States weigh setting one bar for students

A 'common' standard for K-12 education is in the works.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Test time: High school students in Springfield, Ill. Educators are split over uniform test standards.

Efforts to establish national education standards have always foundered on the shoals of culture wars and fears of too much federal control. But the time may be ripe for something close: a common set of standards for K-12 math and reading that states could opt to adopt.

Forty-seven states now support drafting such standards by year's end. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been using his bully pulpit, and the promise of federal stimulus money, to encourage states to abandon the current mishmash of individual standards.

"We've got the best shot we've ever had at getting national standards and tests in this country," says Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research group in Washington that recently hosted a discussion on internationally benchmarked standards. "But there's still a lot of peril on the road," he says. While state leaders are eager to collaborate, "not a single state has promised to adopt the standards."

Advocates see an opportunity to create stronger requirements that could put American students on better footing for pursuing college and 21st-century careers. Many complain that US standards are broad and shallow, compared with a number of top-performing countries that build around key concepts learned in depth.

But not everyone is cheering. Some teacher bloggers suggest that talk of national standards is simply a way for politicians to act tough on education, and they lump it in the same category as the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. And three states – Alaska, South Carolina, and Texas – have not joined the "Common Core" initiative, led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Though powerful people – including President Obama – are promoting the idea, it is by no means a done deal. Once the standards are open to public comment, "make no mistake about it, there will be controversy," says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Old debates about the best ways to teach math and reading – think phonics versus whole-language – could be reignited.

The NGA and CCSSO are working with education policy groups to draft the standards. A committee of experts will validate their research base. "We want a diverse set of perspectives, but at the end of the day ... we want to base decisions on evidence," says Dane Linn, education director at the NGA's Center for Best Practices. The goal is to finalize the standards by early next year.

To help develop stronger reading and math tests to go along with the common standards, the Department of Education is offering up to $350 million of stimulus aid.

Whether a de facto national standard would lead to better learning is debatable. "It's very easy to adopt standards," says Mr. Loveless. "What's really hard is how to achieve them." •

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