By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
AUSTIN – Texas has decided to steer clear of a national effort – involving 46 states – to develop uniform standards for English and math instruction in public schools.
State Education Commissioner Robert Scott, with the backing of Gov. Rick Perry, has turned down an invitation to work with the other states in drafting "common core" standards for English and math classes, spelling out what students at all grade levels should be taught in those subjects.
Although the standards will be voluntary, the U.S. education secretary has suggested that some federal money might be attached to the them.
But Texas officials are wary of getting involved, largely because of the cost to the state of implementing new standards. Three other states – Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina – also have declined to participate in the nationwide push, being coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"Texas historically has never been supportive of the idea of national standards for our schools," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the commissioner and the Texas Education Agency. "We believe most Texans want to see our standards developed in Texas."
State Board of Education member Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the panel, noted that the education board now has responsibility to approve curriculum standards and there is no reason to surrender that authority to a national panel.
"It's a very bad idea," said McLeroy, R-College Station. "It's not up to the federal government or national groups to set standards for our schools. In Texas, we have elected officials to determine those standards, and if people disagree with their decisions, they can vote against them."
Texas could be forgoing federal aid by not taking part in the effort.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that his agency will offer as much as $350 million in federal assistance to help develop achievement tests that measure the proficiency of students in math and reading under the new requirements.
He said the new standards would replace the current hodgepodge of benchmarks in states, which makes it difficult to compare student performance from state to state. For example, some students passing in one state probably would get failing marks in another state because of different passing standards in each.
Duncan also indicated that tests used in some states are inadequate and should be replaced by more rigorous exams. He didn't identify any specific states.
Backers of the national standards initiative contend that it would hold all states and schools equally accountable and build on current efforts to improve the college and career readiness of students.
They also say the standards would be drafted with an eye toward making U.S. students more competitive with their counterparts in other countries.
"To maintain America's competitive edge, we need all of our students to be prepared and ready to compete with students from around the world," said Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, vice chairman of the National Governors Association.
A memorandum of agreement being signed by the governors and education chiefs in the 46 states says that the goal is to have the national standards finished as early as December.
McLeroy said that over the last two years, the state board adopted curriculum standards for both math and English, and those requirements are gradually being incorporated into state achievement tests and textbooks that will be purchased by school districts.
"I don't want to see all that work in Texas negated," he said. "Besides that, we don't know what the national standards will be. Why would you sign on to something you have so little knowledge of?"
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry, said Texas' participation in the national effort was unnecessary because the state has solid curriculum requirements in place.
"We already have excellent career and college-ready standards incorporated into all foundation areas," Castle said. "We are advanced [in adopting standards] compared to many other states."
Ratcliffe said agency officials have estimated that replacing the state's English and math curriculum standards could cost as much as $3 billion, including up to $2 billion to purchase new textbooks that reflect the new requirements.
Math textbooks in Texas were recently replaced, and the State Board of Education is scheduled to adopt new English textbooks this fall.
"It's a huge financial concern for us," she said. "If we suddenly switch gears and take on new standards, we could have to adopt new textbooks and revise the TAKS test to make sure it tests what we're teaching."
Ratcliffe said the state could make adjustments if it turns out that the national standards are more rigorous than what is now in place in Texas.
The new benchmarks are supposed to be research-based, be aligned with college and work expectations, and promote the teaching of rigorous skills and content in both subjects.
BACKGROUND: NATIONAL EDUCATION STANDARDS
Forty-six states – all but Texas, Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina – have agreed to create common academic standards in math and English language arts for grades K-12. A look at the agreement and the drive toward what are being called "common core standards."
GOAL: The states have committed to coming up with standards that will be "aligned with college and work expectations, include rigorous content and skills, and be internationally benchmarked."
WHAT THEN? The second phase calls for common achievement tests that are in line with the core standards. The standards could be finished this year and implemented in participating states within three years.
WHY DO IT? Advocates cite several benefits of national standards. Among them: commonly understood expectations for students; easier comparison between students across America and around the world; and more confidence that graduating seniors are ready for college work.
WHY NOT? Texas officials, in declining involvement, cite the cost of implementing new standards and a distaste for ceding control of state standards.
A FEDERAL ROLE? Participation is voluntary for states, and the effort is being pitched as state-led. However, the agreement signed by the states notes that the federal government can provide financial incentives. The government also may, at a later time, adjust federal education laws with lessons learned through the process, according to the document.
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research