, Muskogee, OK


April 4, 2010

No strong standards cause children to fail

Thousands of athletes put in millions of hours of effort to make it to the Winter Olympics last month. Yet, despite the hard work of so many, when the event's closing ceremony drew to an end, only a handful of competitors left Vancouver victoriously.

Across the world, another competition is upon us. The contest is academics, not athletics, and the stakes are not for medals but over which nations will lead the world's economy. And like the Olympics, there will be winners and losers.

Our nation's schools need to be up for this challenge and must also be ready to draw a clear line between achievement and failure.

Over the last three decades, the United States has poured significant resources into public education with all too limited results, despite the efforts of talented educators across the country. We've got to insist on a better return on this investment. Unfortunately, our education system lacks the prerequisite of improvement - a consistent set of rules that yield accountability.

How can there be responsibility and accountability when each state sets its own definition of education success and its own rules? In this scenario, success is too often open to interpretation, constantly modified for political expediency, and tailored to meet each jurisdiction's agenda. This is the equivalent of letting pole vaulters determine how high or low their bars are set. Medals for self-determined goals are meaningless in any true competition.

Wildly varying academic standards in core areas like English and Math, can do harm beyond obscuring real academic deficiency. When standards are set too low they can have the effect of limiting learning for failing to challenge adequately. In other cases, standards have become so numerous that teachers feel there isn't enough classroom time to cover each area with sufficient depth to assure student mastery. This phenomenon has been referred to as the "inch deep and mile wide" failing of state standards. As a result, comparison or competition among states and the world is impossible.

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