While most of us imagine that the federal government is not necessarily in a position to dictate what states do in their schools, the fact is the federal government can very much impose its will on state and local governments. The impetus is, naturally, monetary. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is a case in point. States not adhering to the mandates of NCLB risk losing their federal Title I funds. As a result, states have endeavored to implement NCLB mandates, which were unparalleled in scope in terms of federal imposition into state educational practices.
The Obama Administration is maintaining a primary premise of NCLB—that of closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students, while increasing overall standards of performance for all students. In support of this goal, the Administration has voiced strong support for the Common Core State Standards, a consistent set of curriculum standards in mathematics and English language arts, by encouraging states to adopt the standards. The Administration through award of Race-to-the Top funds also supports the work of the 31-member state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is working to develop student assessments, aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
While there may be a question as to whether or not the federal government has the authority to mandate adoption of what is tantamount to national standards (and subsequently adoption of common assessments for the those standards), to date, 43 states have adopted the standards on their own. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) created the standards. Their goal was to create a set of standards that described what children needed to know and be able to do, regardless of where in the nation they lived. The standards are meant to be robust and to provide all students with the knowledge and skills needed to prepare them for college or the workforce. The standards are consistent with President Obama’s advocacy for equality as a foundation of his education agenda. He has stated on numerous occasions that he wants results, and to see expectations rise so that the United States is on equal footing in a competitive global economy.
The level of inconsistency prior to development of the Common Core State Standards was a hurdle many students needed to navigate. Students moving from state-to-state potentially faced jarring inconsistencies between states with respect to expected performance to reach proficiency, and in some instances differences in content being tested. Common Core State Standards proponents claimed differences in state standards and what it meant to be proficient made it impossible to determine the extent to which national achievement goals were being accomplished.
Even so, the national standards movement has it critics. For some, having nationwide standards focused on mathematics and language arts places the broad variety of learning experiences and critical thinking so valuable in high quality education in jeopardy. Others are concerned that the standards are not rigorous enough, and are actually weaker than state standards that were in place. This was particularly the case in New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts. Still others are concerned that local autonomy will once again be taken away as states are forced to adopt standards favored by the federal government.
While states like Massachusetts may be venerated for their stringent policies and implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, that level of stringency did not necessarily carry over to other states. In fact, many states were not nearly as rigorous in assessment a procedure, preferring to do only what was required to ensure that they received federal education funds, and nothing more. And to date, no federal requirement to adopt the standards has been imposed, although adoption of the standards was required by states competing for Race-to-the Top funds.
A number of states have yet to adopt the standards—which brings us to the subject of sanctions. There are questions about whether sanction models such as that native to NCLB really work. With so much pressure mounted toward schools, administrators, teachers, and students, it is important to ascertain whether sanctions are the best way to persuade schools to engage specific types of educational reforms. After examining the sanctions issue from various sides, it is apparent that the current penalty model does not convincingly provide a clear route to improved overall performance of schools systems throughout the country. In fact, if there were even a reasonable correlation between improved school performance and imposed sanctions, there would be a strong case for continuing with that system and trying to improve it. However data are too ambiguous to create confidence in the sanctions model as an impetus for change.
In short, mandatory sanctions do not allow enough flexibility to achieve an overall improvement in education. If sanctions were actually functioning as expected, many substandard schools would be moving out of their troubled status--however the Center for Education Policy finds that this has not occurred. Further, testing can lend itself to a focus on a narrow spectrum of knowledge items that can be easily assessed. These tests may not address the crucial analyzing and reasoning skills that are critical in the real world or at the college level. This may be the preferred route for states more interested in avoiding sanctions than challenging students with rigorous standards-based content.
National standards negate both of these failures. Discrepancies in content and levels of proficiency in different parts of the country would be minimized if not eradicated by having a set of common standards that are assessed across the nation, Problems associated with students’ movement from one location to another would be resolved, and the high-pressure testing atmosphere that currently exists under NCLB would be alleviated. Consequently, the punitive sanctioning suggested by NCLB becomes obsolete.
Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.