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Are "common standards" good for American education?


Chester E. Finn Jr.

For five good reasons, conservatives should take seriously the potential of the newly released (in draft form) “common” education standards to strengthen U.S. education.

First, they’re good, solid — indeed very ambitious — academic standards for primary and secondary schooling, at least in the two essential subjects of English and math. Students who attained them would be better off — readier for college, readier to get good jobs, readier to compete in the global economy — than most are today. (An overwhelming majority of states, according to analyses by my own Fordham Institute and other organizations, currently rely on standards that range from mediocre to abysmal.)

Second, they respect basic skills, mathematical computation, the conventions of the English language, good literature, and America’s founding documents. That’s why they’ve been endorsed by the likes of E. D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation, and Lynne Munson of Common Core.

Third, they emerged not from the federal government but from a voluntary coming together of (most) states, and the states’ decision whether or not to adopt them will remain voluntary. Each state will determine whether the new standards represent an improvement over what it’s now using.

Fourth, they do not represent a national curriculum — though to gain traction they’ll need to be joined by solid curricula, effective instruction, and quality testing.

Fifth, one little-noted benefit of properly implemented common standards is a better-functioning education marketplace, in which parents will be able to make choices about schools on the basis of more accurate information about how school A’s performance compares with that of school B — not just within communities and states but also when considering a move from state to state. Entrepreneurial school operators (such as KIPP and Edison) will also be better able to gauge and manage school performance in locations across the land.

Of course there are risks, too, four of which bear mentioning:

First, the standards are currently in draft form and subject to comment and revision. One hopes they’ll get even better (and in several key ways they would bear improving), but they could get worse.