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Everyone agrees that the existing standards aren't working; what has been lacking so far, on both sides of the ideological divide, is the political will to do anything about them. Bush and his reform-oriented Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, recognized the problem, but as a former governor, Bush was keenly attuned to the political problem of pushing for national standards. I remember listening to him at a White House lunch he hosted for a small group attending an Aspen Institute education forum. He challenged former Democratic governor Roy Romer of Colorado, who made a case for common standards. Bush agreed with the goal, but he said it was too politically explosive to make it worth pushing at the federal level.
And yet there has never been a better opportunity to do that. As a candidate, Barack Obama was ambiguous about his commitment to the education-reform agenda of standards, testing, accountability and greater choice. But such doubts were quelled by his pick for Education Secretary: Arne Duncan, who was a cool and driven reformer as CEO of the Chicago public-school system and is also a basketball player from the South Side who knows how to move the ball. Duncan's position on common standards is clear: "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America," he says. "I know that talking about standards can make people nervous, but the notion that we have 50 different goalposts is absolutely ridiculous." (Read "No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?")
Duncan has a new arrow in his quiver. Buried in the President's stimulus package is a $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" education fund that the Secretary can use to give incentives to states that make "dramatic progress" in meeting goals that include improving standards. States that fail to give assurances that they will improve standards are at risk of losing education funding from other parts of the stimulus bill.
How to Build Better Standards
The drive toward common national standards should begin, I think, with math and reading. Algebra should be the same for a kid in Albany, N.Y., as it is for one in Albuquerque, N.M., or for that matter in Beijing or Bangalore. (We can save for later the debate over whether that should be true for more subjective subjects like history.) These standards should define precisely what students are expected to know by the time they complete each grade and should be accompanied by tests to assess their level of proficiency. The process should be quasi-voluntary: states should not be forced to adopt the common standards, but they should be encouraged to do so through federal funding and public pressure. In states that shy away from holding their schools accountable to these standards, parents and business leaders should hold the elected leaders accountable.
These 21st century American Standards should be comparable to, and benchmarked against, the standards of other countries so that we can determine how globally competitive our nation's economy will be in the future. Forty years ago, the U.S. had the best graduation rates in the world. Now it ranks 18th. In math scores on international tests, the U.S. ranks 25th; in reading, 15th. As Obama said in his speech to Congress a few weeks ago, "This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow." We can already see the signs. Major drug companies such as Merck and Eli Lilly used to outsource much of their manufacturing to India and China; now they also outsource much of their research and engineering.