By Lindsay Kastner - San Antonio Express-News
June 21, 2009
Texas has always been known for its independent streak.
Now the state is one of four that is sitting out an effort to create voluntary national standards for what students are expected to learn in school.
“I think people understand that Texas is just being Texas,” said Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank that supports national standards.
Forty-six states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are on board with the project, which is spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a backer. Last week, he sweetened his support with $350 million in federal stimulus money to be used for the creation of national tests.
Partners in the project, including the College Board, ACT and Achieve Inc., hope a set of national standards will make U.S. students more competitive in a global marketplace, where studies show U.S. students lag behind many other developed nations. Plus, the current system, with its 50-state hodgepodge of standards, means students in Massachusetts — known for its rigor — have different expectations than students in, say, Mississippi. A set of common standards could help colleges, teachers and textbook publishers, supporters say.
Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said he'll look at the finished standards but that he's not interested in taking part in the discussion.
“I will absolutely look at them and make sure that Texas' standards are always higher,” Scott said.
The idea that students from Maine to Hawaii should leave school with the same set of skills is not new, but it hasn't always been so popular. Education policy has long been the purview of the states.
It will remain that way under this new project, which will create a “common core” of math and reading standards that states can adopt.
“We really don't want the federal government setting standards,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Texas just updated its standards and textbooks and doesn't need to start over, Scott said. Doing so could cost the state “in the neighborhood of $2 (billion) to $3 billion dollars,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
States spend billions in taxpayer dollars to periodically develop new curricula and tests, money that could be saved with a joint effort, supporters say.
“It's economically prudent,” said Dane Linn, director of the education division at the National Governors Association.
From an academic perspective, the hope is that national standards would raise the bar for everyone.
The No Child Left Behind act requires states to test students annually and to take steps to turn around schools and districts that aren't up to par. But states create their own tests, based on their own standards.
“Most states have set the bar way too low,” said Petrilli of the Fordham Institute. “There's one theory that that is because of political pressure.”
High standards mean a high risk of failure, and few states are willing to take that risk. Putting every state on the same page “can kind of provide some political cover,” Petrilli said.
But critics say the project is no easy fix, and they question whether Texas would benefit from the partnership.
“If you come up with common assessments, it doesn't really mean you have an economy of scale; it means you have an enormous coordination problem,” said Richard Middleton, superintendent of North East Independent School District.
“I don't think we're ready to have a mandated curriculum and mandated assessments across all 50 states,” said Middleton, who noted that states have divergent views on everything from how to test special education students to how to teach English language learners.
“This nation is a federal system. It is a group of unique states coming together,” Middleton said. “Education should be ... taught in a way that best fits that community.”
Former Education Secretary and native Texan Margaret Spellings called the effort a “little bit of a Trojan horse.”
Though she has been a critic of Texas' standards, Spelling said the state is making progress — on its own.
“Texas is moving forward on higher standards right now; you don't need to move forward on some multistate process to tell you what to do,” she said. “I worry that this is a lot of process and a lot of changing of the subject.”
John Folks, superintendent of Northside ISD, disagreed.
“Ten years ago, I would have said, ‘I don't know, probably not,'” Folks said of the common standards. “But our kids are competing globally.”
Folks and Middleton are often in lock step on policy issues, but Folks said he could see little reason not to take part in the development of national standards for reading and math. “And I would go so far as to say we should consider having core standards in technology.”
Folks stressed that standards are simply what students are expected to learn.
“How you instruct kids is another thing,” which could still vary from place to place, he said.
In addition to Texas, the three other states yet to get on board with the project are Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina. But at least one of those has not ruled out the idea. Scott Holste, a spokesman for the Missouri governor's office, said the state is holding off at least until its new commissioner of education is named. Commissioner Kent King died in January.
“We're not closed off to signing on to the standards in the future here,” Holste said.