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National Standards: No Thank You Please

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Lead from the Start: National Standards: No Thank You Please

Sunday, September 27, 2009

National Standards: No Thank You Please

Do you know what it is like to work for the federal government? I do, and if it weren't for strong leadership in my local Head Start program for over 45 years, we would not be able to help as many kids as we have.

Education has always been under the jurisdiction of the states for a reason. Historically the reason for this is well documented but it comes down to this -- at the continental congress when the founding fathers where crafting the constitution the founding fathers decided not to address it. They knew, as we know now after trying to reauthorize the closest bill we have ever had to a federal school system, that coming to grips with the multiple reasons for and approaches to education across this nation would be a roadblock to progress. In the 1700s it was the ratification of the Constitution, now it is NCLB. This isn't to say there weren't attempts to create national educational system.
Thomas Jefferson spoke of the importance of public education in a letter to John Tyler in 1810, "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393

In the 1800s that vision may have been viable but now, I can't imagine a federal educational system that would work for every student, every where. As a Head Start employee I have seen what it is like to have Congress as your school board. It is not pretty. Large structural gaps that should be fixed by reform are missed because they are too hard to agree on while small meaningless measures are continually added onto the Head Start regulations. These additional federal regulations don't necessarily impact child outcomes are run rampant through the performance standards. I thoroughly believe in Head Start, at the local level, but systematically I really think it needs a make-over.

Now we are considering National Standards and I am still saying, no, please, no.If our country had a National school system in which states were truly accountable to the federal government, national standards would have been a forgone conclusion a long time ago. But, we are nation based on a balance of federal and states’ rights. States are responsible for the education of its citizens. It seems that NCLB’s over-reaching in terms of accountability has started to make National standards seem like the only way to clean up the mess. This policy would seem reactive instead of proactive.
Besides, in order for national standards to have any meaning the country would need to change its constitution. As it stands the national standards that have been set by various professional organizations have served as a guide to states when they craft their own standards. Scoring well on the NAEP has actually acted as a carrot for states to create high standards because scoring poorly brings public outcry but no real measures of governance reforms by the federal government on states school systems. The NAEP as an accountability tool is a reform without teeth.

As Virginia has learned from its own standards based accountability system, if you test at high standards students will perform at high standards. At the same time, if there isn’t any stakes for the student in the system, then the system may not get a very clear picture of what students know and are able to do in the content areas.

All of this discussion of states rights doesn’t really address the reason that some call for national standards. Some students, when they move from one place to another, experience an expectations culture shock when they go to a school with lower, or higher standards than they have experienced. One of the good aspects of NCLB is that it provided funds for tutoring to those who are not able to meet challenging standards. How about a similar reform for states? Then we can start talking about national standards. Until then it would be another version of the same problem, high standards that are appropriate for some, too high for others, and not enough for a few.

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At 9:25 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

"Besides, in order for national standards to have any meaning the country would need to change its constitution." What do you mean by this? If there were national standards, it would still be up to the states and LEAs to figure out how to get kids to be proficient on those standards, right?


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