Will national standards ever arrive?

As I write this, close to half of the states have signed on to the draft of national standards, officially called the common core. Observers are predicting that well over half will be on board by summer’s end.

National StandardsThere’s a long way to go before we have genuine national standards in core subjects, and there’s no guarantee that they will be challenging enough, given the inevitable pressures to water them down.

And if we do develop worthwhile standards, some form of national testing is likely to follow.

The President of the United States is already on board for that. He said, “I believe we need some national standard education achievement tests—to be used only optionally when states and/or local school systems want them.”

Whoops, that wasn’t Obama; that was Jimmy Carter in 1977.

By the way, the public is on board. 77% of the public favors using national testing programs to measure the academic achievement of students.

Whoops, that was the Gallup Poll back in 1989.

And even teacher unions are supportive, judging from this quote from a powerful union president: “American public schools need a national curriculum to become competitive with school systems in other countries and to reverse plummeting public confidence in education.”

Pretty strong stuff, no? By now you are on to me and have guessed that Albert Shanker said that back in April1990.

I wonder how many of you know just how long the struggle for higher, more comprehensive standards has been going on? I recently read a paper from 1990 by Marshall Smith, Jennifer O’Day and David K. Cohen, published in American Educator, the AFT magazine, back in 1990. In that article, the authors make the case for standards, lay out the obstacles, and defuse some of the objections.

I write about the current movement in my new book, Below C Level, but if you want a serious examination, download the Smith-O’Day-Cohen piece here. It’s called “National Curriculum, American Style.”

(Full disclosure, Mike Smith and David Cohen were my thesis advisors back when they were professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and we remain friends.)

The long history, which includes strong support from arch conservatives like William Bennett, suggests that the current drive can be stopped, just as it has been thwarted before.

Personally, I think the time has come, as long as the standards are challenging, interesting and not too finely detailed. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Will national standards ever arrive?

  1. I really don’t see the logic of having national standards and national tests. Yes, it allows us to compare, but so what? Anything that moves us away from focusing on the children – their needs, their gifts, interests, and talents, their challenges, will be a movement away from meaningful educational transformation. National standards and inevitable high-stakes testing, is a diversion. People who don’t work with kinds firsthand love the abstraction of national standards, curriculum, and tests. Those of us who work with kids know it’s like an annoying mosquito with the potential to cause malaria.


  2. John,
    Admitting that I haven’t read the book yet, but in it do you examine the work of teachers through our various professional subject area organizations also in the 80s to develop national standards for each subject. I actually felt we were making some progress before the counter-swing to standardized testing as the curriculum guide settled upon us.


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