Right now, our "standards-based" system of "accountability" isn't particularly standard. Each state sets their own curricula and benchmarks and then tests kids with their own tests. Remembering that there's a financial incentive for states to do well on those tests, it becomes pretty clear where the race to the bottom comes in. If we're truly wedded to the idea of accountability and standards as measured through high stakes testing, the only way to really get it done is through a set of national standards. I'm not saying we should be wedded to that idea, I'm just saying if we are.
So it's with a mixed mind that I read reports earlier this week saying that the huge majority of states are banding together to create a common national set of curriculum standards. It was unveiled with a lot of hoopla, but I'll be curious to see how this goes.
First, as Eduwonk points out, this news may not be as sweeping as it first appears. The states have decided to try to work together to create the standards. So far, no one has opted into actually following the standards once they're created. As the Washington Post phrased it, "Once the organizers of the effort agree to a proposal, each state would decide individually whether to adopt it." So we're a step along the way, but it's hardly a done deal that we're going to be seeing national standards coming soon to a state near you.
The bigger hurdle, of course, is actually agreeing on these things. They say that they're going to describe what the kids should know, not how they should be taught. That's supposed to sidestep those nasty debates like phonics vs. whole language. Of course, there's still plenty to fight about in terms of what it is that kids should know. The evolution vs. creationism debate springs immediately to mind.
There's also the point to consider that uniform standards don't mean a lot unless we have a uniform way to measure those standards. After all, if each state got to choose its own way to measure the standards we'd have a race to the bottom in test writing. So now we may be talking a national test.
The big question on the horizon, though, is what the next step is. Once you've got your uniform national standards in place and your uniform national test in place to measure the standards, what do you do? Saying that a school is failing and empirical evidence to back it up is all well and good. But isn't it more important to improve the schools rather than just label them? That improvement step is the one that tends to get left out of a lot of these discussions.