Time for national standards

It’s time for national standards in reading and math, writes Walter Isaacson in Time. The K-12 system is “burdened by an incoherent jumble of state and local curriculum standards, assessment tools, tests, texts and teaching materials,” he writes. States can lower standards to define every student, however illiterate and innumerate, as “proficient.”

Today’s wacky patchwork makes it difficult to assess which methods work best or how to hold teachers and schools 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.

“Straightforward and sensible,” writes Eduwonk. Commenters wonder: Why doesn’t Isaacson want mathematicians to help write math standards?

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Comments

  1. Lord save us from national standards. Standards are already horrid enough trying to bring in every interest group from within a single state or province.

    Now you want to see standards that incorporate every interest group in the nation? Yikes!

    Look, the simple truth is that if we have credible standards that reflect, say requirements necessary to begin a university degree, then about 25% are going to make those standards.

    That is unacceptable in any democratic society. After all, eventually the government reflects the will of the people, and the people don’t want to be told that most of their children do not meet standards.

    The varying standards we have may not be great, but considering the massive social push to prevent real standards, I think we should be grateful (and surprised) for the few that are actually any good.

    We’ve rolled a seven once. Why risk all the progress on the chance of making another seven again? (I’m assuming that bad national standards will push out good state/province standards.)

  2. It’ll take at least a generation before this would happen. There’s simply too strong of an emphasis on local control in this nation.

    (I wanted to write that it’ll never happen. But, it could.)

    http://www.lessontech.blogspot.com

  3. Why not involve mathematicians? Probably because we were the ones who pushed New Math way back when. Our bad. :) That was when I think we mathematicians lost the “math wars”.

  4. wahoofive says:

    Here we go with the mathematicians again. Mathematicians are great for figuring out how to derive the orthonormal basis of a nonzero finite dimensional inner product space, but they generally know nothing about how to teach arithmetic to elementary school students. The reason someone becomes a mathematician is because they’re fascinated by math, not because they’re particularly interested in, or good at, explaining math concepts to other people. And none of the college work a math major takes has anything to do with what’s an effective teaching method at the elementary level.

    In short, forget about mathematicians.

  5. wahoofive says:

    And by the way, mathematicians aren’t particularly qualified to determine which math skills are going to be useful for the majority of people, either, which is what national standards would be about.

  6. Consider “national standards” carefully.

    1) “National”
    The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition). We are all public citizens and private individuals. People do not become more intelligent, better informed, more altruistic, or more capable (except in their enhanced access to the instruments of State violence) when they enter the State’s employ.

    Eduardo Zambrano
    Formal Models of Authority: Introduction and Political Economy Applications
    Rationality and Society, May 1999; 11: 115 – 138.

    “Aside from the important issue of how it is that a ruler may economize on communication, contracting and coercion costs, this leads to an interpretation of the state that cannot be contractarian in nature: citizens would not empower a ruler to solve collective action problems in any of the models discussed, for the ruler would always be redundant and costly. The results support a view of the state that is eminently predatory, (the ? MK.) case in which whether the collective actions problems are solved by the state or not depends on upon whether this is consistent with the objectives and opportunities of those with the (natural) monopoly of violence in society. This conclusion is also reached in a model of a predatory state by Moselle and Polak (1997). How the theory of economic policy changes in light of this interpretation is an important question left for further work.”

    2) “Standards”
    A measure is an order relation on a set. A test is a procedure or device which is used to establish a measure. A standard is a unit of measure (i.e., a kilogram weight is a standard. A meter stick is a standard). A standardized test is a test which expresses its result in terms of a standard.

    The most important policy variable which influences overall education system performance is student motivation. Policies which enhance student motivation will enhance overall system performance. Policies which degrade student motivation will degrade overall system performance. Unless national standards enhance student motivation, they will do nothing to enhance the performance of the US K-12 education system.

    Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery: black or white, male or female, young or old.

  7. “the people don’t want to be told that most of their children do not meet standards”

    @Tom

    I guess they’d rather have there children’s high school diplomas be nothing more than paper. Maybe those parents want there children to get push along and not helped with issues.

    Parents who can’t handle that their kids aren’t meeting standards need to shut up and grow up. How selfish is that statement. They would rather think Johnny and Jannie are geniuses than face the truth and really help their kids succeed.

    BTW Tom: That wasn’t meant as an attack at you. The whole “A for effort” culture just gets me riled.

  8. First and foremost, the federal govt. does not have a constitutional right to dictate education policy (check the 10th Amendment):

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    Second, the federal govt. currently pays about 7% of public school costs. When the feds are willing to pick up 100% then they can see about changing the Constitution.

  9. The Federal government exercises legitimate authority over four pre-college school systems: the Washington, D.C. school system, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, the US Department of Defense schools (for dependents of DOD employees overseas), and the US State Department’s Embassy schools (for dependents of State Department employees overseas). No more authority than it already exercises is needed. All the President has to do to introduce meaningful standards and competition into the US K-12 education industry is…
    1) Mandate that these schools develop exams for a sequence of courses which satisfy graduation requirements.
    2) Mandate that these schools license independent organizations to offer these exams to anyone who will pay the fee (to be determined by the proctoring organization) for administration and grading of the exam.
    3) Mandate that these schools provide transcripts which record credits earned, and diplomas to all people who accumulate sufficient credits.
    4) Prohibit these schools from placing any restrictions on when people may sit the exams or on the lower age at which students may graduate.
    5) Require that all US government agencies recognize diplomas earned through this process.

    Let competition between Sylvan Learning Centers and the Kumon Institute drive the cost of a high school diploma down to the cost of books and of proctoring exams.

    The US government exercises legitimate authority over four post-secondary schools: the Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colorado, the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, the US Merchant Marine Academyy at Kings Point, New York, and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

    By a process similar to that I outline above, the US government could lower the cost of a college degree to the cost of books and of proctoring exams.

    Here’s something to consider: If politicians were well intentioned, they would do X. Politicians do not do X. Therefore…..?

  10. The educational standards system state and federal reminds me of the tax code. Both need to be chucked out the window, and reasonable standards need to be put into place. Scary thought how about we ask the experts in that subject to help set the new standards, not the business experts. Grumble… Sorry but the the whole system is crazy and the kids suffer because of it.

    God bless
    Heather L
    http://www.specialneedshomeschooling.com

  11. greeneyeshade says:

    Mmm, Malcolm Kirkpatrick, in the first place you missed the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. In the second place, the first premise of your attempted syllogism (‘If politicians were well intentioned, they would do X’) doesn’t seem self-evident to me.

  12. Well Mike if the federal government only ponies up 7% of the money that goes towards K-12 in this country then it shouldn’t be too much of a bother for the various states to tell the federal government to get stuffed when it comes to national standards the same as they could’ve told the federal government to get stuffed when the federal government passed NCLB.

    Say Mike, how many states did turn down federal money just because it had that NCLB string attached? Not too many I think, hey?

    Anything in the Constitution about casting a baited hook?

  13. superdestroyer says:

    There is an easy way for the government to enforce real standards and to do it legally. Instead of telling schools what to do and then have no enforcement mechanism,let schools do whatever they want but have a national high school graduate exam to “certify” the graduates. Then make it mandatory that four year college student have to certified high school graduates, that only certified graduates can get a government job, work on a government contract, join the militay, etc.

    Schools can had out all of the diplomas they want, can hand out all of the grades that they want but parents and the tax payers will quickly insist that schools design themselves to that their graduates will pass the “certification” test.

  14. wahoofive – a mathematician however can be safely assumed to have some knowledge about what mathematics knowledge is necessary for being able to take mathematics at university. Add that to what engineering professors, physics professors, chemistry professors and statistics professors think is necessary, and you’ve got a good start for deciding what mathematics high school students should be learning, to the extent that they are cognitively capable of learning it. (There is a risk that you will wind up with a wishlist from the professors rather than what is necessary, so any such survey instrument will need some device to focus the professors on what is absolutely necessary.)

    I favour teaching as many students as possible to that level because it opens doors for students. A teenager is quite capable of changing their mind about what degree they want to do (heaven knows, I changed my mind past my 20th birthday in the last year of their degree). Even if a student leaves school thinking they’ll never take maths again they should have the option of doing so.

    Figuring out how to teach is for proven experts in the field of teaching, figuring out what to teach is for experts in that field in life.

  15. Homeschooling Granny says:

    To those who advocate some form of federal standard, how would you keep political considerations out of it? I fear the parties and other special interest groups would fight to pack the standards with their ideas, that in order to get a diploma or a certificate a person might have to profess beliefs they don’t necessarily share.

  16. Wahoofive is completely correct. I’m an engineer with some exposure to undergraduate and graduate higher mathematics. Mathematicians got where they are by being good at doing math not being good at teaching it. They also have very little understanding (but arrogantly think they completely understand) other disciplines like engineering and the hard sciences. The math department at my high school could have taught the math department in my college a lot about teaching.

    They may have some idea of what it takes to be a mathematician. They have very little clue about anything else. Even if you involve engineers, statisticians, and the hard sciences in this process you still have to consider that there are numerous disciplines that don’t need higher math at all. So why mandate it if the history majors and humanities students don’t need it?

  17. wahoofive says:

    Tracy – I wasn’t aware that “standards” meant “preparation to be a math major in college”. To be sure, mathematicians would be knowledgeable about that. But generally college-track students have other ways to find out what the requirements might be for a particular subject area without requiring national standards. We’re talking about standards for the rank and file.

  18. (Greeneyeshade): “Malcolm Kirkpatrick, in the first place you missed the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.”

    Thanks for the reminder. I have mentioned the Coast Guard Academy in making thie argument elsewhere.

    “In the second place, the first premise of your attempted syllogism (’If politicians were well intentioned, they would do X’) doesn’t seem self-evident to me.”

    Okay. Add “…and capable” to “well-intentioned”. Yes, someonne might be incapable of acting on good intentions. Consider how that affects the case for State action.

    (Tracy): “Figuring out how to teach is for proven experts in the field of teaching, figuring out what to teach is for experts in that field in life.”

    The “experts in the field of teaching” gave us Whole Language methods of Reading instruction, “discovery” methods in Math instruction, “authentic assessment” and numerous other lunatic fads.

  19. (Granny): “…parties and other special interest groups would fight to pack the standards with their ideas, that in order to get a diploma or a certificate a person might have to profess beliefs they don’t necessarily share.”

    Exactly! The problems of the US school system go much deeper that inept measuring instruments. The “standards” discussion distracts attention from the far more important issue: what do students, parents, or taxpayers get from the assumption, by the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in their locality, of responsibility for education? What do the goons with the guns (the State) have usefully to contribute?

  20. I’m a mathematician, but I make a living in the real world, and I do understand what some engineers do, because I have worked productively with them. Also, some of the best teachers I’ve ever had were math professors, and some of the worst were the math teachers in my high school. Mathematicians have some things in common, but they are no more uniform than any other similarly sized group of people with advanced knowledge of a subject area. The CA state standards for math are quite good, in my opinion, and they were written with the help of math professors who worked with and consulted plenty of other people in the process, and to the best of my recollection (I last looked at them some years ago), they don’t say HOW something is to be taught, juast WHAT the kids need to learn. And if they care about their job, which some of them do, math professors know what engineering departments, etc. want in math classes. So these professors are good choices to figure out what math high school kids need to learn to be prepared for college math.

  21. In smaller, more culturally homogeneous nations (i.e. most of the world’s nations), national standards are a very good idea, and easy to agree on.

    But in a huge, culturally diverse nation (like the U.S.), it’s vitually impossible. Let the 50 States determine their education standards state by state – like the Constitution provides for.

    Now, there is a viable alternative – what if the national standards for the few schools (listed above already) were so *good*, that the 50 States started emulating them voluntarily? (Then again, what are the chances of that happening?)

    One thing I do know, is that standards and curriculums need to be streamlined and simplified, somehow. Pick any subject, and in K-12 you’ve got at least a half dozen organizations with their own large, non-user friendly, almost unreadable documents on their own sets of vague standards for the subject(s) at hand… that almost never match up with each other in any meaningful way.

  22. Jeff the Baptist:
    So why mandate it if the history majors and humanities students don’t need it?

    Why limit history majors and humanities students to only being able to be history majors and humanities students? People change their minds about what they want to do in the future. What happened to the idea that education should be about opening doors?

    Wahoofive – I wasn’t aware that “standards” meant “preparation to be a math major in college”.

    Umm, maybe because standards don’t necessarily? I was making a normative, not a descriptive, argument. I was arguing that maths standards *should* be preparation to be a math major in college, I was not arguing that all standards *already* mean “preparation to be a math major in college”. There are other matters that are important in life, like the knowledge of history to be an informed citizen, and the ability to read and comprehend something someone else has written.

    But generally college-track students have other ways to find out what the requirements might be for a particular subject area without requiring national standards. We’re talking about standards for the rank and file.

    I am well aware that I am talking about standards for the rank and file. That’s why I said, to quote myself: “I favour teaching as many students as possible to that level because it opens doors for students. ” I don’t know how you managed to read that as anything but standards for the rank and file.

    I will be as explicit as possible. I think that the rank-and-file students should be learning as much maths as possible, so that if later in their teenage or early adulthood they decide that they want to do something maths-heavy, the school will have done as much as possible to prepare them for this. And even though there may be some students who are not mentally capable of a maths degree, no matter what schools do, they still should have the option of being able to do a less-intense but still mathematical career, such as engineering technician work. They may never want to do so, I am merely saying that if they do change their minds and decide to do so their school education should have supported that to the extent that it is possible. Education should be about opening doors, including for the rank and file students.

    If you have any doubts still as to whether I am talking about standards for the rank and file, please let me know what I can say that might convince you that I am advocating this for the rank-and-file.

    As for your other point. Yes, college-track students have other ways to find out what the requirements might be for a particular subject. But that doesn’t mean that they can then fulfill said requirements. You look at most of us who did maths-heavy degrees, we were doing maths for years at high school. It’s not a matter of looking up that you need to do calculus and being able to tick it off the list in a couple of weeks, it takes time to learn maths.
    Plus, as I said before, teenagers change their minds about what they want to do with their lives. Maths is fundamental to a lot of subjects, not doing maths closes off a lot of doors. To repeat myself, shouldn’t school be about opening doors for students?

  23. Homeschooling Granny wrote:

    > To those who advocate some form of federal standard, how would you keep political considerations out of it?

    Which is kind of like asking “how do you take the wet out of water”?

    The public education system is a product of politics and as long as it is part of the political process it’ll always be vulnerable to political manipulation.

    For some folks, a lot of folks, that’s just fine as long as they’re the ones doing the manipulating. The global warming types and the intelligent design types among other want to use the public education system to advance their agenda which means that to some extent they’re willing to compromise the quality of the education in service of their particular brand of indoctrination.

    It seems self-evident to me that the importance of education in the public education system is a direct function of the influence wielded by the people who have education among the top items on their agenda for the public education system. The less influence those people wield the more we can expect a public education system that’s the sport of whoever currently swings the biggest political hammer.