Most developed countries have one: a national set of education standards for students. The United States has long been the exception, letting the states set their own bars – some high, some low – for student achievement.
But the US looks to be on the verge of change, and, somewhat surprisingly, states themselves are leading the way toward a uniform measurement.
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the so-called Common Core standards, which were released in the spring. Several more were poised to do so by early August. Some 40 states are likely to have signed on by next spring.
The rush to acceptance has surpassed the wildest hopes of many education reformers, even as it alarms those who see common standards as usurping local control and a bad idea. Others caution that approval means little unless a state is committed to investing in the reforms.
"I worry that too many people get the notion that this feat, impressive as it is, represents some kind of huge accomplishment, where it's really just the one-mile marker in a 26-mile marathon," says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I worry that there's not going to be the follow-through or commitment or patience to make sure that the reform delivers on its potential."
The hope for the new standards, in a nutshell, is this: that the US will have a clear set of guidelines for what all students should know and when they should know it; that the standards are logical, rigorous, and build on prior learning; and that they are tied to the knowledge high school graduates need to be ready for college or a career.
Having a uniform standard would mean that students who move across state lines would experience less disruption in what they're taught, and that states could collaborate on developing tests and textbooks, say advocates of the change.
"It makes so much sense for us not to have to reinvent the wheel in every state," says Keith Gayler, director of standards for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which led the Common Core effort along with the National Governors Association. "I feel like these are the skills [identified in the Common Core standards] that really are what students need."
Not everyone agrees. Libertarians see it as a move toward "federal" standards (a claim disputed by those involved in the state-led effort) and an intrusion into local autonomy – a charge reinforced by the fact that states competing for some of the billions in federal Race to the Top grants must adopt the Common Core standards by Aug. 2.
Several critics say, too, that the proposed standards are not an improvement.
The math standards "distort the curriculum in a way I think is inappropriate," says Joseph Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who fought his state's adoption of the standards. "They're weaker than the current New Jersey standards and move in directions that are not so great."
Massachusetts "may continue to do well on the lower national standard, but it will still be a lower-quality standard of assessment," says Jamie Gass of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute in Boston. He opposed Massachusetts' decision July 21 to adopt the Common Core standards, calling them "a race to the middle."
A new study, however, came to a different conclusion. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute graded the standards in all 50 states and found that the Common Core standards – to which it gave an 'A-minus' in math and a 'B-plus' in English – were often superior. Just two states and the District of Columbia scored higher in English. For both math and English, 11 states (plus Washington, D.C.) had standards about on par with Common Core's.
In states where it's a close call as to which is better, Common Core may offer some long-term advantages such as joint development of tests – which is already under way – and teacher training, says Chester Finn, president of the institute and an advocate of national standards. States are free to augment the common standards with about 15 percent of their own material, he notes – a "Common Core Plus" model that seems to be where California is headed.
Even the fiercest advocates agree that adopting the standards is the easiest step toward real change. What needs to follow are new tests, better teacher training and professional development, new curricula and materials, and a system that holds students and schools accountable, they say.
"I don't think anyone is adopting these thinking that it's the last step," says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, which helped develop the standards.
He is optimistic, saying states seem to have the will to see this through. Others are skeptical, noting that strapped budgets and decreased enthusiasm – especially for states that don't win coveted Race to the Top funds – may cause many states to make only superficial change.
"This is a textbook example of how to [roll out a big reform]," says Mr. Hess. "But if you look over the last 40 or 50 years of education reform,... our track record has been pretty dismal."