The case for national standards

[This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.]

Rebuilding our economy for the long haul — not just to meet today's needs — requires investing in education. President Obama rightly has called for immediate investments to build the classrooms, laboratories and libraries our children require to meet 21st-century challenges and to increase funding for crucial educational programs. But to address the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new century, we must do even more.

From my office in Washington, I can see beyond the Capitol to Virginia. I can ride a few stops on the Metro and be in Maryland. These three jurisdictions are so close in miles yet have very different standards for what their students should know and be able to do — just as every state in the union has its own standards. The result is 51 benchmarks of varying content and quality.

There are many areas in education around which we need to build consensus. A good place to start would be revisiting the issue of national standards. Abundant evidence suggests that common, rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of achievement.

The countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards, with core curriculum, assessments and time for professional development for teachers based on those standards. Here in the United States, students in Massachusetts, which has been recognized for setting high standards, scored on a par with the highest-performing countries in both math and science on a recent international assessment. After Minnesota adopted rigorous math standards, students there ranked fifth in the world on the mathematics portion of that assessment. Academic standards for students in the rest of the country, unfortunately, are a mixed bag.

Imagine the outrage if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move the ball the full 10 yards for a first down during the Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals had to go only seven. Imagine if this scenario were sanctioned by the National Football League. Such a system would be unfair and preposterous.

But there is little outrage over the uneven patchwork of academic standards for students in our 50 states and the District of Columbia. And the federal government has tacitly accepted this situation by giving a seal of approval to states that meet the benchmarks for improved achievement established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act — even if their standards are lower than those of other states (which might not fare as well when measured by NCLB's yardstick).

Should fate, as determined by a student's Zip code, dictate how much algebra he or she is taught? Such a system isn't practical: Modern American society is highly mobile. And it's just not right — every child attending U.S. public schools should be taught to high standards, regardless of where he or she lives.

I am not talking about federal standards for every subject taught in American public schools, nor am I proposing that state and local education authorities lose all say on curriculum. I certainly am not suggesting that teachers be forced to provide instruction in a scripted, lock-step manner, unable to tailor lessons or draw on their own expertise. Just as different pianists can look at the same music and bring to it unique interpretations and flourishes, various teachers working from a common standard should be able to do the same.

Education is a local issue, but there is a body of knowledge about what children should know and be able to do that should guide decisions about curriculum and testing. I propose that a broad-based group — made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content — come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model. Teachers then would need the professional development, and the teaching and learning conditions, to make the standards more than mere words.

I'm not so naive as to think that it would be easy to reach consensus on national standards, but I believe that most people would agree that there is academic content that all students in America's public schools should be taught, and be taught to high standards. And I would expect near-consensus on the fact that, today, we are failing in that important mission. A national agreement about certain aspects of what every well-educated child in every American public school should learn won't be easy to arrive at, but that is no reason to give up before we even try.

High standards improve teaching and learning. If we really believe that all children can and should reach high levels of achievement, it only makes sense to define those benchmarks. The time has come for a serious consideration of national academic standards.

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