Florida has joined a smart national movement in education. It is one of 46 states that have just agreed to develop uniform national standards outlining what students should learn in kindergarten through high school. Setting the same high bar across America should eventually mean that a high school diploma certifies a graduate of a public high school anywhere in the land to be ready for college or the workforce. With too many graduates requiring remedial work and too many states dragging their feet to demand better, this is a logical step.
The broad agreement is a refreshing change from the past parochialism of public education, a land of Lake Wobegon where all schools and students were above average. The decision by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers recognizes that it's a fool's game to keep pretending. American students are entering an ever more competitive world, and they need to be better prepared. The competition for jobs is not just with students from California or Texas but with those from China and Japan as well.
This is not a top-down federal mandate. The states will agree to set common standards, and then they individually will opt in to the plan. The first concrete step occurs next month, with proposed math and reading standards for high school graduates. By year's end, work on grade-by-grade standards is to be complete.
The coalition would not dictate how to meet the standards. It simply would set the general standards and leave it to individual states and school districts to determine how to teach the students so they are prepared to meet those requirements. In essence, the plan is simple: Set tough, internationally competitive standards. Leave it to states to decide how to meet them, but know that if the schools and students don't measure up, there is no hiding.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauds the idea, saying that the current uneven system is effectively "lying to children and their parents, because states have dumbed down their standards." This week, Duncan announced that the federal government is willing to spend up to $350 million to help states develop assessment tests that are rigorous by international standards.
Uniformity also would correct the problems with the existing two-tiered system, where students might pass a state reading test but do poorly on a national benchmark. Going forward, the national standard would be the state standard.
There are also cost savings and economies of scale. There is no reason that Florida and other states, for example, couldn't work on common instructional and testing materials. Standardized testing is expensive. But without some form of it, determining if students are meeting the benchmarks will be difficult. There need not be added costs. Florida's FCAT could be calibrated to match the national standards so that a student passing the FCAT is not just meeting Florida's standards, but America's.
It is important that some of the inevitable compromises not dilute the standards. If too few students are passing nationally, the answer is to fix the schools, not lower the benchmarks. Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith sees great promise in national standards agreed on by the states. But he wants to make sure they are set high. He believes that states with the highest, not average, standards, need to be the national model and says the plan "has huge potential for the country, for Florida." It's important work, and clearly establishing the standards for high school diplomas throughout the country should increase their value and better prepare the next generation.