New education standards key to improving schools

Published in The News Tribune August 27, 2010

As a new school year rolls around, there is reason to be optimistic that our educational system might finally be headed in the right direction.

Let’s start first with the bad news, best summarized by a couple of statistics.  According to the federal government, among Washington’s 8th grade low income black students, only 8 percent have achieved 8th grade math proficiency.  Among the state’s nonpoor white students, about half meet this standard.

These statistics point to the two persistent problems facing both Washington and the nation:  the low overall quality of education received by students, and the “achievement gap” – differences in the quality received based on socioeconomic class.  Comparisons with other countries reinforce the seriousness of these two problems:  Students in other rich countries generally outperform students in our country.   And while the existence of an achievement gap is hardly unique to the U.S., it is likely true that the link between socioeconomic class and education is stronger here than elsewhere.


And now for the good news.  A movement sweeping the nation may at last bring needed change to our poorly performing and inequitable public education system.


The nation’s governors and state school chiefs recently proposed a new set of rigorous academic standards and recommended that states adopt these standards.  Called Common Core Standards (CCS), these specify the skills and competencies expected of students at each grade level. 


Over a two month period, over half of all states have chosen to replace their own state standards with CCS standards.  If all states adopt these, we will for the first time have national standards meaning that we will expect the same thing from a student regardless of her school, district, or state.


The promise of the CCS – and the reason Washington should eagerly adopt them – is that they set high and uniform expectations for students.  To date, school districts and states have a tremendous amount of discretion over the standards to which they hold their students.   While local variation made sense at one time – the children of Pittsburgh steel workers might have needed a different education than did the children of Willapa Bay oyster farmers — the same is not true today.


Rather, our decentralized educational system contributes to the problems of low and uneven educational quality.  When standards and curriculum are set by local communities, the tendency is to want to make sure that students succeed; and setting a low bar is believed to help assure this.


But with a low bar low effort follows, as does an unchallenging curriculum that can turn students off.  The result is low educational quality and low levels of engagement.  Despite being easier to earn a high school diploma here than in many other rich countries, one in four of our high school students drop out. 


A decentralized educational system with low standards also disadvantages those who are in most need of an excellent and demanding education.  Low standards leads to a “something for everyone” smorgasboard approach to education – those parents or communities who push for more demanding curriculum and standards for their children find prime rib, while others who are less savvy, less interested, or lack the resources find that their children wind up with the macaroni and cheese.


Math instruction in Washington is an example of the unevenness that occurs with decentralized standards.   A large majority of our students take Algebra 1 (the gateway course for advanced math) during 9th grade.  However some take it in 8th grade, and over 10 percent of students do not take it until 10th grade.  So within Washington, some students take algebra two years earlier than other students.


More problematic is that variability in educational opportunity and rigor closely tracks students’ socioeconomic class, partially explaining the achievement gap.   One of the best ways to weaken this link is to set strong standards for everyone, and provide the curricular guidance and resources to realize these standards.   Take Massachusetts, which has one of the nation’s strongest math standards while we have had one of the weakest.   In Massachusetts, 8th grade low income black students are three times more likely to be proficient in math than they are here in Washington.   Moreover, black students in Massachusetts are much more likely to finish high school than they are here. 


So Washington should jump on the CCS bandwagon and back it up with the curricular guidelines and resources needed.   Washingtonians would have reason to be optimistic that a first rate and fair educational system was finally within our reach.