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The Ed Department's Mike Smith Talks About 'Common Standards'

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Schools and the Stimulus

Mike Smith, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said in a speech today at the Library of Congress that he's "somewhat skeptical" about the value of "common standards," which he said he uses interchangeably with "national standards." His biggest concern, he said, is that if common national standards are funded by the federal government, "you can't keep ideology or politics out of the ball game."

Smith prefaced his speech with a statement that he was presenting only his views and not those of President Barack Obama or of Duncan. He then proceeded to lay out arguments for and against having national standards.

He put in the category of "weak" arguments the idea that the nation needs common standards because, as matters stand now, all 50 states set different proficiency levels. The argument is weak, he said, because the proficiency levels can be standardized. Another bad argument for common standards, he said, is that even though policymakers and educators acknowledge they don't know much about what constitutes high-quality standards or assessments, they claim it would be beneficial to create a single, nationwide system.

But Smith also spelled out two reasons why the nation should move ahead with common standards. One, he said, is that a common set of standards is efficient. Another, he said, is that the common standards could foster a common curriculum. The potential to develop a common curriculum is the "core reason" that he supports the advancement of common standards, he concluded.

He suggested a scenario for development similar to what Duncan has alluded to, that states would form consortia to create common sets of standards and apply to use money from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund to do so. Smith envisions that different sets of common standards would be created by six or seven clusters of states. He said he thinks a healthy competition would evolve between the different clusters.

But he acknowledged that politics would still be part of the mix.

He told me after the meeting that his proposal that six or seven clusters of states should create sets of standards with stimulus money is "not policy" yet.

But in case it does become policy, here's a clue for states that may want to apply. Twice in his speech, Smith highlighted Massachusetts as having a strong set of standards.

3 Comments

I believe that the forming of state clusters would be very useful in developing a common goal in education. This would provide a more meaningful way to articulate the needs of what our children need in order to be successful in the workforce. Also this could change the focus to what our childrens' needs are instead of the need to meet a standard. We need to be providing them with real educational skills and academics that they can use an apply to the world they live in.

The major cause of good teachers leaving the field in my region of the U.S. is standardized curricula which propels teaching-to-the-test. Only in education do rational folks take a system that is not working at a lower level and propose to scale it up to a bigger level. Under the move to test-driven classrooms, we are suffering the severe side effects of massive early retirements of veteran teachers, reduced numbers of students wanting to go into industrialized teaching, and school students who are bored-to-death.

National standardized education has been the model used by nearly all other countries for a century, and they are not getting the Nobel Prizes. Our students trained before the reform fever that began with "Nation at Risk," are known for creativity because teachers were free to customize their teaching. American teachers decided what to teach, when to teach, and how to teach, unfettered by the current 50 variations of cookie-cutter systems. But not any more. State standards have a proven track record of failure. So why make it regional or national?

Another really big problem is funding past this one-time stimulus surge. Regionalized or federalized education distances education decision-makers from the main source of education dollars: state funding. When school curricular reforms are made at the local level where the bulk of money is also generated, limits in tax revenue constrains the exorbitant ideas of reformers. But when folks in Washington, DC—--primarily education school "visionaries" with a new fad every 2-3 years—---are distant from the revenue source, they can propose costly "reforms" way beyond our means to pay for them. We have been calling them "unfunded mandates" and NCLB was just the beginning. Education in most states takes up more than half a state's budget. A close-coupling of budget and programs keeps the cost from running away. Putting regional or national folks in charge of curriculum (and yes, they are political decisions and will change) when states pay the vast majority of the bill uncouples the system and will continue to cause runaway education costs.

Bilingual Muslim Childen need state funded muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. It is better to put your children in a toilet instead of in a state school. At least if you put them in a toilet you can wash them after. If you put your children into state schools, you are sending them to be indoctrinated with the common views and beliefs of a society.Children are young and impressionable. There is a danger that liberal, feminist, radicalist and homosexual and lesbian teachers are implanting their values into children. It is a well known fact that children tend to listen to their teachers before their parents. There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim Community schools

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