National Standards – Consensus Coming?

In any major, decades-long shift in policy or culture, there are certain benchmarks that show that an idea is moving from the fringes toward consensus.  One of those signals might be an impassioned article in a major middle-America news outlet.

Walter Isaacson has a piece in TIME, making a very strong case for dropping our hodgepodge of Federal, State, and Local academic standards in favor of nationwide academic standards.  It’s worth a read, and it’s in TIME, so it’s not too heavy a lift for your late-semester brains.

How to Raise the Standard in America’s Schools – Walter Isaacson (TIME)

Dana Goldstein of the American Prospect (via Matthew Yglesias) refutes a criticism of National Standards from some in the teaching community:

The focus of standards should be on what skills students of various ages should have and on what basic facts they should know — not on the pedagogical techniques used to teach those skills and facts.

Goldstein brings this up in the context of her study of the top-ranked education system in the world – that of Finland.  The government there doesn’t force teachers to teach to the script, instead simply defining the end result of a quality education: confirmable knowledge of certain key topics.

Yglesias himself weighs in with the strongest Breakthrough-related argument for National standards:

The current patchwork system works okay for most families because most parents are able to do an okay job of filling in most of the key “gaps” that may emerge in their kids’ knowledge. But those families that are unable to do the gap-filling most effectively are disproportionately the poorest ones and, more generally, the families whose kids need the most help.

Without speaking for the whole organization on this issue, the point that Yglesias brings in here is really Breakthrough’s raison d’etre.  There is no document saying that a student has to have read Shakespeare and taken Algebra before starting in 9th grade, but the parents that can afford a top-rate education know that this is true.  The families that rely on the lowest-performing systems are subject to the toothless standards offered by strapped state and local systems receive only the bare minimum.  What Breakthrough teachers will be doing this summer is filling that cultural capital gap.

This is not teaching to a script or looking to fail teachers – it’s giving teachers the freedom to reach the right academic ends without enforcing the means.  In fact, the country’s most prominent advocate for teachers, AFT President Randi Weingarten made the case in a Washington Post op-ed last week:

High standards improve teaching and learning. If we really believe that all children can and should reach high levels of achievement, it only makes sense to define those benchmarks. The time has come for a serious consideration of national academic standards.


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