The National Standards Distraction
Leave out their argument for "Choice," and the editorialists at The Wall Street Journal make some good points. I never thought I'd say that.
You can quote them as being against National Standards. You can't say that about The New York Times.
Accountability and choice remain the best drivers of reform.
The Obama Administration wants to standardize what is taught in American public schools, and there's nothing wrong in principle with setting benchmarks for what the average child should know by a certain grade. But national standards are no substitute for school choice and accountability, which are proving to be the most effective drivers of academic improvement.
With the Administration's blessing, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have proposed a set of uniform K-12 math and reading standards for all states. Compliance will supposedly be voluntary, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states that support the effort will have a better chance of receiving Race to the Top money. And President Obama suggested that states that opt out risk losing millions of dollars in Title I grants for low-income students.
Not surprisingly, all but two statesĂ˘€”Texas and AlaskaĂ˘€”quickly expressed support for uniform standards. But over the past week, a half dozen or so othersĂ˘€”as varied as California, Massachusetts, Virginia and MinnesotaĂ˘€”have had second thoughts. Governor Rick Perry said Texans should determine what's taught in their state, while Massachusetts and California rightly say their standards are superior to what's been proposed.
The biggest challenge may be reaching agreement on what a national curriculum should include. In the 1990s, the Bush and Clinton Administrations advocated national history standards. But the process became dominated by educators with a multicultural agenda preoccupied with political correctness and America's failings. The Senate censured the history standards by a vote of 99 to 1. The recent brawl over the Texas social sciences curriculum suggests that what works in Nacogdoches isn't going to fly in Marin County, and vice versa.
Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, states are free to set their own standards, and it's certainly true that some have dumbed-down their exams to meet the law's requirements. The latest national standards effort is intended to correct this practice and ensure high-quality standards across all 50 states.
However, national standards won't tell us anything we don't already know about underperforming states. The U.S. already has a mandatory federal test in placeĂ˘€”the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam (NAEP)Ă˘€”to expose states with weak standards. Mississippi may claim that 89% of its fourth graders are proficient in reading, according to the state test. But when NAEP scores show this is true of only 18% of fourth graders, Mississippi education officials aren't fooling anyone.
It's true that some countries with uniform standards (Singapore, Japan) outperform the U.S., though other countries with such standards (Sweden, Israel) do worse. On the 2007 eighth-grade TIMSS test, an international math exam, all eight countries that scored higher than the U.S. had national standards. But so did 33 of the 39 countries that scored lower. The U.S. is also commonly regarded as having the best higher education system in the world, though we lack national standards for colleges and universities.
National standards won't magically boost learning in the U.S., and if this debate distracts attention from more effective reforms, then public education will be worse off. State and local educators don't need more top-down control from Washington. They need the freedom and authority to close bad schools, recruit better teachers and pay them based on effectiveness rather than tenure.
Most important, families need more educational choices. Some 2,000 high schools are responsible for half of all drop-outs in America, and forcing those schools to compete for students and shape up or shut down is the main chance. Higher standards will be the fruit of such reforms, not the driver.
Wall Street Journal
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