Don’t politicize education standards

Kristen Amundson

The U.S. education system recently received a report card from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank for developed countries. America’s grades weren’t very good.

Twenty-nine countries or other jurisdictions out-performed the United States in math. Nineteen did better in reading. Overall, America fared worse than the last time the OECD conducted the survey, in 2009.

Clearly, America needs higher educational standards. But instead of coming together with state education leaders to implement such standards, some state legislators are waging a turf war over who has the authority to decide what kids should learn.

This pointless infighting must end. Rather than politicize academic standards, lawmakers should collaborate with state education leaders to raise them — with the ultimate goal of improving student achievement.

Our country’s stagnating performance has serious economic consequences. In 2009, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that the United States could increase GDP by up to $2.3 trillion if it closed the international educational achievement gap. McKinsey went so far as to say that America’s underperformance has “created the equivalent of a permanent, deep recession in terms of the gap between actual and potential output in the economy.”

Fortunately, several states are working to close that achievement gap.

Consider Massachusetts, which has implemented high academic standards over the past decade. As a result, the Bay State’s performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a federal gauge of student achievement, has jumped 35 points. Among low-income kids, the gains have been even bigger — more than 47 points.

How did Massachusetts leaders do it? First, they set high college- and career-ready standards — benchmarks for what students should know in reading and math — for all students. Then they invested in teacher preparation and in professional learning for their educators. Finally, they stayed the course through changes in political administrations. Their bipartisan effort is now paying off.

That’s what really works.

In most states, boards of education articulate academic standards as well as a long-term vision for public education. Because they’re insulated from undue political pressure, state boards are able to serve as unbiased brokers of policy and focus solely on improving education for all students.

When it works, the results can be impressive. Right now, our country has the opportunity to see improvements like Massachusetts’ across the nation.

The American educational system has been mired in mediocrity for far too long. Today’s fights over who should have the power to fix it only distract from that reality.

Lawmakers and independent state boards of education must instead work together to define what our children must learn to succeed — and then to empower them to do so.

Kristen Amundson is executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.