By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia today will announce an effort to craft a single vision for what children should learn each year from kindergarten through high school graduation, an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American schools.
The push for common reading and math standards marks a turning point in a movement to judge U.S. children using one yardstick that reflects expectations set for students in countries around the world at a time of global competition. Today, each state decides what to teach in third-grade reading, fifth-grade math and every other class. Critics think some set a bar so that students can pass tests but, ultimately, are ill-prepared.
Led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the states, including Maryland and Virginia, are aiming to define a framework of content and skills that meet an overarching goal. When students get their high school diplomas, the coalition says, they should be ready to tackle college or a job. The benchmarks would be "internationally competitive."
Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it.
The nearly complete support of governors for the effort -- leaders in Texas, Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina are the only ones that have not signed on -- is key. Many Republicans oppose nationally mandated standards, saying schools should not be controlled by Washington. But there is broad support for a voluntary effort that bubbles up from the states.
"This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "A lot of hard work is ahead of us. But this is a huge step in a direction that would have been unimaginable just a year or two ago."
Duncan has said that today's patchwork system amounts to "lying to children and their parents, because states have dumbed down their standards." He and other critics say that disparity becomes clear in places where students earn high marks on state tests but fall short on national exams.
In Mississippi, for instance, 90 percent of fourth-graders passed the state reading exam in 2007, according to U.S. Department of Education data. But only 51 percent had at least "basic" or "partial mastery" on the test known as the Nation's Report Card.
In Maryland, 86 percent of fourth-graders passed the reading test, while 69 percent earned a basic score or better on the national test, according to federal data. And in Virginia, about 87 percent of fourth-graders passed the state test, while 74 percent reached at least a basic score on the national exam.
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the new expectations would be "higher, clearer and fewer."
There would be political pressure for states to show their children aren't at the bottom of the pack. But Wilhoit said the shift also would help improve schools. Companies and researchers could more easily create textbooks and professional training that meshed with the curriculum coast to coast. States under financial strain could pitch in scarce resources.
Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary under President George W. Bush, said in a recent interview that she supports states coming together to raise the bar for students. But she worries that the effort could distract attention from students who are failing today.
"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."