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Against National Standards:Let the states decide what to teach- they'll do less harm.

Said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February, "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America."

by Liam Julian

America's system of K-12 educational standards is confused and bothersome. Standards differ from state to state, and while some are quite good, many are dreadful, beset by sundry problems including mammoth omissions and factual errors.

What's more, states have an incentive to make their standards--and the tests that ascertain whether children have met them--easy, the better to allow large majorities of their students to do well. So it is that fully 88 percent of Georgia's eighth graders scored proficient in 2007 on the state's own reading exam, while just 26 percent hit the proficient mark on a national reading assessment the same year.

The often-suggested and seemingly sensible remedy--now embraced by the Obama administration--is national standards. Said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February, "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America." Yet before such homogenization gets too far advanced, it is advisable to recall the recent history of national education standards and in particular the problems that ultimately sank an earlier draft.

The idea of national standards emerged in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush and the nation's governors convened for an "education summit" in Charlottesville, Virginia. The meeting endorsed six goals, one of which was that by 2000, "American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography."

But Bush and the governors eschewed the onerous task of defining what "competency" meant and exactly what "challenging subject matter" should be mastered. The president also avoided legislating national standards, thinking, as did many, that this would give the federal government inappropriate and potentially unconstitutional power over local education.

Bill Clinton showed less compunction. He picked up where his predecessor left off, and Goals 2000, his expanded version of Bush's agenda, became law in 1994. The bill was nothing if not ambitious, intoning at the start of its 100-plus pages, "By the year 2000 . . . the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent, . . . every adult American will be literate, . . . every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well," and on and on.

Prominent in this grab bag of hopes and dreams was a plan for national standards to be designed by government-funded experts and overseen by a new federal agency. States that voluntarily reorganized their curricula to adhere to the standards could receive federal grants. The structure started to crumble in 1994, however, when Lynne Cheney--who as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities had approved the grant for Goals 2000 history standards--perused the final 271-page history standards and was apoplectic at what she read. She took to the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal to denounce a document "in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not."

Goals 2000 bogged down in the controversy, further debilitated by its own complexity, including legislative add-ons that had nothing to do with education--Section 1018 of the bill called for classroom distribution of condoms; Section 309 concerned health care and social services--and by proposed national English standards that were written, according to the New York Times, "in a tongue barely recognizable as English."

Ancient history. But the problem that doomed national standards in the mid-1990s still exists: Who determines what is included in the standards and what is left out?

Secretary Duncan has lately lauded the work of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which are at work jointly creating voluntary national standards in math and English (with the cooperation so far of 47 states). Furthermore, Duncan announced in June that his department will spend up to $350 million (part of the $5 billion it received in stimulus funds) to help states create tests to accompany the NGA-CCSSO standards. "This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," he said.

Or maybe not. Spats over the authorship of the NGA-CCSSO standards started almost immediately. Henry S. Kepner Jr., the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which produced its own national math standards in 1989, said in June that the NGA-CCSSO draft "should be based on work that has already been done"--in other words, on the work of his organization. (It was later announced that Kepner would be part of the NGA-CCSSO math-standards "feedback group.")

Kent Williamson, executive director of the 50,000-member National Council of Teachers of English, complained of the new national standards, "We have something positive to contribute, and we haven't been consulted so far." Maybe that's because the National Council of Teachers of English created the murky and largely unintelligible standards that the Times and others panned in 1996. But no matter. That group and innumerable of its acronymic peers remain certain that they each have "something positive to contribute" to the formation of national standards, and none will be denied the opportunity.

Unmentioned by those finagling to insert themselves into the standards-creation process are their underlying agendas--pedagogical, ideological, or other. Gary Nash, the man who directed the commission that composed the Goals 2000 history standards, for example--standards condemned 99-1 by the Senate--later said he hoped to "let the kids out of the prison of facts, the prison of dates and names and places." His agenda did not reflect a national consensus about history education. It is galling to think that what almost became the nation's history standards was guided by such foolishness.

When early drafts of the new NGA-CCSSO standards were leaked in late July, disagreement over their contents began straight away. E.D. Hirsch Jr., who started the Core Knowledge Foundation, wrote that the English section was "very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place," while the director of the International Reading Association said, about the very same section, that it "appeared headed in the right direction." The leaked drafts are far from complete. As the standards are filled out in response to feedback groups and other self-interested parties, the arguments will surely grow fiercer.

America's current system of state-based educational standards isn't great--far from it. But the very factors that contribute to the shoddiness of so many state standards are compounded at the national level, where every interest group from the textbook manufacturers to the national teachers' unions to the Springfield Elementary School Herodotus Society will want to have its say.

More important, several states have actually managed to craft admirable standards, among them California, Indiana, and Massachusetts; and several others are revising standards that badly need it. Will these states be compelled to jettison the results of their fine work and remake their curricula and assessments to jibe with "voluntary" national standards? A wiser course would be to publicize and praise states with top-notch standards and rigorous tests, while also publicizing and impugning those states content to slouch along with subpar standards and assessments.

What matters most here is the quality of the product, and the possibility of developing excellent standards shouldn't be sacrificed for the sake of middling countrywide uniformity. Better to push forward the process--sluggish though it is--of improving state-based standards than to preempt these local efforts with "voluntary" national standards concocted by interest groups and the educational establishment. Perhaps those drafting the NGA-CCSSO standards will avoid the many brambles that crowd their path. History suggests that stumbles lie ahead.

Liam Julian is a Hoover Institution fellow and managing editor of Policy Review.

— Liam Julian
Weekly Standard


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