Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Big Ifs

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten had an op-ed in Monday's Washington Post making the case for national standards for learning. On the one hand, it was nice to see the union head making a stand for what is unquestionably a major education reform. Hopefully that at least sets back some of the union-as-obstructionist charges that we hear. However, the whole idea of national standards rests on a few very big ifs.

National standards do make a certain amount of sense if we're committed to a national program of testing and accountability. For better or worse, this does seem to be the road we're on in the NCLB era. We've seen what happens when the federal government says to meet standards, but then doesn't define what those standards are - it's the oft-cited race to the bottom. So if we're dedicated to this course, then national standards do make sense.

However, if we're going to set up national standards, we'll probably also have to set up a national standardized test. Weingarten makes the point that it would be unfair in football if teams had to move the ball differing yardage to gain a first down. True. She says that when states have different promotional standards you're getting the same effect. True. But unless we have a national test to measure these standards, then it will be like saying that every team has to go 10 yards but then letting each team measure 10 yards as they see fit. We'd end up with the same race to the bottom that we have now. This time it would be in testing instruments rather than the standards themselves. So if we want meaningful national standards, we'll also need a standardized national test.

And, of course, all of this only makes sense if we can set a good set of standards in the first place, which I'm not 100% convinced of. As we saw in Texas, there's a lot of potential for mischief in the process. Even if we brought in a broad-based group of "educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content" I am not convinced that we would be able to arrive at a single set of clear, measurable standards that would (and should) apply equally to every single student in the 50 states.

I should say here that I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of national standards. In many ways I think they could be an improvement over our current system of testing regime. However, there are some major ifs associated with pursuing this course. Until they are addressed I will continue to have my doubts.

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