MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

April 4, 2010

No strong standards cause children to fail

By Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. and Jack Markell

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.

We currently have a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that is given to a sample of students in every state. Its findings are illuminating. While many states' data shows that a large portion of students meet their state standards, NAEP reveals that only a small fraction are proficient, while other states show the opposite.

Fortunately, this disconnect is about to end.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are leading an effort called the "Common Core Standards Initiative," to develop clear, rigorous standards for what should be learned in every public school in every state in the Union. This initiative combines the efforts of educators and states to tackle the difficult task of enacting fewer, clearer, higher standards in a coherent document that can actually be used to gauge success and guarantee that students graduate job- and college-ready.

Before becoming Governors, we both spent most of our careers in the private sector where global competition is a daily fact of life. We have studied the educational programs of countries around the globe that are making real progress and discovered each of their efforts share similar ingredients.

Each utilizes consistent and clear standards to measure the success of local efforts, but retains critical flexibility on how those standards are met. The same should be true for the Common Core Standards effort underway here. Local districts need the flexibility to innovate and educate the best way they see fit, but they also need to know the rules and how their results will be measured - how high the bar is.

In America, states introduce the concept of negative numbers in different grades. For example, South Dakota introduces negative numbers in grade 4, Arizona introduces this in grade 5, Indiana and Massachusetts introduce the concept in grade 6 and Minnesota introduces it in grade 7. The Common Core Standards locate negative numbers in grade 6, which is consistent with countries that score highly on the TIMSS international math test.

Almost inevitably there will be an attempt to weaken these standards. This must be resisted. There will be those who assert that American students can't meet the standards in place in other countries. This is an insult to our children.

The current effort around Common Core Standards resembles the United States effort in the 1950's and 1960's to bolster education in math and science following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. It was one of America's great moments in reforming math and science education. Back then, we recognized the challenges, admitted to the growing competition we faced and responded. Today, we must do the same.

We must acknowledge that other nations challenge our economic and educational superiority and are doing everything they can to make sure their children are more prepared than ours to succeed in the competition for great jobs.

These common core standards represent a significant achievement in helping to assure that all students, regardless of income, zip code or skin color receive a challenging, high quality education.

These also represent a singular opportunity: A dramatic transformation in how we prepare and educate the next generation will pay dividends in the ensuing decades. The creation of these standards puts the rest of the world on notice that America knows the competition is on and is playing to win.

Daniels is the governor of Indiana, and Markell the governor of Delaware.