Make National Education Standards a Local Issue

By Phil Schlechty

Governors and chief state school officers from 46 states and other members of the policy elite are threatening or promising to embrace common national standards. If they really mean common standards, this might not be a bad idea. Unfortunately, what will follow the development of national standards will be a drive for a common national test—a standardized test—to assess performance against the standard. The result will be that the test will become the standard and the standards themselves will recede into the background.

I don’t know whether the proposed national standards will be rich and powerful, but I do know that rich and powerful standards cannot be assessed from afar or with too much reliance on standardized tests. How do I know this is so? Two decades of state experience proves it to be so. The morphing of powerful standards into trivializing tests is the history of the standards movement in the United States. What we need are standards for assessing performance against national standards and a means of holding local communities accountable for ensuring that whatever standards they claim to uphold serve as the basis for local assessments.

Political leaders are wont to quote favorably the statement by Tip O’Neil, the longtime Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that “all politics is local.” It is time they embraced the equally compelling notion that all assessments, if they are truly to affect performance, must be local as well. Test scores are not standards, even though state officials and bureaucrats tend to treat them as though they were. Test scores as they are currently used are either auditing tools or instruments to bludgeon teachers and local communities into compliance with standards they often do not understand and do not embrace as their own.

The strength of bureaucracy is found it its ability to standardize. It is not the characteristic of bureaucracies to inspire excellence. Thus, the standards that can be enforced by bureaucracies and by bureaucrats are designed to produce standardized education. The pursuit of excellence depends on the commitment of local communities to standards and the willingness of local publics to enforce the standards to which they become committed.

Standards may be a national concern, but the assessment and enforcement of standards is a local responsibility. What is needed are ways to ensure that local communities accept this responsibility. Rather than strategies for taking the responsibility for enforcing standards away from local communities and lodging it in government offices far removed from the schools and classrooms to which they apply, state and federal governments should be concerned with helping local communities and local publics develop the capacity to embrace and enforce the standards of excellence to which every child is entitled.

2 Responses to “Make National Education Standards a Local Issue”

  1. Steve McCammon says:

    Phil, I concur with your assessment on the overall question of national standards and assessment. Having heard you speak just recently about the shaky proposition that what if those writing these standards (and just as importantly) those designing the assessments are not truly qualified to do either. I equate this to the lesson learned with those federal officials who were supposed to be sufficiently qualified to oversee wall street and yet we found out far too late that our trust had been blind and unfounded. The stakes are at least equally as high here and to find out much too late would be truly catastrophic. Local standards set as closely as possible to the school house could help to insure that, as you state, we better understand that which we are to be held accountable for in the end. Not many leaders that I have met are resistant to accountability, but are simply looking for not only fairness but also relevance to informing design of and assessment of key learning in our schools.

  2. Bryan Strohl says:

    We are putting the money that is so scarce right now into the wrong basket. Instead of investing money to continually improve technology and tutoring opportunities available to children, we are making changes for the sake of change. The creation of national standards will require groups (hopefully of actual educators and not politicians) to align the national standards to state standards and for each district in each state to invest the time and money to aligning the curriculum to the national standards when the state standards that are currently in place already provide a structure that ensures students achieve necessary standards of achievement.

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