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Standard Bearer

As any education wonk, school board member, or exasperated parent could tell you, there is no shortage of obstacles to fixing our country’s grossly inadequate public schools. But, for years, one of the most stubborn barriers to progress has been the highly localized nature of American education--namely, the fact that, unlike in numerous countries with top-notch schools, each state sets its own standards for what students should learn. In recent decades, different factions have had their own reasons for working to preserve this illogical arrangement. Conservatives deployed their usual ideological objections to all things federal, and they especially worried that national education standards would give Washington an excuse to force liberal ideas on students. Meanwhile, on the left, teachers’ unions feared that national standards would mean (gasp) more accountability and less autonomy for educators.

Thanks in part to this left-right alliance, attempts to formulate common standards died in their inchoate phases under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And even the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001--the most ambitious federal attempt ever to hold failing schools accountable--left the question of what, exactly, students should be learning up to individual states.

The results have been depressing. Not wanting their schools to be labeled as failing, many states have watered down their standards--a trend that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has correctly called “a race to the bottom.” Expectations for students are therefore often embarrassingly low. Consider that, last year, 86 percent of New York eighth-graders were proficient in math based on the state’s exam--but only 34 percent were proficient according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given to students nationwide. A system that could produce that kind of statistical gap is clearly one in need of reform.

At a time when a good chunk of the electorate--and one of our two major political parties--is in thrall to an eighteenth-century view of the federal government, you might think that the odds of this situation improving are miniscule. Yet that is exactly what seems to be happening. And here’s the most surprising thing: The movement to create national standards isn’t coming from Washington; it’s coming from the states themselves.

Last week, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released a draft of rigorous common standards. These benchmarks would not be enforced by the federal government; rather, they would be voluntarily adopted by the states. An impressive 48 states participated in drafting the standards. (The predictable holdouts? Texas and Alaska.) Already, several have pledged to adopt them. And the National Association of State Boards of Education expects that half of the states will sign on by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, President Obama has thrown his support behind the project. The administration wants to require states to adopt common standards in order to qualify for Title I grants (which go to high-poverty schools). It has also given an advantage in the selection process for Race to the Top (a competitive grant program created by last year’s stimulus package) to states that adopt common standards. And it has pledged $350 million toward developing assessments based on new standards. More surprisingly, teachers’ unions have changed their tune: Both the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association were quick to praise the recently proposed benchmarks.

This standards fervor is nothing short of a seismic shift in education policy. In part, credit goes to standards advocates, who have done a good job of making their case in recent years. The enticements offered by the Obama administration have helped, too. But students’ consistently low performance on national and international tests, as well as high dropout rates, have probably been the most important factor in forcing educators and policymakers to see the light. When expectations are low, they now seem to realize, students won’t succeed.

The timing of all this is especially welcome because Obama has just announced his ambitious plan for overhauling NCLB. Like the original law, Obama’s revision would require that there be standards for evaluating the performance of schools. (Though, wisely, Obama’s version calls for schools to be evaluated based on more than test scores: Student attendance, classroom environment, and other measures would be added to the mix.) The problem, of course, is that merely mandating the existence of standards isn’t all that worthwhile if those standards are wildly different from state to state. Now, thankfully, it appears this will no longer be the case.

To be sure, the old problems in education policy have not gone away. While supporting common standards, teachers’ unions are already griping about Obama’s NCLB revision, saying the new law is unfair to educators. And Representative John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, has said Obama’s proposal represents “a heavier federal hand than many of us wish to see.” Meanwhile, Texas isn’t just bucking common standards; it appears set to revise its history curriculum to ignore Thomas Jefferson but promote the achievements of figures like Jefferson Davis and Phyllis Schlafly.

So the impulse toward a senseless regionalism in education remains alive and well, as does the reluctance of teachers’ unions to accept enhanced accountability for their members. Still, you have to give the country’s governors and school officials, as well as the Obama administration, kudos for recognizing--and acting on--the principle that a kid in Arizona ought to have the same educational opportunities as a kid in Massachusetts. Maybe our politics aren’t completely stuck in the eighteenth century after all.