New America Media, News Analysis, Carolyn Goossen,
While health care reform and recession economics have dominated the headlines on domestic policy issues, education finally has come into the spotlight, as the president and state officials have focused on creating a uniform set of education standards that would be applied to public school students throughout the country.
Pres. Barack Obama announced recently his plan to require states to implement new standards in order to be eligible for federal Title 1 funding, which is targeted to schools with poor students. And Wednesday, a commission of educators convened by 48 states released its proposed standards for K-12 students in math and English.
But not everyone agrees that creating a set of national standards in math and English proficiency is the best—or only—way to raise achievement for kindergarteners through 12th graders. After all, the No Child Left Behind Act set achievement levels that many states rebelled against as unfunded mandates and unrealistic goals for many low-achieving students.
Some experts are concerned, too, that the very low-income students who are the intended beneficiaries of such an approach would instead be harmed.
“I think this is a wonderful thing to aspire to for all students, but until we provide the resources to these students, it will continue to punish them,” said Patricia Gandara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s not an anti-standards thing. But we have to weigh who’s paying the costs when we up the standards and up the requirements and don’t provide the commensurate support and the kids don’t get a diploma. Who pays that cost?”
Many schools depend on Title 1 funds to help their neediest students. This year those funds totaled $14.5 billion. Under Obama’s proposal, states would have to implement so-called college and career ready standards by 2014. States would have the option of developing their own standards.
Tying Title 1 money to educational standards is not a new idea, said Mike Cohen, president of the non-profit education reform group Achieve. Achieve has been involved in developing common educational standards in partnership with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers.
“Since 1994, the federal government has required states to adopt standards to get Title 1 money,” Cohen said. “What is new is that the standards have to be more rigorous so that students are actually prepared for something after high school.”
Cohen said that the purpose of “college and career ready” standards is to provide academic skills in math and English that students will need in order to get well-paying jobs with advancement potential and that require some advanced training.
“The academic skills necessary to get into those kinds of good jobs, whether they require an apprenticeship, training, or a two-year degree … are the same skills needed to get into college level work,” said Cohen.
Creating higher educational standards for U.S. schools has always been linked to a desire to be more competitive internationally, said Ling Chi Wang, UC Berkeley emeritus professor.
In his State of the Union speech, for example, Obama tied the idea of stronger standards to the need to make American schools competitive with the rest of the world, he said.
“More than half of the math PhDs each year [in the United States] are foreign students,” Wang said. “When you go to these countries and you look at their elementary and high school curriculum, they do their algebra and geometry a lot earlier than we do. We do it in high school; they do it in junior high. Then they take analytical geometry and calculus in high school.”
But the focus on standards misses some basic challenges that schools must address, says Gandara. “We keep fiddling around the edges instead of the central problem: that too many low-income students of color do not have access to what they need. You can raise the standards as much as you want, but if you aren’t providing the resources to kids to meet those standards, it won’t make any difference.”
Na’ilah Suad Nasir, a UC Berkeley professor who researches how culture and race influence African-American student achievement, is similarly wary of a discussion of standards without an accompanying discussion of how to help children meet those standards.
“In general, the push for standards has not worked really well. No Child Left Behind is organized around this idea: that if you put a set of standards in place, that schools will rise to that challenge,” she said. “One of the problematic assumptions here is that schools and teachers know what to do, but the right incentive hasn’t been found.”
Suad Nasir notes that states adjusted their testing standards in order to meet No Child Left Behind achievement levels in large measure because “schools didn’t have the resources to help kids meet those standards.”
Over the next few months, Obama and Congress will be revising No Child Left Behind to reflect new education policies, and Obama’s proposal for college and career standards would be one major part of the new plan.
Gandara and Suad Nasir are hopeful that his plan will include a real discussion about how to ensure that historically marginalized students, including low-income Latino and African-American children, can be given the opportunity to better meet these standards.
“My hope is that you create high standards and then you support people in reaching those standards, which means an influx of resources into those schools, and a recognition that urban schools [with low-income students] are bearing more burden financially,” said Suad Nasir. “They are less well funded, and they have more on their plate to do. There would have to be some recognition of that and some righting of that imbalance.”