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Will The Push For National Education Standards Succeed?

In a speech Sunday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pledged up to $350 million of federal stimulus funds to developing tests that will gauge whether students are meeting new benchmarks of achievement shared among the states. Duncan and many other education activists hope that these benchmarks will emerge from a project launched by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in May. Forty-six states, D.C., and three U.S. territories have signed on to the effort, which involves a group of education experts drafting a proposal for national standards in math and English language arts that states will eventually review and decide whether or not to adopt. (The holdouts are South Carolina, Alaska, Missouri, and Texas.)

Several education experts I've spoken to this week say Duncan's support is needed. "He certainly shouldn't dictate the content of standards, but he can help the states with finding the money to develop the tests, particularly because they are in dire straits [because of the economic crisis]. He's removed a major obstacle," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center for Education Policy. Jennings notes that Duncan should view the 1990s as a cautionary tale: Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton kicked off efforts to define standards at the national level and were cut off by Congress, which favored maintaining the autonomy of the states over education policy.

Indeed, there's much to be excited about with regard to the project and Duncan's approach to it. But the question remains: Will it actually work? Several people I spoke with aren't swooning just yet; and, it seems, some of the biggest names in education are also skeptical. States have agreed to participate in the NGA-CCSSO project, in part, because of very public, embarrassing evidence that current education standards don't work. "We've had seven years of experience under No Child Left Behind with widely varying state standards. It's been a very public demonstration that some states are asking more or less of kids," Jennings says. "The other thing that's different is the economic crisis. ... It's clear to governors and business leaders that other countries are doing better than the United States. There's an extra sense of urgency that we're slipping economically and that could be in part because we're slipping academically."

But these factors don't mean the standards project will be a success. Not by a long shot. For one thing, says Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the committee is working behind closed doors and disconcerting some with its lack of transparency: The names of the experts haven't been released, and there hasn't been a concerted effort to get input from education interest groups. Once the draft standards are released, "you're going to be hearing from every corner of society," Petrilli explains. The standards could meet their demise then, if the committee doesn't have a good mechanism for reviewing  and incorporating recommendations, or if it tries to split the difference by including what all or most parties want in the proposal--making it too expansive. "You'll get standards that are impossible to teach," says Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector (who has an interesting post about the standards push here). "It's the mush that is ineffective." What's more, the committee will need to be clear about how a final proposal will be formulated--who exactly will make the decision of what to send to the states.

Then, the states have to agree to adopt the standards. And that's where politics will really come in: Under NCLB, states are encouraged, in many ways, to keep their achievement standards weak because they don't want their students and schools labeled as failing. "There are too many incentives to keep the bar low," Petrilli says. "The politics are going to be in states with low standards that know if they sign on to high standards, they're going to have a lot more kids failing and looking bad." He suggests--as many education experts do--that Congress reevaluate and revise NCLB to make it a better law that doesn't support what Duncan calls "the race to the bottom."

Still, another problem could emerge among states that agreed to adopt the standards. They wouldn't be forced to administer common tests. They could come up with myriad tests to assess how students are performing with regard to the new standards. Among other problems, this would be costly--even with the $350 million available from the Department of Education. "The reason for common standards and tests is that it's cheaper to do at once rather than 50 times," Jennings says. "If 20 or 40 states agree on a common test, it would seem you could develop it with that kind of money. If states want an infinite number of tests based on common standards, who knows if it will be enough money." 

In other words, when it comes to the NGA-CCSSO project, cautious optimism reigns in the education policy world. It remains to be seen whether the brain trust drafting the proposal will be met as heroes when they emerge with their ideas, or trodden under political, ideological, and financial pressure. Until that critical moment, though, the project has the backing of many in education because, in the words of one expert, "[it] is the only game in town."

--Seyward Darby