries have centralized education systems, so do most of the lowest-scoring countries." He's not sure the mere convenience "particularly for companies that produce curriculum and tests--[of having] all fourth graders learn the same thing" is worth it.
  • Removing the Power to Educate  Neal McCluskey at Cato worries that states giving up control will lead not just to lower standards now in states like Massachusetts, but lower standards in the future: states with the best intentions will sit helpless while "the same political forces that have smushed centralized standards and accountability in almost every state ... will just do their dirty work at the federal rather than state level ... but they will have the added benefit of one-stop shopping."
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