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.