Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Question of National Standards

Should the United States move towards national standards? A few weeks ago the NY Times reported that nearly every state in the nation had declared intentions to participate in the crafting and adoption of national standards, and many voices, from Arne Duncan to Randi Wiengarten, have expressed their support for the move. While some supporters qualify their support, including the aforementioned union leader (Wiengarten), over the past several years playmakers from all different dimensions of education have come to acknowledge the sense the US developing and adopting national standards. If the Europeans and Japanese do it, and they get better test scores, shouldn't we?

I support the development and adoption of national standards for most of the reasons commonly cited: uniform measures of accountability for students, teachers, and schools across the country; coherence of basic core skills and knowledge for all Americans; "economies of scale" in terms of developing instructional materials and curricula that can be transferable across state-lines; and feasibility of teachers to move without their experience loosing a its value due to considerable changes in content.

And then, the other shoe drops, the long expected "but." In our conversations about national standards, I sometimes hear opponents mention the loss of autonomy for schools and teachers (and states), and the related limitations national standards might place on local communities as they try to accommodate local challenges. These are valid concerns, and actually point to a larger issue, which could be converted to an opportunity: as we move toward national standards, we ought have a national conversation. If we as a nation are to adopt national standards, now is the time for people at all levels of society to speak up about what is important for the next generation to learn. How should schools look in the 21st century? What are the challenges that the next generation will have to solve? How can we impart them with the skills and knowledge to face these challenges and prevail?

I'm not hearing this conversation, and the fault for that is widespread. We should adopt national standards, but that should occur as we as a nation come to some kind of agreement about the manner and priorities our education system should embody. Inevitably, Americans will agree that some level of autonomy for schools and teachers should be maintained. Where we draw this line, however, (as well as many others), should emerge out of a vigor debate. So far, I'm still waiting to hear.

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