Saturday, September 26, 2009

National Academic Standards Draft Released (and Free-Market Ideology Unleashed)

Cross-posted at BlogHer

Earlier this week, a panel of experts charged by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with crafting a set of national academic standards for English and mathematics skills released the first official draft of the standards. The draft outlines those skills students are expected to have developed prior to graduating from high school. The release of the standards marks the beginning of a 30-day comment period before the panel launches into writing standards for individual grade levels in K-12.

Bloggers from all points in the political spectrum are weighing in on the standards--or, more commonly, on the idea of national standards, especially when they come from the federal government (though, as The Washington Post points out, the federal government really is more of a bystander) or if the federal government will be offering money as an incentive to states that adopt these standards. So far 48 states--Alaska and Texas being the exceptions--have signed on to the initiative.

At the New York Times Room for Debate blog, experts were invited to submit brief comments on the standards. Their backgrounds are diverse--they range from a representative of the libertarian Cato Institute to a charter school founder to a professor of urban schooling--and their comments aren't really surprising. You've heard them before: from Neal McCluskey's tired lament that teachers are fully to blame for all the ills in public schools and that parents will always make the right decisions for their children to Ernest Morrell's similarly cliché (but alas, true) observation that our schools aren't going to improve if we can't provide enough books, better-trained and highly educated teachers, and reasonable class sizes, the comments are predictable.

What's interesting to me is the way people--and here I refer to the NYT's invited respondents as well as bloggers elsewhere--are making the same claims about competing agendas. For example, at the NYT, Robert Siegler claims that variations in state standards "hinder learning, especially among children whose parents move often" and make it difficult to evaluate the learning taking place in different states. Yet McCluskey argues that it's the presence of uniform standards, rather than their absence, that slows learning.

There's probably truth in both statements, and honestly, I haven't done enough research to know which end of this standards continuum is drawing on better evidence regarding student achievement. I will say this: the standards themselves are fairly tame and--aside from a provision asking high school English teachers to teach students how to read texts from other disciplines as well as the traditional literary works--will likely not prove controversial in this draft. (Expect the dust to kick up once grade-specific standards are released.)

I do resent folks who are using this opportunity (as does McCluskey) to argue that we should unleash the forces of the free market on the education system, letting parent-consumers decide what's best and closing those schools that don't receive sufficient parental support. God forbid people who went to school for 5 to 10 (or more) years to study learning theory and practice, who have made it their life's calling and profession, have some say in what students learn. (But hey, I'm biased: I went to school through grade 24, so clearly you can count me among the anti-parent elitists.)

I'm hearing the free-market argument not only in K-12 education but also in discussions of what should be funded (or, rather, cut) in cash-strapped universities. By one measure, if undergraduate engineering majors go on to earn higher salaries than, say, English majors, then engineering is a more valuable major and should be better funded than English, even if equal numbers of students on campus are interested in each major. Similarly, some are arguing that if corporations are giving more money to science professors and researchers than they are to humanities and arts faculty, then the state university should invest its resources similarly because the markets have spoken. Of course, I hear this argument most often from the mouths of science faculty (and, interestingly, mostly white male science faculty).

So what happens if we let "the market" choose what K-16 students will learn? Taken to one (I'm afraid believable) extreme, we see a narrowing of the curriculum, with high school English teachers transformed into drones teaching students to interpret technical texts and universities cutting (as we're already seeing them do) foreign languages, literature, history, arts, and the humanities more generally. As state universities emphasize the lucrative fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine, the last bastions of a real liberal arts education (by which I mean an education incorporating both breadth and depth across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences) will be those few elite four-year colleges that can afford, by dint of their endowments or their ability to attract top students, to continue to offer what may come to be seen as an outdated (or maybe "classic") education. But these institutions tend to be pricey, so such education may even further become a privilege of the elite--by which I mean either wealthy families or families that are savvy and well-connected enough to know which schools offer the best financial aid in addition to opportunities to expand students' horizons.

And now for a round-up of what folks are saying in the blogosphere:

Think Tank West addresses some myths--and, it ends up, not-myths--about the interplay of No Child Left Behind, federal and state control and funding of education, and national standards.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers makes a tentative case for national standards.

Writing a few months back at The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein recounted a roundtable debate among Weingarten, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and D.C. schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Goldstein sums up the conversation:

So there you have it: Three of the most influential education leaders in the country, all supporters of national standards, but all raising their eyebrows at the current state and testing-industry-led effort to get there.

Melanie Smollin asks, among other questions,

How will teachers know how to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment with these new standards in ways effective enough to enable all students to have a shot at reaching them?

Chester Finn, writing at the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, laments the Byzantine mess states have made of standards:

Yes, those who abhor the thought of national education standards and tests for the United States will find all sorts of reasons to oppose them. I don’t know if the forthcoming product, once fully massaged, will be to my liking. But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is obsolete and dysfunctional—as well as mediocre or worse in many states. (There are a few happy exceptions.)

For some good discussion on an earlier leaked draft of the national standards, see the comments section of Robert Pondiscio's post Voluntary National Standards Dead on Arrival at The Core Knowledge Blog.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about the standardization of curricula, either within state borders or across them?


Arbitrista said...

I share your concern about an excessively narrow curriculum, but I have to say that I'm tempted by the idea of national standards. Having worked with state assessments, I can tell you that a lot of kids are being short-changed simply because of where they grow up (think the teaching of evolution in biology, for example). On the other hand, I have some concerns about national standards leading to national testing, which is another can of beans altogether.

Julie said...

Thanks for your your excellent reporting and informative post on this important topic. One of the key issues is that the days are ticking off in the 30-day comment period. We're in the full swing of the school year, and most teachers and administrators are going to be too busy with the day-to-day issues the educational system to take part in responding to the standards. Although having consistent national learning standards sounds like a worthy goal, we need to remember how testing for assessment (the FCAT in Florida, for example) has lead to teaching that is too focused on test preparation. National standards can too narrowly define teaching in a subject area and can marginalize or eliminate many worthy learning topics because the subjects don't have national standards and, therefore, don't fit into a national curriculum.