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Will The Push For National Education Standards Succeed?

In a speech Sunday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pledged up to $350 million of
federal stimulus funds to developing tests that will gauge whether students are
meeting new benchmarks of achievement shared among the states. Duncan and many other
education activists hope that these benchmarks will emerge from a project launched
by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School
Officers (CCSSO) in May. Forty-six states, D.C., and three U.S. territories have
signed on to the effort, which involves a group of education experts drafting a
proposal for national standards in math and English language arts that states
will eventually review and decide whether or not to adopt. (The holdouts are South Carolina, Alaska, Missouri, and Texas.)

Several education experts I've spoken to this week say Duncan's support is needed.
"He certainly shouldn't dictate the content of standards, but he can help
the states with finding the money to develop the tests, particularly because
they are in dire straits [because of the economic crisis]. He's removed a major
obstacle," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center for
Education Policy. Jennings notes that Duncan should view the
1990s as a cautionary tale: Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton kicked off
efforts to define standards at the national level and were cut off by Congress,
which favored maintaining the autonomy of the states over education policy.

Indeed, there's much to be excited about with regard to the
project and Duncan's
approach to it. But the question remains: Will it actually work? Several people I spoke with aren't swooning just yet; and, it
seems, some of the biggest
names in education
are also skeptical. States have agreed to participate in
the NGA-CCSSO project, in part, because of very public, embarrassing evidence
that current education standards don't work. "We've had seven years of
experience under No Child Left Behind with widely varying state standards. It's
been a very public demonstration that some states are asking more or less of
kids," Jennings
says. "The other thing that's different is the economic crisis. ... It's
clear to governors and business leaders that other countries are doing better
than the United States.
There's an extra sense of urgency that we're slipping economically and that
could be in part because we're slipping academically."

But these factors don't mean the standards project will be a
success. Not by a long shot. For one thing, says Mike Petrilli, vice president
for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the
committee is working behind closed doors and disconcerting some with its lack
of transparency: The names of the experts haven't been released, and there hasn't
been a concerted effort to get input from education interest groups. Once the
draft standards are released, "you're going to be hearing from every
corner of society," Petrilli explains. The standards
could meet their demise then, if the committee doesn't have a good mechanism for
reviewing  and
recommendations, or if it tries to
split the
difference by including what all or most parties want in the
proposal--making it too expansive. "You'll get standards that are impossible to teach," says Andrew
Rotherham of Education Sector (who has an interesting post about the standards
push here).
"It's the mush that is ineffective."

What's more, the committee will
need to be clear about how a final proposal will be formulated--who exactly
will make the decision of what to send to the states.

Then, the states have to agree to adopt the standards. And
that's where politics will really come in: Under NCLB, states are encouraged,
in many ways, to keep their achievement standards weak because they don't want their
students and schools labeled as failing. "There are too many incentives to
keep the bar low," Petrilli says. "The politics are going to be in
states with low standards that know if they sign on to high standards, they're
going to have a lot more kids failing and looking bad." He suggests--as
many education experts do--that Congress reevaluate and revise NCLB to make it
a better law that doesn't support what Duncan
calls "the race to the bottom."

Still, another problem could emerge among states that agreed
to adopt the standards. They wouldn't be forced to administer common tests. They
could come up with myriad tests to assess how students are performing with
regard to the new standards. Among other problems, this would be costly--even
with the $350 million available from the Department of Education. "The
reason for common standards and tests
is that it's cheaper to do at once rather than 50 times," Jennings says. "If 20 or 40 states agree
on a common test, it would seem you could develop it with that kind of money.
If states want an infinite number of tests based on common standards, who knows
if it will be enough money." 

In other words, when it comes to the NGA-CCSSO project,
cautious optimism reigns in the education policy world. It remains to be seen
whether the brain trust drafting the proposal will be met as heroes when they
emerge with their ideas, or trodden under political, ideological, and financial
pressure. Until that critical moment, though, the project has the backing of
many in education because, in the words of one expert, "[it] is the
only game in town."

--Seyward Darby

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