The Call for National Standards--from Randy Weingarten
Ohanian Comment: AGGGGGGGGH! First giant step
toward the national test. . . paid for with your union dues.
By Randi Weingarten
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
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
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
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.
The writer is president of the American
Federation of Teachers.