National Standards

AFT head Randi Weingarten goes all Al Shanker in the WaPo calling for national standards.  She makes a lot of good points and a few cautions that are too infrequently laid out.   So just a few quibbles here. 

Weingarten notes that there is little outrage about the patchwork of standards among the states.  I disagree.   There is loads of outrage about it, from people on all sides of the national standards issue.  There is just a lot of disagreement about how to solve the problem.*   She also points out that countries outperforming the U.S. on national assessments have more uniform curriculum and standards.  True enough.   But so do some countries that do worse.   And countries above and below us do lots of different things in the education and broader social policy space as well.   The point:  On a variety of issues from standards and assessment to choice and teacher quality, international comparisons have become one of the great correlation – causation fallacies in education debates today.  

Finally, I’m hardly against national standards per se, in core subjects they make sense and can help provide some much needed curricular coherence.  But, my concern about much of the national standards push more generally is that it seems a distraction from the core problem the country faces today:  A system of public education that dramatically and dangerously under-serves low-income students and students of color.  And it doesn’t under-serve them by a matter of degree but substantially.   That’s much more a political problem than a substantive one and while better standards and more fine-grained measurement are important, their absence is not why we are where we are today and we should not lose sight of that

Also, from Crooked Timber, here’s a related take on all this that’s worth checking out.

*In the near term, and at little cost, we could do a lot more on transparency around various state processes than we do today.

Update:  Panic weighs-in here.  Two quick reax.  First, the above post was not intended to damn with faint praise.  On the contrary I liked the piece but just saying I liked it wouldn’t be a very interesting blog post and there were things worth discussing.  Second, to his argument, I agree that a lack of curriculum is part of the achievement problem, but there are ways to solve that short of national standards.

3 thoughts on “National Standards

  1. Jason

    What about arguments put forward by “Core Knowledge people” that due to migration inside the US and the lack of cultural capital low-income students and students of color gain in the home (that is, cultural capital that is translatable to success in school and the marketplace) that state a national curriculum based on content is a necessary precursor to success across various groups. Without a national curriculum, how do we create a consistent learning environment (expectations and prerequisites) for inner city students where schools often have greater than 40% turn over in student population? How do we deal with the different information students of higher socio-economic status gain in the home whether we teach it in school or not when we are derelict in providing that information in the schools themselves?

    I’m not sure where I fall on the national curriculum issues, but I’m surprised that you would point out that the system is “dramatically and dangerously under-serve[ing] low-income students” as a separate issue, when a fair amount of evidence leads to the conclusion that they are inextricably connected.

  2. Robert Pondiscio

    Jason anticipates much of my argument on student mobility, but I would also note that even more important is established connection between content knowledge and reading achievement. That means content standards should be most important to anyone concerned with closing the achievement gap. The need for a coherent curriculum is critical for all learners, but it’s most lacking in low-SES schools. I responded in greater length on the Core Knowledge blog: http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/2009/02/17/national-standards-critical-to-low-ses-schools/

  3. Tim

    Both of the above comments share in the most dangerous assumption regarding national curricula or standards: that the “core knowledge” to be developed is the culture of those in the “higher socio-economic status.” True enough, there is a correlation between education-levels and socio-economic status, but that does not mean there is an inverse correlation between socio-economic status and levels of education. If we develop a national “core knowledge” curriculum based on that assumption, and test it, we will widen the achievement gap, not narrow it.

    The simple fact of the matter is that, in our increasingly global economy, those students who have gained the presumptive core-knowledge in their privileged homes have much to learn from those who purportedly lack the cultural capital to succeed. Immigrants and other highly mobile students fluent in two or more languages and sensitive to other cultures should be validated for what they offer as a model to American students isolated in their sub-divided economically segre-gated communities.

    If there are to be national standards, they should offer multiple pathways to “success,” pathways defined more by skills acquisition than a singular definition based on historic cultural privileges.

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