Randi Weingarten Wants National Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
February 16th, 2009

With support from Arne Duncan, the editorial board of the New York Times and now AFT President Randi Weindgarten, the push for national standards can now be called a movement.  Weingarten has an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning noting “the countries that consistently outperform the United States on international assessments all have national standards, with core curriculum, assessments and time for professional development for teachers based on those standards.”  In the U.S. states like Massachusetts and Minnesota that have set high standards have fared well, but standards for the rest of the country, she writes, are a mixed bag. 

Imagine the outrage if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move the ball the full 10 yards for a first down during the Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals had to go only seven. Imagine if this scenario were sanctioned by the National Football League. Such a system would be unfair and preposterous.  But there is little outrage over the uneven patchwork of academic standards for students in our 50 states and the District of Columbia. And the federal government has tacitly accepted this situation by giving a seal of approval to states that meet the benchmarks for improved achievement established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act — even if their standards are lower than those of other states.

“Education is a local issue, but there is a body of knowledge about what children should know and be able to do that should guide decisions about curriculum and testing,” Weingarten observes.  “I propose that a broad-based group — made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content — come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model. Teachers then would need the professional development, and the teaching and learning conditions, to make the standards more than mere words.”

Marching Orders for the Next Ed Secretary

by Robert Pondiscio
September 3rd, 2008

If we want to spur innovation in education, the Department of Education should act more like the National Institutes of Health.  So say Newark Mayor Cory Booker, venture capitalist John Doerr, and Ted Mitchell, chief executive of NewSchools Venture Fund in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece

“We need a new, results-driven mind-set at the Department of Education that will drive pure educational innovation and ‘scale up’ proven experiments and novel ideas that work, the trio write.  ”The federal government stands in a unique position to meet these needs.” 

The evidence for making a national commitment to innovation in education is compelling. Today, many of the most promising solutions are emerging from entrepreneurial organizations that embrace freedom and accountability. Indeed, such social entrepreneurs represent a growing force. They have started nimble, typically nonprofit organizations that work in partnership with creative mayors and school superintendents.

They cite the examples of KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Green Dot and others as worthy of federal support.  Booker, Doerr and Mitchell want the next president to create a “Grow What Works” fund and a second fund to provide research and development money for promising early stage initiatives.  They also favor eliminating caps on the number of public charter schools allowed and “excessive restrictions on how teachers are trained and credentialed.”  They also call for national standards and tests — without actually using the words, prefering instead “a common set of standards” and “a national data infrastructure.”

Making a Mockery of Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
August 12th, 2008

The drumbeat for national curriculum, standards and assessments gets a little bit louder today with a strongly worded New York Times editorial.

Congress has several concerns as it moves toward reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Whatever else they do, lawmakers need to strengthen the requirement that states document student performance in yearly tests in exchange for federal aid.  The states have made a mockery of that provision, using weak tests, setting passing scores low or rewriting tests from year to year, making it impossible to compare progress — or its absence — over time.

“The country will have difficulty moving ahead educationally until that changes,” opines the Times, noting that complete lack of a relationship between states that report strong performances on their own tests and performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The Times concludes:

Congress needs to take the testing issue head-on. It should instruct the NAEP board, an independent body created by the government, to create a rigorous test that would be given free to states that agreed to use NAEP scoring standards. Then the federal government could actually embarrass the laggard states by naming the ones that cling to weak tests. Without rigorous and consistent testing, there is no way to know whether our children are getting the education they deserve and need.

Sounds an awful lot like what Diane Ravitch was talking about last week.

Sunshine Is Still The Best Disinfectant

by Robert Pondiscio
August 6th, 2008

There are several important threads — the need for national standards and assessments; rethinking the difference between a highly qualified teacher and a highly effective one — at the ongoing NCLB discussion at NewTalk. But one comment raised by CK Board member Diane Ravitch jumps out:

My own preference would be for Congress to authorize national testing (à la NAEP), based on coherent curriculum standards, but without stakes or sanctions. The federal role should be to provide accurate information about student performance. It should be left to states and districts to devise sanctions and reforms. These jurisdictions are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms. If states and localities don’t want to improve their schools, then we are in deeper trouble as a nation than any law passed by Congress can fix.

We assume accountability needs teeth to be truly enforceable, but Diane is right — an apples to apples comparison of how schools fare against each other seems likely to pour more sunshine onto what’s really happening than 50 states racing each other to the bottom by lowering proficiency standards. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.