The Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn is a longtime proponent of national standards, but he sounds a strong cautionary note in the latest Education Gadfly. “Evidence is mounting that those who take curricular content seriously may not like what we find at the end of this road,” Finn writes, ”and I worry that America could be headed toward another painful bout of curriculum warfare.”
Checker details seven worries. He’s suspicious that unions, especially the NEA, are getting on board the bandwagon and the conflation of academic standards with “21st Century Skills.” He also frets that if common standards is limited to English and math, “it may further narrow what’s seriously taught in school–with a malign effect on states that have a decently rounded curriculum that gives due weight to science, history, even art.” His biggest concern is what he calls institutional instability.
The United States of America in 2009 lacks a suitable place to house national standards and tests over the long haul. Who will “own” them? Who will be responsible for revising them? Correcting their errors? Ensuring that assessment results are reported in timely fashion? Nobody wants the Education Department to do this. There’s reason to keep it separate from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and its governing board. Yet the awkward ad hoc “partnership” now assembling to pursue this process could fall apart tomorrow if key individuals retire, die or defect, if election results change the make up of participating organizations, if the money runs out, or if their working draft runs into political headwinds like the “voluntary national standards” of the early 90s. This is no way to run something as important as national academic standards for a big modern country.
Can this idea be salvaged? Yes, if we can figure out how. “Use available tools and models to simplify and expedite this process,” Finn argues. “The U.S. doesn’t need to start from scratch. Several states have fine standards.But don’t pretend to prescribe the whole curriculum….A common standard is the skeleton of learning, not all the flesh. It outlines the core skills and knowledge that young Americans need to acquire and should be accompanied by a reasonable assessment system to determine, at various grade levels, how well they’ve learned those things.”