National Standards

Does Kansas need a national curriculum for its schools? That may be coming, thanks to the latest in fad in education reform, which is being carried forward by the Common Core States Standards Initiative, a project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Spending on public schools has exploded in recent decades, but performance as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has remained flat. There are also significant achievement gaps. The most significant is the gap between white and black students, but there are others. There has been no end to calls for reform, including A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, and most recently, No Child Left Behind.

President Obama and his secretary of education may have some useful ideas in education, as outlined in the “Race to the Top” fund, including building data systems to measure student growth and rewarding effective teachers and principals. But one of the goals should give Kansans pause, and it is “Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.”

The case for national standards

The Thomas Fordham Institute, a group I have favorably cited in several reports, makes a case for national standards. The argument is three-fold:

The case against national standards

In his report, Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute offers the following arguments against national standards:

  • It is in the self-interest of school administrators and teacher unions to keep any standards low–defeating the alleged purpose of high standards.
  • Parents often don’t like it when their children are held back for meeting standards, leading to more pressure to water them down.
  • The process of drafting national standards will introduce even more controversy into schooling, as ideological, ethnic, and religious groups seek to have their interests reflected in the standards.
  • The superior performance of (some) other nations on international tests may lie in cultural differences (acceptance of hierarchy and authority) rather than the use or non-use of national standards.
  • While some nations with higher test scores have national standards, many with national standards score lower than the U.S., suggesting that standards are not a major factor in performance on those tests. In fact, he says, there is little empirical evidence that calls for national standards.

Instead, McCluskey calls for increased use of school choice (especially public education tax credits) and the growth of an alternative network of schools. He argues:

  • Free markets in services, in general, “meet the needs and desires of people” much better than top-down approaches that rely on government rules and assignments. When we look at countries that have both a strong public (government-run) sector and a strong private sector in education, we find this is true (PDF).
  • Nine out of 10 “gold standard” studies of school choice show “at least one subgroup of students receiving vouchers did better.”

Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute is another critic of the Common Core Standard Initiative. Speaking of national efforts, he says, “They rarely turn out well, and that is especially so because the likelihood of “getting it right” is not appreciably better than the chances of getting NCLB right were.” Some states have notably better standards, he argues (including Massachusetts, where he live). He concludes, “Give us incentives to improve on NAEP or TIMSS, and just let us do the work at the state level.”

What’s there?

The official site of the initiative disputes the idea that the result will be a national curriculum. From the document labeled myths v. facts,

Myth: The Standards will be implemented through NCLB – signifying the federal government will be leading them.
Fact: The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state‐led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind and adoption of the Standards is in no way mandatory. States began the work to create clear, consistent standards before the Recovery Act or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act blueprint were released because this work is being driven by the needs of the states, not the federal government.

Myth: These Standards amount to a national curriculum for our schools.
Fact: The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

Myth: The Standards will be implemented through NCLB – signifying the federal government will be leading them.
Fact: The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state‐led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind and adoption of the Standards is in no way mandatory. States began the work to create clear, consistent standards before the Recovery Act or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act blueprint were released because this work is being driven by the needs of the states, not the federal government.Myth: These Standards amount to a national curriculum for our schools.Fact: The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

What’s next for Kansas?

In 2009, the Council of Chief State School Officers listed Kansas as one of the states that had joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The materials (PDF, 264 pages) for the May 11, 2010 meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education contained this information from draft version of the minutes from the April meeting:

Tom Foster, Director of Standards and Assessments, updated Board members on the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Matt Copeland and David Barnes, Department education consultants, reviewed information on the additions the Department felt were necessary to create high quality standards and a purposeful transition for Kansas educators and students. They noted that most of the comments and advice from Kansas had been integrated in succeeding drafts of the standards. Discussion and Board questions followed. Board members expressed many concerns and reservations about the standards. In response to comments about the lack of user‐friendliness of the standards, different terminology used, and the importance and cost of  rofessional development to train the field to use them, Dr. Foster explained that the Department would be  developing bridge documents to link the new standards to the existing standards and training would be a key element in their implementation. The Department would do everything it could to make the transition for the field as easy as possible.

Another area discussed dealt with how the new standards compared with the existing Kansas standards and whether the state would do better to revise those rather than adopt new ones. There were also several Board members who objected that the State Board was not given the opportunity to be included in the standards initiative from the outset. Some questioned why an independent grassroots undertaking begun by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) was now being tied to the federal reauthorization of ESEA. The tie‐in to the reauthorization could pose a stumbling block for several members regarding their stand on approval of the standards.

Other issues mentioned were the pace of the project and fear it was proceeding too fast for states to keep up with assess the quality of the content of the standards; whether the new standards addressed graduates’ ability to find well‐paying jobs; the possible development of common standards in other content areas; and the standards‐related issue of development of new assessments and the state’s longtime relationship with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at The University of Kansas. As a follow-up, the list of Kansas standards review committee members who had been involved with the many drafts of the common core standards was requested.

In the May meeting, some members of the board said that Title I money shouldn’t be tied to whether or not Kansas adopts the standards:

Mr. Willard added that they had also shared [with members of the Kansas congressional delegation] their strong reservations about adopting the common core standards if tied to Title funds. Mr. Dennis discussed additional concerns they had shared with Kansas representatives such as the drastic sanctions to be imposed on schools that do not make AYP. Concern about the impact of losing Title I funds if the Board chose not to adopt the common core standards was shared.

The board also directed the commissioner to prepare a letter, to be sent to President Obama and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, “detailing the Board’s concerns regarding the reauthorization of ESEA, the Race to the Top competition and Common Core Standards.” Interim Commissioner DeBacker said that the draft version of the standards should be available to the board during their June meeting.

Where does the department itself  stand? Go to the assessment page of the KSDE website and you’ll read this statement:

The Kansas State Assessments for the 2010-11 school year will continue to measure the current content standards. KSDE has received questions regarding assessments of the Common Core Standards in 2010-11. To date, no decision has been made to adopt the Common Core Standards in Kansas. Additionally, the Common Core Standards themselves have not been finalized. KSDE is operating under the assumption that any assessment measuring the Common Core Standards (which again are not complete and have not been adopted in Kansas) is at least four years away. KSDE is basing this assumption on recent discussions with national testing experts that comprise its Technical Advisory Council.

Analysis

The idea of setting high standards and holding schools accountable to them has a nice ring to them. But there are several problems:

  • What does “hold them accountable” mean when it comes to schools? For many people, being “held accountable” means if you don’t do what is expected of you, you lose your job. Yet due to political considerations, failure in public schools seldom leads to anyone losing their job. (This is despite the “sanctions” allegedly built into No Child Left Behind.) In fact, poor performance–at least as measured by standardized tests–is usually rewarded with more money.
  • The common core standards simply adds another layer of regulatory and political control to education, and does little to improve it.

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