Day 1: Strengthen the richest liberal arts standards in the nation

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The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.

That’s President Obama singling out Massachusetts as a model for the rest for the United States on March 9, 2009. He went on to say:

The solution to low test scores is not lower standards – it’s tougher, clearer standards. Standards like those in Massachusetts, where 8th graders are now tying for first – first – in the world in science.

The president was right in 2009, before his agenda on standards morphed into the usual “the feds know best” attitude. Academic standards and objective assessments for teachers and students are the major drivers of the overall improvement we’ve witnessed in Massachusetts’ district schools. They are also a major factor in why our charters do so well compared to charters in other states.

Last year, noted educator E.D. Hirsch lauded Massachusetts in The Washington Post:

Consider the eighth grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline.

He also wrote:

That is because Massachusetts decided…students (and teachers) should learn explicit, substantive things about history, science, and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.

In our increasingly diverse and multi-lingual society, it is imperative that children and citizens are educated for common purposes and success through a common body of knowledge in the core academic content areas—language, the humanities, mathematics, and the sciences. Wealthy families have, for generations, had access to this core knowledge through private and parochial schools, or by virtue of the affluent communities in which they live. It is incumbent on us as a society to provide the same access to this core knowledge to all students, not just the privileged.

We can do even better than we are now—becoming the best in the world is within our reach. If that is our goal—and it should be—the first thing we must do is retain state control over our education destiny. That means, not adopting the weaker proposed federal standards for a fistful of federal dollars. If we can steel ourselves from the siren song of federal dollars in this recession, then we can further strengthen what are the most rigorous state curriculum frameworks in the nation and provide an authentic liberal arts education to all students.

Here are just two of many ways we could strengthen the state’s curriculum frameworks:

    – Include more substantive details in the English language arts, especially in the earliest grades
    – Provide standards for end-of-course tests in all major subject areas, including foreign languages at the high school level. The worrisome inability of many Massachusetts students to speak, read, and write a foreign language at a level of skill and cultural knowledge that would command respect from an educated speaker, reader, and writer of that language deserves far more attention than it has received.

We will also need to make a special effort to strengthen our performance in math and science, as international tests have pointed out that we are lagging in the number of “advanced” students in these subjects. This will require changes to the math standards (see Day 7) and to how we recruit and retain high-quality teachers (Day 6).

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog.