Education Brief, New York Times
By SAM DILLON
A panel of educators convened by the nation’s governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards on Wednesday, laying out their vision for what all the nation’s public school children should learn in math and English, year by year, from kindergarten to high school graduation.
The new proposals could transform American education, replacing the patchwork of standards ranging from mediocre to world-class that have been written by local educators in every state.
Under the proposed standards for English, for example, fifth graders would be expected to explain the differences between drama and prose stories, and to identify elements of drama like characters, dialogue and stage directions. Seventh graders would study, among other math concepts, proportional relationships, operations with rational numbers and solutions for linear equations.
The new standards are likely to touch off a vast effort to rewrite textbooks, train teachers and produce appropriate tests, if a critical mass of states adopts them in coming months, as seems likely. But there could be opposition in some states, like Massachusetts, which already has high standards that advocates may want to keep.
“I’d say this is one of the most important events of the last several years in American education,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education who has been an advocate for national standards for nearly two decades. “Now we have the possibility that for the first time, states could come together around new standards and high school graduation requirements that are ambitious and coherent. This is a big deal.”
In recent years, many states moved in the opposite direction, lowering standards to make it easier for students to pass tests and for schools to avoid penalties under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.
After educators, business executives and others criticized the corrosive impact of a race to the bottom, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set the common-standards initiative in motion last year. They convened panels of English and math experts from the College Board and A.C.T., and from Achieve Inc., a group with years of experience working to upgrade graduation standards.
Alaska and Texas are the only states that declined to participate in the standards-writing effort. In keeping his state out, Gov. Rick Perry argued that only Texans should decide what children there learn.
The Obama administration quickly endorsed the effort. Under the Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative, in which states are competing for a share of $4 billion in school improvement money, states can earn 40 points of the possible 500 for participating in the common effort and adopting the new standards. Under current law, there is no penalty for states that choose not to participate.
The standards are open for public comment through April 2, before final versions are published later in the spring.
Kentucky, working with a draft, last month became the first state to formally adopt the standards. The state said it would train teachers to the standards this summer and begin teaching them this fall. Officials in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and other states have begun laying the groundwork for adoption, said Dane Linn, the education division director at the National Governors Association.
The adoption process varies greatly from state to state. In some, the state schools superintendent has considerable power to move forward in as little as three months. But other states, including California, have complicated procedures, involving the state board of education and other bodies that could prolong the process for a year or more, Mr. Linn said.
Educators and officials involved in the writing process pointed to what they considered to be strengths in the proposed standards, including that they are concise.
“Many states have too many expectations in their academic standards that force teachers to cover too much in a superficial way,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We said: ‘Let’s keep these very understandable and at a number that is manageable. Let’s not put on teachers more requirements than they can deliver.’ ”
Another improvement over current state benchmarks, people involved in the initiative said, is that the proposed standards are what educators call vertically aligned, meaning that material students are to learn in early years builds a foundation for what is to come in the next grade.
“Students are asked to do progressively more challenging things, and although that may sound obvious, it’s a real breakthrough,” said Michael Cohen, an Education Department official in the Clinton administration who is president of Achieve.
But not everyone was so enthusiastic.
“We’re not at all satisfied,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston nonprofit group that helped Massachusetts revise its state benchmarks in the 1990s. “Ours in Massachusetts are much higher, so why should we adopt these?” Mr. Stergios also criticized the three-week public comment period.
“When was the last time you saw a national effort that was rammed through in three weeks?” he asked.
The United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and a string of other business and education groups immediately endorsed the draft standards. The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s largest urban public school systems, called the standards “high quality grade-by-grade standards that the nation can be proud of.”
They outline concepts to be learned, but do not lay down a specific curriculum.
In English, for instance, they do not prescribe individual works of literature, but instead suggest texts illustrating the quality and complexity of student reading appropriate for various grades. The middle school list includes “Little Women” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” as well as works of nonfiction like “Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad,” by Ann Petry. The 11th-grade nonfiction list includes Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Because the standards cover only English and math, their writers did not include proposals related to evolution, a cause of controversy in some states, or to any other specific science concepts.
Since the late 1980s, many educators and policy makers have considered the current system of state standards a weak link in American education. Because the standards vary so widely, standardized tests keyed to them are not comparable from state to state, nor to national tests. Eighty-seven percent of Tennessee students scored at or above the proficiency level in math on state tests in 2005, for instance, while 21 percent did so on the federal math test.
Efforts to draft voluntary national standards during the first Bush and Clinton administrations foundered after conservatives attacked them as federal meddling in classroom teaching. Because of that tumultuous history, leaders of the latest effort have defended its state-led nature, despite frequent endorsements by the Obama administration.
Also, they enlisted considerable help from education groups, including the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others.
Writers who participated said they had sought to build on the best of what is already in some states’ standards, while clarifying and simplifying.
“We tried to clean house a bit, keeping only what is most important and most critical,” said Susan Pimentel, a consultant in New Hampshire who helped write the English standards.