Despite my many bets to the contrary, the movement for national learning standards still lives. More than 40 states (including Maryland, but not Virginia) plus the District have enlisted. They are executing plans for instruction in all grades and, eventually, common assessments in math and English language arts.
It sounds great. But it won’t help and won’t work. Such specific standards stifle creativity and conflict with a two-century American preference for local decision-making about schools.
The decentralized nature of our education system is the least of our problems. We should focus on better teaching methods and better training of teachers, as well as school structures that help educators work more as teams. Those teachers could then employ whatever methods and standards make sense.
Nonetheless, good people in national and state organizations, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are moving ahead with national standards (or common standards, as they are also called). I was resigning myself to much wasted time on this project until I read a post by University of Arkansas education reform professor Jay P. Greene on his jaypgreene.com blog.
Greene predicts that the national standards movement will collapse. Many of his reasons are insightful, although the first one — Republican opposition killing Washington support for standards — is the weakest. That would require this eggheady education issue to become hot politically, about as likely as the GOP running on revival of grammar instruction.
Greene is much better on the inertia and frugality that will frustrate the reform. “To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy,” he says. “Changing all of that will take a ton of money.” The states don’t have it. The federal government can’t supply it at a time of budget-cutting. Even the Gates Foundation, Greene says, can’t foot such a large bill.
His last argument is the most interesting. He says the digital learning industry, a growing financial and political force, will soon realize that the new standards will frustrate innovation. “A national regulatory regime could hinder their efforts in all states, preventing them from achieving beachheads in more reform-minded states so they can build and refine their business models,” he says.
That makes sense. No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top grants are likely to be the high water mark of federal involvement in schools. Washington officials will dump all kinds of education programs so that they don’t have to cut too deeply into monthly allotments to regular voting geezers like me.
We already have all the national standards we need from decades of states borrowing one another’s ideas. The colleges generally agree how much math, English, history and science our students need. Employers are pushing for special requirements for students who want to work after high school. Those local business executives will know better than any national panel what the students in their communities need to learn in the way of teamwork, critical thinking, presentation skills and time management.
The states, the districts and particularly the schools are full of creative educators who can show us, in a local way, what might work best for American students. Should we insist that every high school student do a major research paper? Can homework for elementary school students be discarded in favor of free reading, an hour a day?
The national standards aren’t a dead loss. Their designers can use what they have learned to create exams that probe conceptual understanding in ways that state tests fail to do. States will have the option to use the standard exams, but demand from parents and taxpayers for some comprehensible measure of school success should help them catch on. Then the people who care about schools in each state and each community will have a chance to do things their way and still see who comes out ahead.