Sandy and Jay on National Standards

Sandra Stotsky and I have pieces in today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette on the current national standards push.  We take slightly different approaches — Sandy thinks national standards are a good idea in general but the current draft has bad standards, while I think national standards are a bad idea altogether.  But we end up with the same policy recommendation — the current national standards push should be stopped.  I’ve reproduced both pieces below:


One Size Fits None

by Jay P. Greene

The Obama administration and Gates Foundation are orchestrating an effort to get every state to adopt a set of national standards for public elementary and secondary schools.

These standards describe what students should learn in each subject in each grade. Eventually these standards can be used to develop national high-stakes tests, which will shape the curriculum in every school.

National standards are a seductive but dangerous idea. People tend to support national standards because they imagine that they will be the ones deciding what everyone else should learn. Dictatorship always sounds more appealing when you fantasize that you will be the dictator.

But the reality is that we are a large, diverse and decentralized country with strong democratic traditions, making national standards-setting a futile task.

Either the standards are too prescriptive and are unable to attract the broad consensus necessary for adoption, or they are vague enough to form a national coalition but so vague that they are entirely useless.

The past two efforts at developing national standards illustrate each type of failure. During the early 1990s, under President George H.W. Bush, an attempt at writing national standards faltered when the history standards were perceived to be prescribing a left-wing agenda. The U.S. Senate actually rejected those standards 99 to 0. Then in the late nineties under President Bill Clinton the national standards push avoided attracting this type of opposition by making the standards very loose and general. The result was that they had no effect. So now we are like Sisyphus, rolling the national standards stone back up the hill yet again.

Even if we could somehow thread the needle and win national adoption of standards that were rigorous and specific, there is no reason to believe that they would stay that way. Once the automobile of national standards is built, eventually someone will gain control of the wheel and drive it in a direction you oppose. And if the entire nation is governed by those standards, there is no hopping out of the car. We’ll all drive over the cliff together.

The virtue of developing standards at the state, district and school level is that it accommodates the legitimate diversity of opinion about how children could best be educated. No one suggests that math is fundamentally different in different places, but whether, for example, all children should be taught long division in 3rd grade is not a settled question. If we adopt national standards, then we destroy the laboratory of the states that might help us learn about which approaches are more effective for which students.

The idea that all students nationwide should be learning the same thing at the same age denies the reality of how diverse our children are. Some of our children are more advanced and would be bored silly if we don’t allow them to progress at a more rapid rate. Other students need more time to master their material. Some students would benefit from a greater emphasis on the arts, while others might thrive with greater emphasis on science. To impose a single curriculum on all students is to build a system where one size fits none.

We don’t need national standards to prevent states from dumbing down their own standards. We already have a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered by the U.S. Department of Education, to show how states are performing on a common yardstick and to shame those that set the bar too low. Illinois, for example, isn’t fooling anyone when it says that 82% of its 8th graders are proficient in reading because according to NAEP only 30% are proficient. The beauty of NAEP is that it provides information without forcing conformity to a single, national curriculum.

Nor is it the case that adopting national standards would close the achievement gap between the U.S. and our leading economic competitors. Yes, many of the countries that best us on international tests have national standards, but so do many of the countries that lag behind us. If there really were one true way to educate all children, why stop at national standards? Why not have global standards with a global curriculum?

We would oppose global standards for the same reasons we should oppose national standards. Making education uniform at too high of a level of aggregation ignores the diversity of needs of our children as well as the diversity of opinion about how best to serve those needs. And giving people at the national or global level the power to determine what everyone should learn is dangerous because they will someday use that power to promote unproductive or even harmful ideas.

Jay P. Greene is the endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas.


All Need Same Knowledge

by Sandra Stotsky

Many Americans support the idea of common, or national, standards. They believe national K-12 standards would ensure that all students, no matter where they live and what school they attend, are taught a body of common national and world knowledge, acquire a mature understanding and use of the English language, and gain enough mathematical knowledge and skill to participate competitively in the 21st Century global economy. However, we have good reason to be skeptical about this rosy expectation. There is no evidence that national standards by themselves lead to or guarantee high levels of academic achievement. And, the Common Core initiative, a joint project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, has yet to come up with first-class standards in mathematics or English/language arts that would make this country competitive.

The U.S. is one of the very few countries in the world without national or regional standards. While some have high-achieving populations, many others do not. In other words, there is no direct relationship between high student achievement and having national standards. What does seem to make a difference in many countries with high-achieving students is the presence of high-stakes tests. Moreover,

many of these countries-Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, for example-test a lot and use multiple-choice tests-tests that entrepreneurial testing experts disdain in favor of portfolios, project-based assessments, and other costly and generally unreliable measures.

Everyone knows that the real spur for higher academic achievement will come from the development of common assessments, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The catch here is that these assessments are supposed to be based on the standards being developed by Common Core. And a number of significant improvements need to be made, especially at the secondary level, before its mathematics and English standards can be judged as internationally benchmarked and as the basis for reliable and valid grade-level and high school exit level assessments. So, the push from the education department to compel all states to adopt (voluntarily, of course) and implement Common Core’s standards will not in itself raise academic achievement in the 40 or so states with poor or uneven quality in their K-12 standards-the major reason we have been told we need national standards.

A critique I co-authored with Stanford University mathematician R. James Milgram, “Fair to Middling: A National Standards Progress Report,” published by Pioneer Institute, spells out the major deficiencies of Common Core’s draft standards and compares them with those in our top-rated states. As our report notes, the leisurely development of basic arithmetic skills in the upper elementary and middle school grades and the failure to offer an optional pathway to prepare students for an authentic Algebra 1 course in grade 8 mean that its mathematics standards are at a significantly lower level than those in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Indiana (the states with the most rigorous mathematics standards) and in the highest-achieving countries.

Similarly, Common Core’s English standards are distinctly inferior to those in California, Indiana, Massachusetts and Texas, all top-rated states. The central problem with Common Core’s English standards is its organizational scheme-a set of generic, content-free, and culture-free skills that are incapable of generating coherent grade-level academic standards. Until an academically sound scheme is used, Common Core’s draft writers will not be able to generate sequences of sound standards through the grades that lead to common curricular expectations-what national standards should give us. Nor will they be able to assure the states that common assessments based on the kind of standards we see in the March draft will lead to reliable and valid assessments of student learning.

The country is well aware by now of the possibility that the U.S. Department of Education will require states to adopt Common Core’s finaldraft if they want their Title I funds in the future. It is not clear why our national standards in English and mathematics cannot be at least as good as those in states that have empirical evidence, within the state, nationally, or internationally, attesting to the effectiveness of their current standards. Why were the most rigorous sets of standards, here and abroad, ignored?

Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality, and is a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee.

4 Responses to Sandy and Jay on National Standards

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Here’s what the Education folks keep missing….the political operatives will NOT miss the opportunity to turn these into a set of indoctrination standards.

    Everyone keeps focusing on the standards without seeing the big picture. Jay touches on it above.

    These people cannot help themselves. Look at the National Standards in England. They are a disaster because the political operatives are in control.

    I think all of the attention on whether they are good or bad takes away from where we should be focusing, which is how they will be used by the political operatives. It’s just a matter of time before we see them pushing their agenda.

  2. rse says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think that’s why the Justice Dept and Ed Dept announced they will use disparate impact to review who is taking college prep and AP classes.

    That was the same week as the release of the standards. The heavyhandedness about Title 1 linking tells you it’s a political agenda.

    Also note the AAUW push on getting more women into STEM careers and the refusal to accept reasons other than bias and insufficient support. That report may be weak but it has gotten lots of publicity (and well founded criticism) within the last few weeks as well.

    The most heterogeneous, inclusive country in the world is adopting national academic standards that will minimize knowledge, rational analysis, and solid academic skills to try to come up with equal, but low, outcomes for all.

  3. […] professor Sandra Stotsky, who was a member of the national standards validation committee, warns that “there is no direct relationship between high student achievement and having […]

  4. […] CCSS are a homogeneous approach to a heterogeneous group of students. In an example provided by Jay Greene, the assertion that all 3rd graders are prepared to learn long division is not a settled question […]

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