18 June 2009 03:53 PM

National Standards

by Dr. Rick

I’ve maintained for years that national education standards in the United States wouldn’t be bad.  I know all the arguments against it.  Education has always been local.  It’s not mentioned in the Constitution.  It should “reflect local values.”  Americans like their government local.  States rights.


But as a school system administrator responsible for curriculum and instruction, I spent many an hour visiting classrooms over a 600+ square mile jurisdiction (the twenty-second largest in the United States), and it wasn’t unusual to see a fourth grade class in one school that looked nothing like a fourth grade class in another.  (Or, sometimes, within the same building!)


No Child Left Behind has changed some of that, but there are still over 15,000 school districts in our country, and their curricula and assessments vary widely.


The company I work for now, Sylvan Learning, in forty-nine states and counting, has the closest thing to a national curriculum our country has ever had.  Our students in Portland, Oregon, get the same instruction as our students in Portland, Maine.  That uniformity (not to be confused with lockstep) is particularly helpful for a mobile society like ours, where children routinely spend time with one custodial parent or another, or where families regularly relocate.  (I was an army brat as a kid.  I know from moving.)  Move from one of our learning centers to another, and the child never misses a beat from her lessons.


Still, I never thought I’d see the day when there would be a serious discussion of and a states-driven national movement toward common education standards and testing in America’s schools.  “Not in our lifetimes,” I tell new teachers and teacher candidates.


Seems I’m wrong.


Earlier this month came the news that forty-six states and the District of Columbia are taking the unprecedented step toward developing national academic and assessment standards for students in kindergarten through grade twelve.  The initiative came from governors, not the federal government.


This could be a good thing.  Rather than the district-to-district, state-to-state patchwork system we have now, with hundreds of different tests and curricula nationwide and an equal number of reporting systems, there could be a consistent, simpler, and clearer set of expectations for our children and schools.  Our American educational system is already known for its overly broad goals, some say at the expense of depth.  A pared-down set of criteria couldn’t hurt.


Here’s the understatement of the day: there will be plenty to fight over.  Who doesn’t have set ideas about what kids should be learning in schools?  But we cannot shy away from the spirited – some predict fierce – discussions that are inevitable.  (What kind of math?  What reading methods?  What literature?  What science?  How much testing?)


There may even be some economies of scale to take advantage of.  Think of the money we now spend on the fifty state tests we administer to students, tests that are hard-pressed to be compared state to state.  In Maryland alone, where I’m writing from, we spend, according to the state superintendent of instruction, about $2 million per grade and subject to develop our state test.


By July, groups of busily working educators and curriculum experts will introduce standards for the states to agree on.  I’ve worked on similar endeavors.  I wish them well.  And patience, and endurance, and wisdom, and strength.  They’ll need it.


But, in my humble opinion, it’s a road worth traveling.  Consistency of standards.  Simpler, more realistic goals.  Less expensive.  If common sense alone doesn’t demand this, our kids’ learning does.



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