The Monitor's View

National education standards not a federal takeover of public schools

A big concern about proposed national education standards for grades K-12 is that they amount to a federal takeover of public schools. Not true. This plan originated from the states, is voluntary, and is backed by 48 governors.

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This is the last week for public comment on proposed national education standards in English and math for all American public school students in grades K-12. The feedback on this consequential plan so far:

There is generally strong support for the quality and clarity of the standards, with some debate about whether standards for the earliest grades are too prescriptive. One big concern is whether the proposal amounts to a "federal takeover" of education – even though the common standards are being proposed by 48 state governors.

It's an understandable concern. Education has always been a local matter, because it's local tax dollars that largely support public schools.

Recommended: 15 must-read books about K-12 education in the US

(For a Monitor interview with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, click here.)

But here's a competing concern. The states now show great disparity in student achievement. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which relies on state tests to measure student learning, exposed the differences. Some states have actually lowered their standards to make their test results look good.

American public school students also still lag behind those in other developed countries. In an ever-shrinking world, the nation as a whole must become more highly educated, not just select states.

These twin problems of disparity and lack of competitiveness drove the National Governors Association to act. As a state-driven project, these standards have a far better chance of acceptance than federal efforts.

(To see the proposed standards, click here.)

The governors were savvy about overreach. They stuck to two foundational subjects (leaving science out avoids the evolution debate). They made the standards voluntary. States may also exceed the standards.

The governors don't impose a curriculum, prescribe a book, or enforce a teaching method – though all of these areas are bound to be influenced by widespread adoption, which looks likely.

What the standards do is establish common learning expectations for each grade. For instance, eighth-grade math students would be expected to learn linear equations and the Pythagorean theorem. In English, they would need to be able to analyze a text’s meaning by referring to use of metaphors, analogies, or allusions.

The governors also aimed high, taking the best from the states and using international benchmarks.

States may have concerns about these standards, but a "federal takeover" should not be one of them. The best defense against a heavy federal hand is for states to act collectively.

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