I've written before about the advantages of national standards as a way to limit the race to the bottom effect that's become apparent through the No Child Left Behind Act. The idea is that if we're going to say that all states are responsible for meeting certain criteria, we should say what criteria those states are required to meet. If we're going to insist on high stakes standardized testing then I still think this makes a certain amount of sense. However, lately I've been thinking about some of the problems associated with that approach.
First of all, we've all heard talk about how standards limit the curriculum; especially when they're tied to high stakes tests. When we set standards for what must be taught we are excluding other topics that now won't be taught. This limiting effect is grounds for major pause as we consider the prospect of national standards. What's often not considered is that the curriculum could also be expanded, but in negative ways.
Let's look at Texas for a moment. Over the last week, the state board of education there was considering whether or not to include in their state science standards the "weaknesses of evolution." This pretty much translates into wanting to require that the state teach creationism as a valid (it's not) alternative to evolution. On the surface, this doesn't seem to have much national significance. If the folks in Texas want to do it, let 'em. However, Texas is one of the country's largest markets for textbooks (along with California and New York). Thus, textbook authors try to write their books to meet those standards. Since they tend to write only one version of the books that are then distributed nationwide, the Texas standards often act as a kind of de facto set of national standards. And look at where that almost got us.
It turns out that the Texas board backed down, but this has to reason for pause. We often talk about national standards as some sort of platonic form that is the perfect model for what learning should be across the country. But there is no guarantee that this would be the case. Any set of standards would be created by us mere mortals and would reflect the pedagogical (phonics vs. whole language), social (evolution vs. creationism), and political battles of our time. And the stakes would be really high. I don't know that I'm totally dead set against national standards now. But I'm certainly not as for them as I was a few weeks ago.