The saying that "all politics is local" is never truer than in education. After all, Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 on the promise that he would abolish the U.S. Department of Education, underscoring the fact that individual districts and states were -- and are -- in charge of the show.
So the notion that a high school senior in Montana could soon be expected to master the same punctuation rules as a senior in Massachusetts is "very significant," says Dane Linn, who directs the education division of the National Governors' Association Center for Best Practices. Adds Chris Minnich, director of standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers: "If you'd asked chiefs and governors two years ago [to do this], they would have said, 'No, thank you.' "
Times have changed. So far 46 states, Washington, D.C., and two territories have signed on to the creation of common standards that would make math and English skills and content essentially uniform. This has experts in those subject areas laboring feverishly to meet an end-of-July deadline to decide what U.S. kids should know when they finish high school. The goal is for students to be career and college ready, meaning that they could make a C or better in first-year college classes without having to take remedial courses. Expanded groups of experts will set standards for grades K-12 by the end of December.
That's when the real work will begin: States will have to summon the political will to put in place standards that, in many cases, will be far more rigorous than their current ones. Asked what he thought about the prospect, the assistant principal at one Broward County, Fla., high school said, "It's impossible." Many of his students, he explained, are barely getting their diplomas as it is. Still, the idea that so many states are "all holding hands," as Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, puts it, "may take some of the heat off."
So why is this happening now? Observers offer several reasons, including evidence from international comparisons over the past couple of years that U.S. students continue to lag behind those in other industrialized countries. "If you want to compete for high-skilled jobs, you have to improve student performance," says Linn. Another reason is declining state budgets and the economies of scale that common standards would afford. "We can't continue to have 50 states, especially in this climate, creating standards and assessments."
National standards have been tried before, of course, once under George H. W. Bush and again under Bill Clinton, but Congress shelved both attempts. What makes this round different -- and gives it the greatest chance of success -- is that governors, not the federal government, instigated it. "What's really changed is that it's almost always now teachers who say, 'When are we going to get over this nonsense that math in Mississippi is different?' "from math in another state, says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. Nonetheless, the federal government under Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that it's onboard. Duncan said in a speech in June: "Common sense . . . tells you that kids in big cities like Newark and San Francisco -- or small towns like Tarboro, North Carolina -- are no different from each other. Standards shouldn't change once you cross the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains. Kids competing for the same jobs should meet the same standards." And he's pledged up to $350 million to help develop tests that would measure whether students are meeting the new standards.
Not only are the people drafting the standards aiming for "higher" but also for "fewer" and "clearer," according to Linn and others. Standards in most states are criticized for being too inclusive -- some say "mushy" -- to provide guidelines to teachers, giving them little choice but to teach to the test. "The more transparent we are with parents and students about what our expectations are, the greater the impact in the classroom," says Susan Gendron, president of the Council of Chief State School Officers and Maine's commissioner of education. "It's a phenomenal opportunity for us as a country to define the knowledge and skills that are essential. It's the first step in really transforming education in the classroom."
The new standards, which are being drafted by experts from ACT and the College Board, are based on surveys of freshman course syllabi and exit surveys. "They're really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college," says Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors' Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. "It means taking out some of the things that aren't really important. At this point, we don't know yet what that will be."
In fact, content is one of the snags the new standards may hit. When national history standards were drafted in the mid-'90s, Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and the wife of Dick Cheney), criticized them in the Wall Street Journal for not fully and fairly representing the traditional story of America's accomplishments. The "authors save their unqualified admiration for people, places, and events that are politically correct," she wrote. Congress subsequently ordered that they be abolished. "If the standards come out and there's a lot of nonsense in them and politically correct stuff, we could find ourselves in the same situation again," says Petrilli of the Fordham Institute.
There are other rapids to navigate. "States have invested a lot of time and money into developing their own standards," notes Linn. Texas is one of four states to decline signing the initial commitment for common standards (the others are Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina), because the Texas Board of Education just approved new math, science and English language arts curricula and adopted new math textbooks, with the adoption of new English books slated for the fall. "If we align with national standards," Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott announced, "it would cost about $3 billion just to replace the textbooks."
Linn told Politics Daily: "We've never said the transition would be an easy one." But as Minnich points out, "It's a tough position to be in to say that these standards are too hard and so we can't adopt them."
Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/lindakulman