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INTERNATIONAL LESSONS ABOUT NATIONAL STANDARDS: New Report Calls for an Independent Organization to Lead U.S. Standards Effort

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"National standards are not-at least, need not be-developed in isolation by a distant central government that runs the education system and quashes local control."

International Lessons about National Standards, a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, takes a look at two pressing education issues- international benchmarking and common national standards-and explains why the first issue can greatly inform the second. It examines lessons learned from other countries that have implemented common standards and concludes that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is in line with most of these lessons. The sole exception is the lack of an independent, leading organizational structure to oversee and sustain the U.S. standards movement.

The report observes ten countries (Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea) in an effort to help the United States avoid similar mistakes in its move toward common standards while identifying successful strategies and solutions. The authors note that the lessons from Germany are particularly insightful because the nation recently embarked on a standards movement very similar to the United States. In total, the report provides six main findings:

  • It’s not true that national standards signify a loss of local control.
  • An independent, quasi-governmental institution is needed to oversee the development of national standards and assessments and to produce trustworthy reports to the nation.
  • The federal government should encourage and provide resources for the standards-setting process but shouldn’t meddle inappropriately.
  • We should develop coherent, focused, rigorous standards beginning with English, math, and science.
  • National assessments (including open-ended questions) should be administered at grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years.
  • Hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for performance.

These findings inform several recommendations for moving forward with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a movement supported by the Obama administration and led by the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association. According to the report, the “one glaring hole” in the current Common Core strategy is the failure to address the second finding: an independent, partly governmental organizational structure in charge of setting and revising the standards and developing an ongoing assessment based system. All of the countries surveyed have a comparable institution in place and agree reliable results cannot be fairly reported without it.

The report maintains that having an institution in place is necessary to ensure that assessments are being properly administered and fully funded and that test results are being used for international comparison and to inform teaching methods. In the foreword to the report,Chester E. Finn, Jr., Michael J. Petrilli, and Amber M. Winkler call for a “major act of organizational creativity, not unlike-in various eras-inventing the Postal Service, Pension Office, National Academy of Science … and National Institute of Standards and Technology.” Or as an alternative solution, they suggest delegating the “solemn responsibility to some existing and durable entity that doesn’t presently have the responsibility.” They offer the National Assessment Governing Board as one possibility but acknowledge that it has both pluses and minuses.

Whether it is inventing a new organization or granting the responsibility to an already existing one, the federal government itself should not set the standards, the report emphasizes. The report’s authors, William H. Schmidt, Richard Houang, and Sharif Shakrani, strive to negate the perceived misconception that adopting national standards means lesser state control. The takeaway from the countries observed is, “national standards are not-at least, need not be-developed in isolation by a distant central government that runs the education system and quashes local control.”

In addition to the challenges highlighted in this report, the Common Core State Standards Initiative has come under fire from various other critics. Opponents worry common standards will force students and teachers to focus too much on standardized testing while discouraging innovation and stifling creativity. However, in a recent interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a proponent of the effort, explained the standards movement as “being led exactly at the right place, at the local level” and goes on to say national standards are “absolutely the right thing to do for our nation’s children and for our nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.”

International Lessons about National Standards is available at http://edexcellence.net/doc/20090826_International_Lessons_Report.pdf.

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