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Fear Not Big Government on Standards, Says Fordham

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One of most common objections that gets lobbed at efforts to create national standards is that they will require state and local officials to give up control over curriculum to a centralized, federal bureaucracy.

Yet that perception is not reality, according to a study from Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The report released last week, put together for Fordham by researchers from Michigan State University, added some potentially important insight and context to ongoing discussions of national, or common academic standards. The majority of 10 countries with national standards studied "incorporate elements of flexibility and are not based entirely on a top-down approach," the report says, but rather allow for heavy doses of regional and local authority.

We summarized some highlights from the report in this week's issue. A couple other points in the study worth noting:

—As the multistate, "common-core" standards effort rolls ahead, the study offers some of the clearest suggestions I've seen on the potential future role of the nation's premier test of student academic performance, NAEP. It says: "National assessments (including open-ended questions) should be administered at grades 4, 8, and12 every two years. Most countries do not test every year in every grade. Given that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) already tests U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12, we suggest retaining that pattern and testing every other calendar year. ... Eventually the 12th grade end-of-high-school assessment could become a high-stakes test with implications for college admissions, course assignment, and employment (as in Singapore, South Korea, France, the Netherlands, Brazil, and India). Such an assessment, of course, would have to be given annually."

As I read that, NAEP retains a very strong role in the scenario described by the authors. They also emphasize the importance of open-ended questions as promoting teaching and learning of reasoning and analytic and communication skills. While some European and Asian countries have shifted toward multiple-choice questions, partly because of cost, the authors also say that other nations they studied place a strong emphasis on open-ended items. Interestingly, in almost all the countries studied, teachers were expected to read and score those test items as part of their work responsibilities and for professional development.

—In a foreword to the report, Chester Finn, Mike Petrilli, and Amber Winkler mostly applaud the current "common core" venture, though they also say it will have to change to succeed. "As yet there’s not a durable organizational structure for the standards-setting and standards-revising process, much less one to operate an ongoing assessment system based on these processes. It’s all ad hoc. And that’s a big problem that needs to be fixed in short order lest the whole effort collapse under its own weight."

They go on: "Someone, or something, must 'own' these standards. That means enlisting first-class content experts, educators, and laypersons to develop them. Keeping them up to date and relevant. Adding other subjects."

How relevant are the experiences of other nations to a U.S.-based "common core"? And are the Fordham officials correct in their breakdown of what's needed in the time to come?

4 Comments

I hope Chester got a good payoff for selling his soul !! Oh brother

National Standards will not translate into any real difference for American schoolchildren. Challenging curriculum and standards are now widely available in all states. Only policies related to how the standards are taught can make a difference. Professionals and stake holders at the state and local level can do that. Orders from the Federal Government as to how to teach children will be next. It will always be based on the advice of private experts. Which companies are producing the most successful curricular materials and methods? Which corporate funded non-profit is claiming to have the silver bullet program? The whole idea of top-down in education is wrong. Our founding fathers made education local (by not making it federal) and I believe it should stay that way. The Federal Department of Education should be abolished.

I probably ought to withhold specific comment until I've seen the original Fordham article and determined if Ed Week has slanted their article on it. As much as I respect Ed Week and the writers, I've seen lots of other respectable outlets in our field selectively report and edit--enough to sour me toward education research in general, to be honest. I'll click the link to it next, and post again if I do find anything fishy.

As a general comment on the federal takeover of the curriculum: Like many, I'm suspicious. How much might be politically loaded, intellectually deformed, vendor driven, etcetera? I don't know yet, but I will be watching. As conservative as I am, at the same time, I don't see how the folks in DC can possibly foul things up more than some of the states have.

But that brings us back to the whole issue of competence: Why should we imagine they'll do BETTER than the states, either? One would have hoped the Bush administration's efforts would have made us at least cautious about Federal directiveness. What we may end up with might cost us more in terms of sensitivity (or even plain old common sense!) than we gain in equity. Eternal vigilance, as Mr. Jefferson taught us, is a mighty big part of liberty.

Be that as it may, if the politicians see enough votes, money, and/or power in the takeover, they WILL do it, and there's probably not much we in the classroom can do to stop them. Alas, this is not the era of teacher empowerment, nor is it an era of student-centeredness; it is the era of accountability, for good and for ill. So maybe we should, instead, be looking toward how our kids and we might profit off the whole mess if and when their plans and requirements become clear. [Amazing how the terms "accountability" and "profit" kinda go together, ain't it?:-)] Only THEN can we properly start working on sabotage if we find it truly does hurt kids.

Having read the Fordham-published "snapshot" of the report, and Mr. Finn's introduction to it, I find nothing fishy about Ed Week's article, nor about Fordham's position on the issue. While I am a bit surprised that Fordham would sign on to THIS PARTICULAR national standards drive, in and of itself their position seems consistent and honorable. I still wait to see the product of the Common Core Standards efforts, and I am still pretty uneasy about it, but I see nothing shady about either Ed Week's reporting or Fordham's publication.

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