The Challenges of National Standards

As the movement for common education standards grows, uncertainty comes to the fore.


One of the most-talked-about education reform initiatives currently making waves through schools nationwide and in Washington is national standards. But as educators, congressmen, and policy groups work together in an impassioned network to devise a common set of standards for K-12 math and reading for states to adopt, questions are emerging about the vision's feasibility.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been using the promise of $350 million in stimulus aid to urge states to abandon the current hodgepodge of individual standards. But experts say that complications are bound to crop up.

"Make no mistake about it. There will be controversy," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. Many educators say that old debates over the best way to teach math and reading—like phonics versus whole language for teaching English—could be reignited.

The "Common Core" initiative—the effort led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to draft the standards with input from education policy groups—doesn't even have the full participation of all 50 states, even though state leaders are supposedly eager to collaborate. "Not a single state has promised to adopt the standards," Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, told CSM.

Four states—Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas—have not joined the initiative, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made headlines when she announced that she would wait until the project produces "useful results" before the state incorporates them into its own standards.

Teacher bloggers are arguing that all the commotion over nationalized education standards is just a way for Congress to act tough on schools and then later fail to back the plan up with the right resources, making it just another piece of legislation like No Child Left Behind.

Educational consultant and author Alan November is reserving judgment on whether national standards would actually produce learning gains and put students on better footing for careers.

"It really depends on the nature of the tests," he said at an education technology conference in Washington this week. November contends that administering the same reading or math test to every student is the wrong way to go. Rather, the initiative should leverage new technologies to develop "customizable" tests that change in real time as the students give their answers.

"It should be based on each student's individual learning needs and progress," he says.

The NGA and CCSSO say the goal is to finalize the standards by early next year.

K-12 education
education reform