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Nationalizing education standards

Today, a coalition of governors and state school superintendents proposed a new set of learning standards that would apply to schoolchildren nationwide. The idea is to eliminate the patchwork of state standards for English and Math. Is it a good idea?

The standards are available for public comment until April 2nd. Read them here. Here's an example from the New York Times:

In English, for instance, they say that fifth graders should be able to explain major differences between drama and prose stories, and refer to elements of drama like casts of characters, dialogue, and stage directions when writing or speaking about specific works of dramatic literature, among other skills.

In seventh grade math, as another example, instructional time should focus on developing students' understanding of proportional relationships, of operations with rational numbers and solving linear equations, of two- and three-dimensional space and figures using distance, angle, similarity, and congruence...

The standards aren't dramatically different than what you'd find in most states. It's just that they are laid out concisely and vertically, meaning each grade level builds upon the previous grade level. Here's the main problem with the way the system works now:

Since the late 1980s, many educators and policymakers have considered the current system of state standards as a weak link in American education. Because the standards vary so widely, standardized tests keyed to them are not comparable from state to state, nor to national tests. As a result, for example, 87 percent of Tennessee students achieved scores rated as proficient or above in math on state tests in 2005, while only 21 percent scored in the proficient range on the federal math test.

Almost all states seem on board with this. Only two have decided not to participate -- Texas and Alaska. The state superintendent of Texas says: "Texas has chosen to preserve its sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools."

As always, there are several monetary aspects to the story. President Obama has said he wants to tie federal education dollars to reading and math standards, but he says states would not have to use these standards to get their funding.

The standards will most likely prompt a ton of new business for textbook publishers and standardized test companies. The government has already opened bidding for $350 million worth of work on new tests that would reflect the national standards. We'll be looking more at the business end of this tonight on Marketplace.

This a big deal. There are often drawbacks to standardization -- think of the many criticisms of standardized testing itself. But in thinking about the education level of our current workforce vis-a-vis other countries, do you think national education standards are a step in the right direction or no?

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