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It's Time to Adopt National Standards

The release of new academic standards on June 2 marks the beginning of a new era in public education in this country. Critics contend that the detailed blueprint means the end of local control of schools, but it is a price worth paying.

For one thing, the standards do not tell teachers exactly what to teach nor how to teach. Instead, they help teachers organize their lessons by providing clearer guidelines than existed in the past. Because the standards are written in more concrete language than before, teachers should welcome them as an aid in designing their lessons.

For another, the standards were written by experts in their respective fields who met last year under the aegis of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. As a result, the standards reflect what most teachers in the same fields agree upon. This strategy should not be confused with the uniform curriculum standards for admission created in 1899 by the leaders of the nation's premier colleges, which led to the College Entrance Examination Board's first exams in 1901.

Finally, the standards provide individual teachers flexibility to modify their daily instruction to meet the needs and interests of their particular classes. Granted there will be less time available to take advantage of teachable moments, but this downside has to be weighed against the other benefits. The criticism that national standards will lead to a one-size-fits-all approach has not been the case in other countries.

The greatest fear is that America's long tradition of local control of schools will be a loss for the nation. But what made sense when the U.S. was sparsely settled in the Colonial era is hard to justify in the new global economy. It's no longer possible to argue compellingly that geography should determine curriculum. Yet it's going to be difficult for many people to accept the change.

What may help them is the realization that the U.S. is one of the few developed countries that lack national standards for public schools. National standards alone admittedly do not guarantee better education. (Nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math, and eight of the lowest-scoring countries in science have them, as well as eight of the 10 highest-scoring countries.) But local control often has resulted in weakened standards in order for states to make themselves look good under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Moreover, with more families moving from one state to another to take advantage of employment opportunities, the adjustment will be easier for their children when schools have in place the same standards for the same subjects for the same grade level. At present, children often report that they are bored because they have already had instruction or they are overwhelmed because instruction assumes prior mastery.

National standards are not a panacea for the ills afflicting public education, but they are a step in the right direction. There are always risks involved in an undertaking of this magnitude. On balance, however, I think they are worth taking.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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