State Autonomy Over Education Policy Dismissed as 'Patchwork,' 'Checkerboard'

Thursday's off-lead story by education reporter Sam Dillon sold readers on federal standards for education: "Panel Proposes Single Standard For All Schools - Vision For The Nation - Goals for Every Grade Could Change Texts and Training."

An online teaser headline read: "The new standards, which experts said could well be adopted by a majority of states, would replace the nation's checkerboard of locally written standards." The second sentence described education policy as "patchwork."

The paper's use of the words "patchwork" and "checkerboard" is more significant than it might first appear. If the Times wanted to be complimentary, it could have used flowery, flattering language like "mosaic," or simply stuck with prosaic accuracy and talked about state flexibility, autonomy, and independence in setting educational standards, instead of portraying education in the various states as a hopelessly muddled hodgepodge requiring federal government guidance.

A panel of educators convened by the nation's governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards on Wednesday, laying out their vision for what all the nation's public school children should learn in math and English, year by year, from kindergarten to high school graduation.

The new proposals could transform American education, replacing the patchwork of standards ranging from mediocre to world-class that have been written by local educators in every state.

Under the proposed standards for English, for example, fifth graders would be expected to explain the differences between drama and prose, and to identify elements of drama like characters, dialogue and stage directions. Seventh graders would study, among other math concepts, proportional relationships, operations with rational numbers and solutions for linear equations.

The Times also buried the ideological edge of the issue, waiting until paragraph 25 of the 28-paragraph story to bring it up, and then only to blame conservatives for the failure of voluntary standards during the Bush and Clinton years.

Since the late 1980s, many educators and policy makers have considered the current system of state standards 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. Eighty-seven percent of Tennessee students scored at or above the proficiency level in math on state tests in 2005, for instance, while 21 percent did so on the federal math test.

Efforts to draft voluntary national standards during the first Bush and Clinton administrations foundered after conservatives attacked them as federal meddling in classroom teaching. Because of that tumultuous history, leaders of the latest effort have defended its state-led nature, despite frequent endorsements by the Obama administration.