One country, one set of standards

The federal government must demand more from students, because the states don’t

This is the second in a three-part series on education reform in America.

The United States of America is odd. Rather than having one central government that runs the country, we have several sets of governments which all exert influence on us. Each state, while united under the Constitution and ruled by the federal government, has its own government that passes laws, its own courts to hold trials, and its own department of education to issue standards. However, in matters of national importance, the federal government holds the power. No state can declare war or sign a treaty, for example. Why, then, does the federal government not hold the power to set standards for public education, one of the most important aspects of success for America and its citizens?

Winning the political battle to put national standards into place is without a doubt a great challenge. National standards are often opposed by both Democrats and Republicans, as Democrats dislike enforcing a national standard and Republicans dislike giving more power to the federal government. Yet there should be no question in anyone’s mind that we need education reform.

A vivid example of this need can be found in Mississippi. Going by the standards that Mississippi set for itself, an astounding 89 percent of fourth graders were “proficient” in reading, making the best educated fourth graders in the entire country. However, they did not do so well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test administered to random students in every state. In fact, saying the Mississippi fourth graders did not fare well is an understatement. In 1997, only 19 percent of Mississippi’s fourth graders were proficient or better — the state was last in the country.

Therefore, there exist two major problems with state-determined standards. The first is their very nature — all American citizens should be learning the same thing and be held to the same standards. The disconnects that exist between states’ own standards are astonishing and are harming students nationwide. The second issue is the quality of the standards created by individual states. In order to meet federal mandates, obtain certain funds, and look good, states are lowering the bar in public education. And that is unacceptable.

This is also a societal problem. Today’s society celebrates mediocrity over excellence. This is in no way intentional, but the examples are numerous. For example, sometimes schools distribute awards and scholarships so that “everyone is included” and “no one’s feelings are hurt.” Countless taxpayer dollars go towards programs to boost performance in low-achieving schools, as should happen, but gifted students are nearly completely neglected. Gifted students and those with learning disabilities both have special needs. It has been shown that many gifted students, if their needs are not met, will flunk out of school or get into trouble.

There are still more examples. Teachers issue itemized “study guides,” essentially outlining the entire test for students. They allow retake after retake, with 10 point bonuses at the end.

Even with the standards so embarrassingly low, even when high school students in Massachusetts are being asked on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to read a graph and subtract numbers while Chinese students are asked to prove perpendicularity or find the angle between planes, students in America are still failing state exams. And what happens when students fail? The states, rather than fixing the problem, lower the standards yet again. This way, the state looks good to the federal government, high school students go happily on their way, and the United States, unable to keep up with the rest of the world, falls behind as China surges ahead.

We not only need national standards, we need high national standards. In fact, we need to expect more out of our students than any other country does. We need to switch to a full year school schedule, extend the number of hours in the day, fire incompetent teachers, reward excellent students and teachers, spend more time on math and science, and impose national standards that raise the bar. Every high school student in the country should leave high school with an understanding of advanced math, an understanding of physics, biology, and chemistry, and the ability to think critically and solve problems. They should have an understanding of American history and government, and the ability to read and write well.

Yes, it is a lofty goal, but what’s the goal now? Each high school establishes its own “mission statement,” usually saying something about producing “responsible citizens” and providing a “safe-learning environment” where the needs of all students are met. But these all go without saying. Of course a high school is going to be safe and meet the needs of its students. Where in the mission statement is the part about producing students who are globally competitive, who have a deep understanding of subject material and who are smart? Who are ready to go out and not just live in the world, but contribute to it, to change it to make it a better place? High schools can produce all the responsible students they want, but if they are unable to do anything, when are they even going to get a chance to be responsible?

Without a doubt, national standards are the only way in which the United States can continue to remain a leader in the international community. It is time for both parties to face the facts. The 50 states are all teaching 50 different things in 50 different ways with 50 different varieties of standards that are far too low. Our government needs to convene a panel consisting of educational scholars and developmental and educational psychologists and experiment with different curricula, different school models, and different methods of teaching. There will be mistakes, but out of these will come a solid system of public education that this country can be proud of.

In fact, out of this will come what will be the greatest public education system in the world. The panel needs to make a decision and the politicians need to follow through. It’s time to expect our students to succeed at more than the bare minimum. American students are capable of incredible things. But with standards as they are, splintered among 50 states and lower than those of some other nations, America is doing its citizens a disservice.

We are one country, and we need one set of high standards. Yes, students will be challenged, but they will rise to meet to that challenge.