Don't give up pole position on standards!

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There is little to add to today’s Globe editorial on academic standards other than to applaud the detail and effort that went into hearing out all sides and making the right, nuanced judgment. “Don’t let national ed reform push down standards in Mass.” is a strong piece:

MASSACHUSETTS JUMPED wholeheartedly into the fight to raise academic standards when other states were content to maintain a low profile and low expectations. Now, the Obama administration and the National Governors’ Association are trying to prod those other states into action by setting national standards for achievement in English and math. If the federal government starts awarding grants for adopting those standards, Massachusetts could stand to gain — but not if it is required to lower its own curriculum standards in the process.

State officials should dedicate themselves to ensuring that the still-evolving national standards are high enough to meet Massachusetts’ level. If not, the state should be prepared to go it alone.
Massachusetts can be proud of its decade-long head start on raising requirements, crafting curricula, and testing content. The gains came at great expense in time, commitment, and taxpayer dollars. And the investment, for the most part, has paid off. Massachusetts students rank at or near the top of national and even international tests.

Such progress could be disrupted by a shift to national standards even if they purportedly match the level of those already in place. Significant adjustments in topics to be covered, for instance, could require time-consuming investments in rewriting courses and retraining teachers. To be sure, Massachusetts school districts here have some important lessons to learn from other states, especially about bringing low-income and special needs students up to speed. But the problem is with the implementation ofstate standards, not the standards themselves.

I am really pleased that Mitch Chester and Paul Reville are hanging tough on this issue, though the Commish has no reason to lash out and suggest anyone (Shhh, I think he means us) is going “isolationist.”

But even the toughest critics are playing a constructive role. The conservative Pioneer Institute, for example, has pored over proposals and highlighted where they fall short. Early drafts of the national standards, note Pioneer researchers, taught too few mathematical topics, including equations and formulas, in the elementary grades. A Pioneer analysis of the latest draft offers a strong case for adding the necessary math skills needed to prepare students for Algebra in 9th grade. The Pioneer study also takes issue with the national standards writers for ignoring dictionary and explicit vocabulary skills, which could prove “a recipe for reading failure at the high school level.’’

I am hoping the Globe is right in noting that

The Obama administration isn’t going to force states to adopt the new standards.

which I would translate as saying that the Obama administration won’t continue to talk up the use of Title I funds. (Frankly, even if they do, I don’t believe for a second that Congress will allow the Prez to do that.)

But it is implying that uncooperative states could hurt their chances for federal grants. There ought to be a way that Massachusetts can qualify for such funds without making unnecessary curriculum changes. The final standards aren’t due for a few months. Massachusetts should continue to provide help. But if the final product is disappointing, there is no course but to walk away.

The best of all outcomes is, again, to use the national standards as a floor, or simply to offer financial incentives for states to improve on recognized national and international assessment vehicles. Said it once, twice, 30 times, I know, but it is the right way to promote continued experimentation.

And look in the coming weeks for the Pioneer analysis the Globe mentioned!