Sunday, September 10, 2006

One Nation, Under Standards

It’s been a busy month over at the Fordham Foundation. Lots of reports and lots of media, and it’s all interesting stuff.

To Dream the Impossible Dream is a look at what it would take to institute a system of national standards that would replace the current 50-states, 50-sets paradigm we enjoy. The lead authors are Mike Petrilli and Liam Julian of the Education Gadfly show, joined by the original Gadfly, Chester Finn.

The approach they took in writing the report is highly readable; they sent a questionnaire to 12 big names in education reform and asked them what they thought on the topic. From their responses they were able to distill 4 approaches to national standards, ranging from “The Whole Enchilada” (think NCLB on steroids) to “Sunshine and Shame”, wherein states are encouraged but not required to use standards that the feds develop.

I don’t mind the idea of national standards. What you should know and be able to do in reading and math is the same in the northwest as it is in the southeast, and it does seem odd to me (as Finn and Petrilli have both pointed out on numerous occasions) that so many states would have spent so many tens of millions of dollars on developing their own standards when they could have gotten together and shared some of the work, or just outright licensed good standards from another state (say, Massachusetts).

However, consider math. The NCTM Principles and Standards of Mathematics have been around for better than a decade now, and they’re also one of the most vilified documents around for being too constructivist and not firm enough on the basics. And despite what the folks at Reading First might tell you, the Reading Wars are still being fought every time a district adopts a new curriculum. I don’t know how any committee would be able to get enough buy-in to be able to present a set of National Reading Standards to the country without it being horribly politicized.

To go along with the report Jay Mathews of the Washington Post had an article in the September 3rd edition (“National School Testing Urged”, registration required) about how many states performance on their own state exams doesn’t jibe with their performance on the NAEP. He also gives a brief history of the national standards movement and talks about why now might finally be the time it could happen.

The trouble I have here is that I really don’t understand the NAEP. I think if you polled your average group of teachers you’d find a very low percentage that could even tell you what the NAEP is or what it’s used for. What I do know is that it’s often held up as the gold standard of testing, and I’m not quite sure why. What makes it more valid than the WASL, or the ITBS, or the SAT-9?

Finally, Fordham also released The State of State Standards 2006, which covers a lot of the same ground that they’ve gone over in their other state standards reports in recent years. I’ll break out what they say about Washington State specifically in a different post, but the overall picture is not pretty: only 9 states earn an A or B, while 26 score a D or F.

One thing to remember about these Fordham studies is that they are the opinion of the folks at the Foundation; it would be quite easy to find others who disagree with their assessment (particularly if you asked those who wrote their state standards). Fordham also has to do some statistical gymnastics to make a connection between “good” state standards and high academic performance, but they’re at least honest about it.

Another highlight of the report is a section called “It Takes Vision” by famed edublogger Joanne Jacobs. It’s a nice history of standards-based reform in three states, but she’s also quite heavy-handed when it comes to describing the roles of teachers unions and ed schools in those states. For someone who runs a charter school, though, this isn’t surprising.

Happy reading.


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5:09 AM  

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