Special Report

May/June 2012 Transcontinental Education

Soon, nearly every state in the union will have the same demanding standards for what students should know. If history is any guide, a burst of innovation won’t be far behind.

By Robert Rothman

Like most enterprises in nineteenth-century America, rail-roads in the early 1800s were local affairs. The first trains served mainly to carry goods between towns that canals did not reach, so each region of the country built its own rail lines. As a result, rail gauges— the width between rails—varied widely. The tracks laid between Richmond and Memphis, for instance, used a five-foot gauge, while the gauges of the Erie and Lackawanna lines in New York were six feet wide. Those in the mid-Atlantic, such as the Baltimore and Ohio, used the gauge that was standard in England: four feet eight and a half inches wide. These variations made it exceedingly difficult to connect rail lines, which in turn effectively curbed the use of railroads to conduct commerce across regions.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln recognized that this balkanized rail system also hurt something else: the war effort. He wanted to transport military materiel and goods across the country by rail. So he proposed a standard track width of five feet for the planned intercontinental railroad. He later amended his proposal to four feet eight and a half inches, to match the gauges of the largest eastern railroads, backing a plan urged by rail barons who wanted to expand their lines and their industry. This standard gauge made it possible to connect lines, and led to an explosion of railroad building. The number of track miles tripled, to 90,000, between 1860 and 1880, and then more than doubled, to 190,000, by 1900. With that expansion came the growth of whole new industries that could only be born through interstate train travel—for example, the auto industry, which depended on steel from Pennsylvania, rubber from Ohio, and coal from West Virginia, all shipped and put together in Michigan. Lincoln’s idea of a common standard helped make the United States the world’s largest industrial power.

In some ways, the American elementary and secondary education system is undergoing a transition similar to what the American rail system underwent around the time of the Civil War. For decades, each state has set its own expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. These standards might reflect the tradition of local control of education, but they have made it difficult for students to move from state to state; students transferring from fourth grade in, say, Indiana, might face a different set of expectations when they arrive in fifth grade in Illinois. And, by fragmenting the educational marketplace, these varied standards have impeded the kinds of innovations that might otherwise come with economies of scale—in testing, textbooks, and teacher education.

A profound change is quietly under way. Over the past couple of years, under the leadership of national organizations representing state leaders, nearly every state, with little fanfare, has adopted common standards for student learning in English language arts and mathematics. These standards—known as “common core standards”—spell out the knowledge and skills all students are expected to acquire in order to be prepared for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. For example, the standards state that by the end of the third grade students should be able to distinguish their own point of view from that of a narrator. By the end of high school, students should be able to “[a]nalyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth- century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.”

While that last bar might seem high, the idea is that students need to be able to perform this kind of task in order to succeed in college and the workplace. And now, for the first time, nearly all students in the United States will be expected to meet that same standard, regardless of where they live. By setting common expectations, states have made it possible for students everywhere to graduate from high school similarly prepared for post-secondary education and work.

At the same time, the states have also opened the door for a flood of innovation in educational products and techniques. Educators in one state who have come up with a dynamic new way of teaching can now share their knowledge with educators throughout the country, without having to fear that their insights will be utterly lost in translation. Colleges of education can work together across state lines to redesign and improve teacher education, because the teachers they ed-ucate will be teaching to the same standards. And textbook companies can develop new and better products, taking advantage of digital technology, because they can sell to a near-national market. These materials will replace the widely loathed and ineffective products that were produced by cobbling together expectations from each of the states publishers hoped to sell to.

Perhaps most importantly, the standards are making possible new assessments that could radically transform instruction and learning. The assessments are being built by two consortia of states, which can pool resources to create better tests than states could develop on their own. As a result, the consortia plan to develop challenging and innovative assessments that measure the full range of standards, such as the ability to think critically and solve problems, rather than the narrow skills covered by conventional “fill-in-the-bubble” formats. And because of the strong influence of tests on instruction, these assessments are also likely to encourage a tremendous shift in teaching and learning in nearly every classroom in the United States. Humble standards can lead to great innovations.

Most countries have some form of educational standards. In the United States, the idea began to take off in the late 1980s. At the time, advocates believed that students would learn more if states spelled out specifically what all students should know and be able to do and aligned all aspects of the education system—teacher preparation, curriculum, testing—to those expectations. That way, all oars would be rowing in the same direction.

Unlike in other countries, where national ministries of education promulgated academic standards, the setting of standards in the U.S. began in a hybrid fashion, with national organizations developing nonbinding statements of what students should learn in each subject area, and states adopting their own standards for their students, sometimes—though not always—based on the national documents. These efforts were spurred by legislation enacted during the Clinton administration, which gave grants to states to pursue standards setting and then required states to set standards as a condition of federal aid. By the end of the 1990s, all but one state(Iowa) had developed standards.

The result of this effort was mixed. Mathematics performance for nine- and thirteen-year-olds rose substantially between 1999 and 2004, a period when standards were in place, after being flat throughout the 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal testing program. Reading scores for nine-year-olds went up as well. But scores for seventeen-year-olds remained flat in both subjects.

Robert Rothman is an education writer and a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. He is the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.


  • Big River Bandido on May 11, 2012 12:40 PM:

    If the only way you measure students against "standards" is high-stakes testing, you take all the "education" out of "reform". Ten years of NCLB has diluted the primary and secondary education experience into nothing but a drill of rote concepts that are likely to appear on standardized tests.

    What good is requiring students to be able to recite the Gettysburg Address if schools aren't allowed the time to teach them what it means?

  • Anonymous on May 11, 2012 1:10 PM:

    that's how students are taught by countries with better educations.
    i hope this will work out great!
    a good non-partisan comprehensive article on educational reform.

  • LoachDriver on May 30, 2012 11:12 PM:

    It's easy to see the benefits of national standards but country mouse I am willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to maintain local standards in education.

    Regimented efficiency was a favorite dogma of the Soviet Union & we saw how that worked out, not very well.

  • rick on June 04, 2012 8:56 PM:

    Any school reform generated in ivory towers will become an abject failure. Any experienced teacher can read the handwriting on the wall regarding the common core. I would recommend that the experts generating this newest round of tests spend a marking period in front of a class of 7th graders before that press the print button.