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Will National School Standards Dumb Down Mass.?

SED prof says trade-off could be worth it to help the country

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Charles Glenn confesses to being conflicted about the new national school standards. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Today’s test is multiple choice: Was the July 21 decision to replace Massachusetts’s state school standards with federal ones (a) taking something good and making it even better, or (b) a no-brainer bungle, violating the wisdom that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

It’s a tough question even for Charles Glenn, a School of Education professor of educational leadership and development and a 21-year veteran of the state Department of Education. He’s conflicted about the national standards, which were adopted by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and have left experts divided.

The standards dictate what students in every grade should learn about English and math. Massachusetts officials preside over the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, which has been denounced by some but generally is considered among the nation’s best school standards. Commonwealth officials helped devise the national standards with the nation’s governors and state education leaders. President Obama and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back the effort.

Jim Stergios, executive director of Boston’s free-market-leaning Pioneer Institute, warns that the national vocabulary and algebra standards are weaker than the Commonwealth’s. Tom Birmingham, the former Democratic state senator who authored the state’s landmark education standards bill, and Bill Weld, the former Republican governor who signed it, oppose national standards. But several analyst groups countered that the national standards were either comparable, better, or, in the words of one, “too close to call.” the Boston Globe editorialized that national standards would build on Massachusetts’s; for example, while exposing younger students to less literature, the national standards would increase science and history readings. The state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education endorsed the new standards.

If wisdom resides in crowds, it’s worth noting that 28 states have now adopted the national standards. Of course, in this weak economy, one motivator may be money: Signing on is one way states can earn brownie points in the contest for a share of Obama’s $3.4 billion Race to the Top pot.

Bostonia asked Glenn to parse the pros and cons of adopting national education standards.

Bostonia: Do you support the national standards?
I’m of two minds. As national policy, it’s extremely important we have national standards. On the other hand, for Massachusetts, it could easily be a step backward. We have made progress beyond the level the national standards represent. That might be a worthwhile price to pay. I think it’s important to go ahead. But I think the points Jim Stergios makes are important.

Other groups who analyzed this disagree with Stergios.
He points out those groups have been funded by the Gates Foundation. The point that concerns me is that there is a strong push in certain quarters toward adoption of what’s called 21st-century standards. While the Massachusetts standards on language arts make a strong emphasis on literature, half of the material in the national standards is not literature. It’s a view that ordinary people aren’t going to read literature anyway.

What about the Globe’s point?
I don’t think anyone’s against history and science—I’m an historian myself—but I’m just concerned whether Massachusetts is going to lose ground. If Massachusetts does insist upon substituting its own requirements at any point [where] the national standards are less demanding, less humanistic, this might work out well. I think the participation of Massachusetts is one of the assurances that the national standards will be of high academic quality.

Critics say that nationalizing standards means nationalizing and bureaucratizing the approval process whenever Massachusetts wants to strengthen its standards.
That is a real concern. However, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration has been rather reluctant to keep raising student expectations. I think the question will be extremely important for institutions like the Pioneer Institute to keep on the watch. I think the Globe, which has been quite good with reform, will be sure to keep monitoring this so it doesn’t get into a happy-hour mood.

We have made enormous progress from the time I left government in 1991. That said, the two things the Obama administration has done that deserve enormous applause are a very strong push toward national education standards of high quality and its support for charter schools.

Could national standards actually improve Massachusetts education?
It’s always possible. Many of us feel the Massachusetts standards are not as high as they should be. A German researcher looked at 40 countries, using the international comparative tests. He found the two things correlated with high scoring were strong external standards with consequences, which is what No Child Left Behind tries, ineptly, to do. The other is strong autonomy at the school level. That’s why charter schools and national standards have a good prospect of bringing us up. My parochial concern about Massachusetts and the progress we’ve made is less important than the country as a whole moving ahead.

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