July 21, 2010 5:28PM

Thoughts on NYT National Standards Debate

While national education standards have been advancing largely under the radar, they have at least generated enough attention -- probably because there has been a modicum of controversy in Massachusetts -- to inspire a New York Times "Room for Debate" installment. I bring this up because (a) such attention is a pretty rare thing, and (b) I'm a contributor and want to critique my "opponents."

I'll take my co-discussants one at a time and just pick whatever nits I think need picking. I do so noting that our arguments were supposed to be very short, so it is quite possible that my adversaries have good replies to my complaints and simply couldn't include the relevant information in their posts.

Here we go:

Richard Kahlenberg: This must seem like Rip Kahlenberg Day, but I assure you it's not intentional. I just go where the news takes me.

I find Kahlenberg's response the least persuasive of the entries. He ignores almost all the evidence on national standards, and essentially asserts that such standards make sense because former AFT president -- and Kahlenberg biography subject -- Albert Shanker wanted them. Oh, and Shanker noted that "virtually all the nations that beat us on international assessments had in place uniform standards."

National standards don't make sense because they ignore the political reality in which they would be implemented (not to mention the fact that all kids are different). Taking fifty government monopolies and casting them aside for a single monopoly does nothing to change the crippling problems inherent to monopolies. (The most notable being their utter lack of incentive to perform well.) And could we please dispense with the "all countries that beat us" factoid? As Alfie Kohn thankfully pointed out in his entry, "while most high-scoring countries have centralized education systems, so do most of the lowest-scoring countries." It is a point, by the way, I fleshed out in my recent analysis Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards.

Speaking of Kohn...

Surprisingly, I might agree with his entry more than any other. I don't go for his implication that the national-standards crusade is pretty much just part of a corporate conspiracy to take over the world, though there is a lot of business establishment support for them. For the most part, I think national-standardizers have the best interests of kids at heart.

Where I think Kohn is spot-on is in pointing out that national-standards advocates have willingly -- and I think shamefully -- ignored research in pushing for their reform; have wrongly conflated "uniformity" with "equity"; and have deceitfully tried to tell the public that they aren't prescribing curricula when that is the very foundation of their effort.

Bruce Fuller: I have no great problem with Fuller's contribution, and I appreciate both his reminder that education is about a lot more than what is testable, and that some countries that standardizers hold up as exemplars "are eager to undo rote learning and nurture greater inventiveness among their graduates." Where I take issue with him is his assertion that "the early days of standards-based accountability clearly produced gains." There were certainly gains during the early days of state-level standards and testing, but as I discuss in Behind the Curtain, there is little research showing that standards drove those improvements. And there's the huge problem of the failure to sustain those improvements as students advance in years and grades...

Michael Goldstein: He says he likes national standards, but everything he cites to promote them argues for moving in the opposite direction:

Because of differing state standards, Goldstein's Massachusetts charter school can't use curricula it developed with Houston. If anything, that suggests that state standards -- not a lack of national standards -- is the problem, both because it makes sharing between schools in different states very hard, and because both states would have to change their standards for Goldstein and his partner to use anything new and powerful they came up with.

Next, Goldstein writes that the internet and other advances have made all kinds of educational material readily available, and national standards would make them more useful. Quite the contrary: Having incredible access to innovation cries out for the ability to use those innovations, not forcing everything to comply with a single standard.

Finally, Goldstein doesn't like Texas' new social studies standards, and wants national standards to keep states from going off the reservation. But what happens when the people Goldstein doesn't like control the national standards? (As I recall, the previous presidential administration had a lot of Texans.) Instead of just not living in Texas, as he can do now, I guess he'd have to move to another country. On the flip side, if there were no state standards, he could even safely live in the Lone Star State.

Last but not least, there's Sandra Stotsky:  Stotsky's main concern is the content of the national standards themselves, and that's just not my big worry. I am concerned about what the standards are likely to become once they're in the system, not what they are before. That said, Stotsky has done some very interesting analyses of the national language arts standards, and her efforts at the very least point out one, important thing: there isn't uniform agreement that the national standards are the best standards ever, even if every Gates-funded outfit says they are. And that means there's lots of need for continued competition, innovation, and freedom -- all things national standards by their very nature will quash.