Fordham (and me) on standards

In releasing its annual State of State Standards report, the Fordham Foundation calls for national standards.

Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America will return to class in coming weeks in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn.

Five years after No Child Left Behind made standards-based education reform the law of the land, a new study finds that the subject-by-subject state standards that undergird this reform strategy remain inadequate in most jurisdictions. The State of State Standards 2006, the first full review of such standards since 2000, confers an average grade of “C-minus”-the same as six years earlier-even though most states revised their standards during that period.

Some 26 states earned a “D” or an “F” grade for standards and 11 performed worse than in 2000. Only nine states earned honors grades in all subjects, led by Massachusetts, California, and New York.

Another new Fordham report, To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools, suggests alternative plans for national standards and tests. Plans range from “The Whole Enchilada” — a federal accountability system — to “Sunshine and Shame” — state testing with more transparency.

“Big modern countries need big modern standards from sea to shining sea,” remarked (Fordham head Checker) Finn. “Most other nations have figured this out. In America, however, we’ve left standard setting to the states and most of them have bungled the job. This report takes our dialogue about standards, testing and accountability to a new level. I hope it brings closer the day when all our children and schools are held to the same rigorous expectations.”

The highlight of the standards report is: It Takes a Vision: How Three States Created Great Academic Standards by me. Working as a freelancer, I analyzed the development of standards — the politics, the players and the passion — in Massachusetts, California and Indiana, all of which got top ratings from Fordham.

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  1. I find it funny that the states that rank at the top of the ACT results all get from a D to a D- grade (WI, MN, IA). Does this mean that the states who ranked highest in their development of standards spent more time on standards and less time on actually teaching? Sure seems that way. I have lived in a couple of the top ranked states and I can tell you that the education I got in my little country town in Ohio is far superior to what they are getting here. The only exceptions are in the examination schools like Boston Latin or Bronx School of Science or Stuyvesant. Once you get beyond them, the results in educating are dismal to be kind about it.

  2. Alarm bells rang when I read the part that said that California and Massachusetts earned top honors in all subjects. You can bet there’s a political lens on the grading.

    For instance, regarding Texas they say that “Further, the Lone Star State pushes in its standards a political agenda. American and, especially, Texan history is glorified. ” In other words, to get a good grade, a state must commit itself to propagating the overt lie that America is not special. American exceptionalism must be agreed to be incorrect, despite all the evidence of its truth.

    Is there a “political agenda involved?” Hmmmm.

  3. I hate “U.S. bashing” history books, and I didn’t much care for some of the Fordham report comments about Texas, but I grew up in Texas and suffered through the 8th grade required Texas history class, and it was awful. Did you know that Sam Houston was as great a man as George Washington? That the Texas patriots fought with Mexico just to preserve their freedom? No? Well, you didn’t learn about Texas from the approved textbook. There were a lot of warts on the founders of the Republic of Texas, but you would never have known it from the text I had, and unless it has changed a lot, the standard deserves an F–.

  4. Mike in Texas says:

    The Fordham Institute is all about playing politics and bashing the public schools. Could it be b/c their founder, Chester Finn, is on the board of directors of several companies that stand to make big bucks off of schools being labeld failures? Or is it so they can expand their charter school empire?

    Basically what they want is to write the rules for education, with local taxpayers footing the bills and having no say so. I seem to remember something like that causing a problem about 230 years ago.

  5. “Big modern countries need big modern standards from sea to shining sea,” remarked (Fordham head Checker) Finn. “Most other nations have figured this out. In America, however, we’ve left standard setting to the states…”

    Apparently Finn’s own education deserves a failing grade, because he never learned that education is not a federal responsibility. Otherwise, if he wanted it to be, he’d be pushing an amendment to the federal constitution, right? 😉

  6. Yeah, I live in Texas, so I read the Texas bit too. Some of their criticism struck me as a bit gratuitous as well.

    “But Texas’s standards contain elements that detract from their overall quality–students are asked, for example, to “connect literature to historical contexts, current events, and his/her own experiences” at all grade levels. This is an unproductive and potentially damaging activity that probably will detract from the literature itself.”

    Uh, excuse me? We’re supposed to enjoy literature in a vacuum, divorced from its context? Hell, I was taught that one of the first things you do when reading a book is to note when and where it was published so that you can begin by putting it in its context.

    “Unfortunately, all these achievements are rendered average, because Texas does not present history chronologically. Remedying that would improve this document significantly.”

    This seems stupid. History is often best learned non-chronologically. Sometimes, I think the best way to learn history is to move backwards, always confronting the roots of the problems you’ve learned earlier. Other times it’s quite interesting to study history in cross-section, taking the aftermath of WWI, for example, on a region-by-region basis.

    The idea that history can only be effectively learned chronologically is, IMHO, just something soemone made up.

  7. I agree. History should be presented thematically, not chronologically. Try teaching history in order from the ancient Greeks (or Babylon) and watch your students glaze over.

    You need to teach some important dates – say 1 AD, 1492, 1776, 1849, 1863-7, 1914-8, 1942-5, and so on, to choose a few pegs at random. Once the student knows those pegs down cold, then they can start putting history in context. Teach a unit on the slave trade, you know it’s between 1492 and 1863. Teach a unit on the industrial revolution, you know it’s between 1867 and 1914.

    And so on.