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NCLB Outrages

National education standards can end up hurting students

No evidence shows national standards result in better academic achievement.
But the negative consequences of national standards are well documented.

By Yong Zhao

President Barack Obama and national education officials appear to be moving the United States toward national K-12 standards -- a mandate that would cause irreversible damage to an education system already suffering from No Child Left Behind.

Obama recently announced a $4.35-billion federal plan that would force states to adopt common standards. Meanwhile, 49 states and territories have signed off on an initiative by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop common standards for math and English.

The joint initiative promises to help America's children "to be prepared to compete globally." In reality, it is precisely what is needed to ruin America's capacity for global competitiveness.

No evidence shows national standards result in better academic achievement. Most countries have centralized standards, but their performance on international tests varies a great deal.

But the negative consequences of national standards are well documented. First, they deprive students of a real education, which is different than acquiring the knowledge and skills to pass standardized tests. The result of NCLB is far fewer opportunities for students to learn subjects beyond math and reading.

Second, national standards stifle creativity and reduce diversity of talents by instilling a single view of worthwhile knowledge. A child who does not read or do math at the level and time point stipulated is deemed at risk, regardless of other strengths, which may actually be more valuable in future life. The child is put in remedial classes and deprived of opportunities to develop her strengths and, worse yet, the ability to have a dream.

Third, national standards discourage innovations in schools by forcing educators to focus only on the standards.

Despite all the problems, American education has produced citizens who have kept America the most innovative and competitive nation in the world. What will make the United States strong and Americans competitive in the age of globalization is our tolerance for different perspectives, diversity of talents, creativity and entrepreneurship.

When a government adopts national standards, it is staking a bet on behalf of its future citizens' success. The Obama administration and top education officials are wagering that, for now, a standardized focus on math and English will make American children globally competitive.

But as a parent and an educator, I do not trust our government to make that bet on my behalf. I want my children to have an education, not preparation to take tests. I want my children to be able to have dreams even if they did not meet the state standards. I want my children's teachers to be educators, not implementers of government mandates.

Obama and the nation's governors should preserve the legacy of our Founding Fathers and build a nation of diverse talents and creative entrepreneurs rather than a nation of standardized test-takers.

Yong Zhao is University Distinguished Professor of education at Michigan State University.

— Yong Zhao
Detroit Free Press


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