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Will National School Standards Dumb Down Mass.?

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


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

Today’s test is multiple choice: Was yesterday’s 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.

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

BU Today: 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.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


5 Comments on Will National School Standards Dumb Down Mass.?

  • Douglas Zook on 07.22.2010 at 8:53 am

    national standards...

    I served on the National Academy of Sciences’ National Standards Committee in the 1990’s. As part of this appointment, we were to come with content and pedagogy guideposts for k-12 learning in the science disciplines. In a very real sense, the heart of these particular national standards remains in place today and largely led to the various guiding frameworks that each State now has in science.

    If constructed thoughtfully, standards can serve to assist those teachers and their administrators to move beyond the status quo and become more innovative and more up-to-date with what constitutes effective teaching. Standards can be a problem if they are overly prescriptive, but the main challenge remains motivating administrators, policy makers and teachers to ensure that society-building, survival themes — climate change, social equity, renewal energy, reading, geography, e.g. — are a central part of curricula and in methodologies that promote thinking and dialogue…. Standards on a national level make particular sense when they are linked to problem-solving skills of broad societal interest. DZ

  • Anonymous on 07.22.2010 at 10:06 am

    National standards sound like such a no-brainer. One test for all kids…you can quickly tell what states are failing, which are passing, and which are doing exceptionally well. The rallying cry is always, “They use it in Europe, why not here?” There are two problems with using them here (let me preface by saying I support national standards): 1. The way we have structured our government and constitution makes, by law, education a mandate of the states. Remember, when the constitution was written the idea was that states would have much more autonomy than they currently possess. 2. Cultural divides are wide and vast in our country. I went to elementary school in Atlanta and was taught evolution. When I moved to rural school district in high school, evolution received attention, but careful attention to not offend deeply religious students. There are also issues with language and grammar (i.e. bubbla/water fountain/drinking fountain, etc.) that would be very difficult to address in a national test. What would likely happen is that the test would be geared to the most populous areas, making those in the country and rural areas look less skilled than they probably really are. I support the national standards and tests, but they are probably impractical to really ever put into practice.

  • Boughton on 07.22.2010 at 11:59 am

    national standards

    To the one who commented on the different “grammar” in the U.S. — I don’t think that you can say regional dialects reflect a problem for national tests. There are already national tests (the SAT, ACT, AP, GRE, etc., etc., etc.) — are you going to tell me that a student from Boston doesn’t know what a Drinking Fountain is? Or a Milkshake? Just because he’s called it a Frappe his whole life? What are the odds, do you think, that this would affect performance?

    Standardized tests are designed quite well to minimize the influence of regional language variation. The reason national standards are important is because after NCLB, the reaction of the states to meet progress wasn’t to further education and to bring their students up to “proficient;” instead, they deflated what it meant to be “proficient” so that students who could never compete with, say, Massachusetts students intellectually would receive a similar rating on their testing.

    This is a problem; and while the Constitution doesn’t endow the Federal government with the power to oversee Education, the DoE has existed for some time and lest we forget it was actually George W. Bush who expanded the powers of the DoE under NCLB — so to paint this as yet another liberal expansion of big government, as the media are inclined to do, and as is sort of reflected in your comment re: the Federalist nature of gov’t.

    As the entire nation (with the exception of a few states) struggles to keep up with the global community, we need to begin to adopt national policies that will keep us competitive. The state still gets to decide whether and how to implement these standards (although, as was mentioned in the article, the RTT incentive during a time of economic hardship might actually be construed as coercive), and the state will still maintain its control of the education system. What this law does is provide a national assessment model, backed by research and years of effort, that doesn’t exist currently. The question of how that will affect Massachusetts, as Dr. Glenn rightly points out, needn’t be discussed — the Ed. Reform act encourages states to change up to 20% of the National Standards, an amount which still keeps schools honest but at the same time lets them still set their curricula. We need to start taking a look at the American education system holistically instead of the typical piecewise approach (i.e., Boston Public Schools is unsuccessful, but Match school in Boston is successful… how do we replicate that success throughout BPS?) — these are the wrong questions. We should be talking about how to replicate successes nationwide, and there is certainly not enough central amdinistration to do that

  • Anonymous on 07.22.2010 at 12:13 pm

    re: language and grammar

    As well as cultural divides, we have great cultural uniting forces in television, movies and print media.

    Television and movies already define the national standards of language and grammar. The standards are already in place. A sufficiently educated person already makes the connection between water fountain and drinking fountain, while calling it bubbla falls short of the national standards of communication – a standard already enforced in the corporate and retail workplace. MEASURING AND DEFINING a pre-existing reality to a standard does not impose any new judgements, it just allow educators to measure the judgements already being made. The decisions about continuing anti-scientific education along themes like creationinsm will still be made at the local level, just measured against national standards.

  • Anonymous on 12.06.2010 at 4:56 pm


    Under the national standards children won’t be taught to formally add or subtact until FOURTH grade… Under this system it will be impossible to teach kid’s calculus in high school

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