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STRENGTHENING AMERICA’S COMPETITIVENESS THROUGH COMMON ACADEMIC STANDARDS: House Committee Looks for Ways to Support State-Led Efforts to Produce Common Standards

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“So far, a core of forward-thinking states has been leading the way toward stronger, common standards.”

Last week, witnesses appearing before the House Education and Labor Committee described an effort underway in states to develop common academic standards that would prepare all students to compete in today’s global economy. Most members of the committee seemed encouraged by these efforts and sought the best way for Congress to support them.

In his opening statement, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) noted that state standards in the United States typically cover a larger number of topics in each grade level, compared to the highest-performing countries where standards cover a smaller number of topics in greater depth. As a result, American schools end up with a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

“So far, a core of forward-thinking states has been leading the way toward stronger, common standards,” Miller said. “Let me be clear: I want this committee, and the Congress, to do whatever we can to support this state-led, bipartisan effort. That’s why we’re here today—to learn more about this work and to hear from you all about how the federal government can best support it.”

Miller said the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and its $5 billion Race to the Top fund would help U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encourage states to improve standards and assessments so that they are aligned with career- and college-readiness. He said the fund will lay the foundation for the significant changes that are necessary to “truly improve our schools, make sure students graduate with the skills they need, and cultivate a workforce that can compete globally.”

Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican, also expressed support for the state-led movement toward common standards, but he stressed that the best thing that Congress can do is “stay out of their way.” “There’s no reason why states can’t work together to create their own common academic standards, which should be high so we can see real improvement among our students,” he said. “Leadership in this issue need not—and currently does not—come from the federal government.”

In his testimony, James B. Hunt, Jr., foundation chair of the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy and former governor of North Carolina, said that the current variability in state standards is “off the charts.” He noted that state assessments are also a problem, adding that they have remained “ineffective instruments for measuring student progress,” as evidenced by the large disparities between state test scores and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Instead, Hunt called for a common set of state standards that are “fewer, clearer, and higher” than current state standards, internationally benchmarked, and “based on evidence about the essential knowledge and skills that students need to be prepared for college and work.” He agreed that a voluntary, state-led effort is the best way to meet this goal, but stressed that the process must be “externally validated” to ensure that the result represents the very best standards.

Hunt outlined ten steps that Congress can take to promote the implementation of common standards. Included were several ideas mentioned earlier, as well as the need for science standards, teacher-designed curriculum that aligns with the standards, state-of-the-art assessments that reflect the newly designed content standards and are available to states, and a redesign of teacher training programs to “prepare teachers to teach to the content standards and use the assessments to improve instruction.”

The second witness, Ken James, Arkansas commissioner of education and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), described in more detail the state-led effort to establish common standards. He said that the effort began more than two years and, most recently, featured a meeting in April composed of representatives from more than forty states who had expressed a strong interest in common standards.

James said that the state-led effort sought to establish a “common core” that would build on the work of leading states and initiatives that have focused on college- and career-ready standards. He stressed that no state will see their standards lowered as a result of this process, which is designed to “raise the bar for all states.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, elaborated on the problems with the current system of state standards. For example, she noted that students who change schools frequently end up with “gaps and repetitions in their schooling,” and that textbook developers try to “cover” the standards by creating books that have a “little bit of everything and a lot of nothing.”

She stressed that simply “getting standards right” would not be enough and called on Congress to fix the “fundamentally flawed accountability system” in the No Child Left Behind Act. “If we are not testing the right information, or the accountability system is flawed, or the tests are inadequate, or teachers are not supported, we will not reap the rewards a standards-based reform system offers,” she said. “As we look ahead to NCLB reauthorization, we need to address these issues in order to fulfill the promise of offering all students a high-quality education.”

Other witnesses included Greg Jones, chairman of California Business for Excellence in Education, who shared the business community’s interest in common standards and Dave Levin, cofounder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, who described how the “current patchwork of state standards” makes it difficult to evaluate KIPP’s network of charter schools, which will grow to one hundred by 2011. Rather than judging its schools based on myriad state performance goals, KIPP administers a national, norm-reference assessment in addition to the state assessments.

Chairman Miller’s opening statement, witness testimony, and video of the hearing is available athttp://edlabor.house.gov/hearings/2009/04/strengthening-americas-competi.shtml.

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