It’s been a long-held tradition in American public education that decisions about standards and curriculum are best left to state and local school systems, not the federal government. But that soon could change, amid mounting evidence that American students are falling behind their peers in other countries.

Leading education groups and government officials agreed at a congressional hearing April 29 that adopting common academic standards across all states might be the way to give U.S. students an advantage in an increasingly competitive and international marketplace.

During the hearing, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said support is building for the creation of common standards, which he said would help the United States close achievement gaps not only among U.S. schools, but also between the U.S. and other high-achieving countries.

"We all know the statistics–we’ve fallen to 21st in math achievement, 25th in science, and 24th in problem solving," Miller said. "We used to be No. 1 in college completion. Now we are 18th."

Miller said the $5 billion Race to the Top Fund included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will "lay the foundation" for the changes necessary to move toward common academic standards.

The federal government’s role in developing a common set of standards has yet to be determined.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was among the many supporters of common standards to testify at the hearing. Others included the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Weingarten said states "should adopt rigorous, common academic standards so that students can be better prepared to compete in the global economy."

The AFT has long supported common academic standards, and Weingarten said a key problem with typical state standards is that they’re often not comprehensive enough to form a complete education.

Many states already have joined the American Diploma Project Network, a program that works to align state standards with college and work expectations, said Ken James, CCSSO president and commissioner of education for the Arkansas Department of Education. 

James said CCSSO and NGA began working with some states two years ago to develop a voluntary, state-led common standards initiative.

"The purpose of the common state standards initiative is to raise the bar for all states by drawing on the best research and evidence," James said. "The most basic way to impact student achievement … is to guarantee that what is being taught in classrooms in every ZIP code of this nation is both rigorous and relevant."

He added: "States are [no longer] preparing our students to compete with students in the neighboring school district or even the neighboring state. We are preparing them to compete globally and, in order to do so, we must make sure that we equip students across this nation with the learning blocks to reach the same high standards."

Besides standards, benchmarks for meeting Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law also vary from state to state.

Many education advocates say developing common academic standards is just one important step in education reform. Teacher recruitment and retention, professional development, and early childhood learning programs are other essential factors for improving education, they say.

"Common national standards will only be useful if they are fewer, clearer, and higher," said Dave Levin, founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program.

Levin said common standards are not the only solution, and top-notch teachers are essential in improving student achievement.

"That being said, common standards and assessments would be one of the best ways of maximizing the effectiveness of all teachers and principals," he said.

"At a time when all of America’s students are competing against the best and the brightest from around the world, it makes no sense for students in Massachusetts to work toward one standard while students in Mississippi work toward another," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Wise said the recently released 2008 Long-Term Trend Reading and Mathematics Assessments, which showed little or no improvement among U.S. 17-year-olds in reading and math since the 1970s, are a good example of why the U.S. should move toward common standards. (See "Reading, math scores show mixed results.")

"Common standards mean teaching to the best global standards of the 21st century, not just continuing to have mediocre results reflecting the last century," he said.

When states set their own standards, students in one state may be forced to meet higher expectations than students in another, Levin said. 

"With states held accountable for meeting the standards they set, there’s an unfortunate incentive for states to set the bar low," Levin said. 

"We are not only creating a system in which academic performance means fundamentally different things in different states; we are also creating a system in which little can be learned or shared," he said.

Links:

U.S. House Education and Labor Committee

American Federation of Teachers

National Governors Association

Council of Chief State School Officers

American Diploma Project Network

Knowledge Is Power Program

Alliance for Excellent Education