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46 States and D.C. to Pursue Common Education Standards

"We have a speedometer, and it says we're going too slow," Spellings said. "Should we get a more precise speedometer? Sure. But the most important thing is speeding up."

The governors and schools chiefs have set an ambitious agenda. By July, groups of experts already at work are expected to unveil "readiness standards" for high school graduates in reading and math, Wilhoit said. Then, with each grade considered a steppingstone toward that goal, they will set out the skills students must master each year to stay on track.

There will be no prescription for how teachers get there, avoiding nettlesome discussions about whether phonics or whole language is a better method of teaching reading; whether students should be drilled in math facts; or whether eighth-graders should read "The Great Gatsby" or "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Education experts say there will still be plenty to argue about.

"All the groups, the math educators and the English professors and the liberals and the conservatives will want to weigh in," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institution. "There are fundamental disagreements in our society about what kids should learn."

For now, the organizers are keeping secret the names of experts who are combing education research and putting together the standards, to protect them from being bombarded by reporters and interest groups. Later, a separate national "validation" panel, made of up of experts nominated by the states, will review the proposal.

Even if the project sails through with few fights, students wouldn't see the results immediately, because states would have to determine whether to adopt the standards.

Duncan and others also said that even the highest goals lose their punch if there's not an accurate way to gauge whether students measure up. That means revamping state tests -- a cumbersome and expensive process. So far, the states have committed only to working to develop the standards.

"If you agree to common standards but you don't agree to tests, it's like buying a car without a motor," said Jack Jennings, president of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. "It's buying the outside without getting the thing to work."

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