Should the United States adopt a set of national education standards? What would they require? Who would set them? Most importantly, are standards the best method to effectively educate all students? These questions and others were addressed at a March 2 panel discussion hosted by the Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) with six Einstein Fellows. Kent Hughes, the Director of PAGE and moderator of the event, introduced the panelists and began by praising the breadth of their collective experience.
Arundhati Jayarao, a middle and high school chemistry and physics teacher from Virginia and fellow in the Office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was first to speak. Jayarao started off by asserting that "there should be no zip code attached to the education a student receives." While acknowledging that national standards can help ensure exposure and consistency in curricula, Jayarao emphasized the importance of standards primarily in elementary education. Jayaroa explained that by harnessing a child's natural curiosity early, students would continue to feel enthused about learning as they age. While Jayarao suggested that standards could help ameliorate an ever-widening achievement gap, she also expressed concern that the highest achieving students may not be sufficiently challenged by standardized education.
Echoing the potential of properly implemented national standards was Indiana high school biology and environmental science teacher, Kirk Janowiak. Janowiak, who is a fellow at the Department of Energy, also cautioned that national standards could limit curriculum innovation. Given that achievement comes more from accurate assessments than from standardized curricula, Janowiak argued that system-wide assessments tied with standards would provide better results. However, Janowiak explained that national standards still would not reach every student, and thus emphasized the importance of individual relationships among all the relevant actors and greater access to educational opportunities.
Ben Van Dusen, a high school physics teacher from Oregon then suggested that national standards would be extremely helpful for more accurate state-to-state comparison. While noting that standards would improve assessment and comparison efforts, Van Dusen, who is completing his fellowship at the National Science Foundation (NSF), also proposed that standards would benefit students by setting a core curriculum. Though Van Dusen questioned the feasibility of bringing an effective agenda, such as the International Baccalaureate program, to scale on a national level, he recommended considering it as a possible model for educational standards.
Highlighting a more technical and skills-based perspective, John Moore, a high school environmental science teacher from New Jersey, emphasized the need to always keep in mind the main purpose of educational advancement, which is to prepare our students for the workforce. Moore, also a fellow at NSF, argued that any standards should be tied to developing a skilled workforce. He argued that educators should focus on system-wide and results-driven reforms while always keeping in mind this need to adequately prepare our students for our increasingly globalized and competitive economy.
Mark Greenman, a high school physics teacher from Massachusetts and NSF fellow, thought that that the United States should begin to study and consider other educational models and standards in earnest. Coming from a district with recently implemented academic standards, Greenman thought the remarkable improvement in students' scores he had witnessed could be attributed to the framework the new standards offered. Instead of the previously scattered curriculum, Greenman's school district had a unified plan, which benefitted the students immensely. Greenman argued that standards are necessary because of the number of students who are achieving at below basic levels who could be helped by widely implemented standards.
Sarah Yue, a high school chemistry teacher from California and NSF fellow, emphasized the advantages of uniformed curriculum pacing. Noting high student mobility, Yue reasoned that by using uniformed pacing, the difficulty of transitioning between schools could be alleviated. However, she also explained that by setting a uniform pace, time for valuable geographically focused issues, such as geo-science research in California schools on earthquakes, might be lost. Yue acknowledged the limits to implementing national standards and argued that they should be used to set a floor for student achievement, but not a ceiling.
While the issue of national education standards continues to be a controversial issue, the six Einstein Fellows offered practical applications and critiques of standards. Though the panelists expressed differing opinions, they all agreed that standards would not be a panacea, but could serve as a valuable baseline for systemic educational improvement.
By Shelley Harriman
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy