The benefits of national standards for student achievement

Monday, March 15, 2010

WHEN 48 STATES launched an effort to formulate a set of standards for what children should learn in math and reading, there was a lot of skepticism. Considering that earlier efforts to establish national standards were doomed by resistance from the states, many doubted the states' ability to come up with something truly meaningful. That, however, is exactly what's been accomplished with the first public draft of grade-by-grade common standards: They are detailed and they aim high. It's important that any changes strengthen, not weaken, the final product.

Appropriately, the "Common Core State Standards" won favorable reviews on their release last week. "A first-rate piece of work," Douglas B. Reeves, an expert on standards and curriculum, told Education Week. "Very strong, building on the best state and international standards," said Michael Cohen of Achieve, an education reform nonprofit. Developed by a panel of educators organized by the nation's governors and education officials, the standards signal a significant change in American education. Instead of the current mishmash of each state setting its own benchmarks for student learning, the common core seeks to describe what every child should know in English/language arts and mathematics from kindergarten to high school graduation.

The standards, posted at, are open for public comment through April 2; a final version will be posted in late spring. It then will be up to the states to decide whether to adopt the standards and, even more critically, how to develop curriculum and staff to meet them. It's unknown how many of the 48 states (only Texas and Alaska opted out) will eventually participate, but it's encouraging that Kentucky has committed itself and that a number of others, including Maryland, are laying the groundwork. The Obama administration supports the effort and is holding out the incentive of federal Race to the Top funds to those that embrace the effort. But, unlike the unsuccessful efforts of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to impose national standards, the common-core movement is completely voluntary.

There's no question that putting the states in charge helped propel the effort as local officials recognized the harm done to their competitiveness by weak educational expectations. The way some states artificially lower their benchmarks to make it easier for students to pass standardized tests is a long-running scandal. And it's absurd to argue, as does Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), that geography should define a child's knowledge. Shouldn't a sixth-grader in Florida have the same math skills as a sixth-grader in Oregon or Maine? Clearly, the standards are no panacea; indeed, the omission of science standards is illustrative of their limits. But the establishment of clear, tough standards is an important step in better preparing students -- and America -- for the global economy of the 21st century.

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