California’s rigorous academic content standards are one of the few bright spots on the state’s otherwise dismal education landscape. Now, however, President Obama’s drive to nationalize education could doom the standards.
Created in the late 1990s, California’s math and English standards give guidance to educators regarding the grade-level knowledge and skills that students should master. The standards have received top marks from the Fordham Foundation and other respected grading organizations. Despite these accolades, the state’s strong standards may be replaced by proposed national standards supported by the Obama administration.
The president is pushing states to adopt draft national standards, crafted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, by using fiscal strong-arming. First, states had to commit to the national standards to compete for the administration’s $4 billion “Race to the Top” (RTTT) education funding program. Next, Mr. Obama informed the nation’s governors that, if he has his way, states would have to adopt national standards to receive federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students. Finally, in the president’s recently released “blueprint” for education reform, a new national target of getting all students “college and career ready” by 2020 would be based, in one likely favored option, on national college-and-career-readiness standards. These national standards, however, are weaker than California’s state standards.
A new joint study by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute (PI) and the San Francisco/Sacramento-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI) reveals serious shortcomings in the proposed national standards. According to the study, authored by Stanford University mathematician James Milgram and University of Arkansas education professor Sandra Stotsky, the proposed national math standards are characterized by “low expectations.”
The proposed standards don’t require mastery of single-digit addition until the end of the second grade and don’t require mastery of single-digit multiplication until the end of the fourth grade. “Both are at least a year too late,” Milgram and Stotsky warn. Worse, they say: “Indeed, basic arithmetical knowledge and skills are not fully developed until sometime in grade 5 in Common Core’s March draft. By that time, our students will be nearly two years behind their peers in high-achieving countries.”
The study also finds that while California’s standards in the elementary grades comprehensively prepare students for algebra in the eighth grade, the proposed national standards fail to develop pre-algebra skills in the primary grades. Not surprisingly, the national standards contain “only bits and pieces of algebra” in grade 8. In contrast, building on its solid pre-algebra base, California’s eighth-grade algebra standards are rigorous and complete. The national standards’ deficiencies are a serious concern, say the authors, since an encouraging 60 percent of California students currently complete algebra 1 by the eighth grade.
There are also problems in the proposed national English standards, especially the fact that many grade-to-grade standards require no increase in intellectual demand.
Thus, a grade 7 reading standard says: “Cite several sources of textual evidence when useful to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” The standards in grades 8 through 12 have virtually the same wording. The PI-PRI study is scathing in its analysis of such standards.
“[These standards] are generic skills – ‘can-do’ kinds of statements – which can be applied at any grade to any text but in themselves entail no body of prior literary or world knowledge or content specificity to give them intellectual heft,” observe the authors.
If high-standard states must accept comparatively weaker national standards, new national tests aligned to those standards would also be weaker. Results on California’s state standardized tests, which are aligned with the strong state standards, show that large numbers of the state’s students aren’t proficient in math or English. Student test scores on watered-down national tests may appear higher, but that won’t necessarily mean that learning has improved.
The final nationalization domino would be the imposition of a national curriculum. Rep. John Kline, ranking Republican on the House education committee, predicts: “If the federal government is going to insist that the states adopt these standards, then the federal government is using coercion, and will move inevitably to a national curriculum.”
Faced with national standards, national testing and a national curriculum, it will be nearly impossible for grassroots parents and community members to effect change if there are problems. In contrast, powerful Washington-based bureaucracies and special interests will be well positioned to influence the contents of the new standards, tests and curriculum. Further, one-size-fits-all national standards and curriculum will stifle competition and could lock in mediocrity on a countrywide scale rather than promote excellence.
California would be short sighted to ditch its high standards in favor of federal dollars attached to weaker national standards. If it did so it wouldn’t only hurt student learning, it would further curtail the power of individual Californians to impact their own future.