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Education Reporter

46 States Join New Push for National Standards
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46 states announced in June that they would work together to draft a set of national standards for K-12 education. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are the parties responsible for the effort, which they are calling the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands also joined the initiative.

The coalition of governors and chief school officers has appointed a secret panel of experts who are now at work creating the common standards. The panel will reveal in July the standards it has created for high school graduates in reading and math. By the end of the summer, the panel plans to break up the steps necessary to get high school seniors ready to graduate, and announce grade-by-grade skills and standards in reading and math from kindergarten on up. Standards in other subjects will follow.

Later, a separate national panel, composed of experts nominated by the participating states, will review the standards proposed by the first panel. States will be free to opt out of the standards once they are created, but Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, says he does not expect them to do so. According to Wilhoit, the standards will be ready for implementation by 2010.

The initiative's leaders have promised that the standards will avoid directives on controversial issues such as exactly how reading or math should be taught. Nor will the standards mandate specific books that children at different grade levels must read. There will still, however, be scope for argument. "All the groups, the math educators and the English professors and the liberals and the conservatives will want to weigh in," warned Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institution, which favors national standards. "There are fundamental disagreements in our society about what kids should learn."

In May, U.S. News & World Report described testimony that various groups gave before the House Committee on Education and Labor. "All of the witnesses appearing before the committee seemed to agree" about the need for national standards, reported writer Zach Miners. It does not appear to have occurred to Miners that the unanimity of the testimony might indicate that the committee only sought the opinions of witnesses who favored national standards.

Other reporters took a similar tone toward the national standards initiative following the June 1st announcement. It seemed that every news outlet found a voice to loudly proclaim that there was no resistance or opposition to national standards. Governors and superintendents repeatedly pointed to the "global economy" and the pressure on the United States to produce internationally competitive workers. No one, however, bothered to explain exactly how national standards would take American education where it needs to go. A few mentioned that students who moved from one state to another would stay on track in school, but this is probably one of the smallest problems confronting American public school students.

This comment from Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine was typical. "Measuring our students against international benchmarks is an important step. Today, we live in a world without borders. It not only matters how Virginia students compare to those in surrounding states — it matters how we compete with countries across the world." Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and Arkansas Commissioner of Education Ken James also waxed eloquent on the need to "internationally benchmark" American students, but were silent on the topic of how devising "benchmarks" to compare American students to others would make students better educated or more skilled.

Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings did comment mildly on the possibility that ever-more-refined standards might be little more than a distraction. "We have a speedometer, and it says we're going too slow," said Spellings. "Should we get a more precise speedometer? Sure. But the most important thing is speeding up."

The four states that declined to join the standards initiative were Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas. No major national news story bothered to address these four states' reasons for sitting the initiative out.

In a statement, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pointed out that Alaska would be free to incorporate anything useful that Common Core created into its own standards. "The standards are not the education problem we face," said Palin. "The major challenges are persistently low achievement among some students and a low graduation rate." Palin does not believe that federal standards will necessarily raise student achievement. "The State of Alaska fully believes that schools must have high expectations of students. But high expectations are not always created by new, mandated federal standards written on paper. They are created in the home, the community and the classroom."

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, in an email message to the TEA teachers union, said there were "many reasons" he did not sign on to the initiative. "First, I do not have authority over state standards as that is the role of the SBOE [State Board of Education]. Second, I do not think it is wise to sign up for standards that have not been written yet and I am worried that in order to get consensus among states they will not be that rigorous."

The Obama administration and the largest teachers unions have been exerting pressure in the direction of national standards whenever they have had the chance. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in February calling for national standards. Around the same time, Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on C-Span that he wanted to be "the catalyst" for national standards. "I want to take all of the hard work and make it happen," he declared. Duncan responded enthusiastically to the Common Core announcement, saying it was "a giant first step in the right direction," and "a step that would have been unimaginable just a year or two ago." Duncan also declared it "the beginning of a new day for education in our country." (Washington Post, 6-1-09)

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