States Relieved by School Plan
By Jake Grovum, Special to Stateline
One state at a time, the push for common school graduation standards has been gaining traction. In just five years, the number of states with such standards for college and career-readiness has increased from three to 31.
But behind the progress there has consistently been a looming concern: Would the federal government move in and supersede the gains that states have been making? That concern grew into genuine alarm a few weeks ago when the Obama administration announced that a new set of federal graduation requirements would be forthcoming. State education officials worried out loud that this might mean an attempt to hand down standards from Washington to every school in the country.
Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee expressed the alarm candidly earlier this month. "To the extent to which they say, 'OK, you guys have taken this a little way down the road, we got it now,' that's not a good thing," Bredesen said. " Far better to be building on the foundation that has been generated from the ground up, and has that anchoring and that tie to what's really going on out there in the world, than something up that springs full-blown from the brows of congressional staffers."
On Monday, the administration threw the states a curve on this issue — but one that most of them were relieved to see: President Obama's blueprint for a No Child Left Behind overhaul generally allows states and localities to keep control over college and career readiness standards. The blueprint calls for states to adopt standards, but stops short of a federal mandate. Instead, it lets states develop their own, or work in clusters. Federal funding would simply be an incentive to move ahead.
In that sense, the protests from state capitols turned out to have the intended effect.
"We're offering support, incentives and national leadership, but not at the expense of local control," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "We don't think we can micromanage 95,000 schools from Washington."
Like the administration's Race to the Top program, the new blueprint relies largely on rewards for positive achievement rather than punitive funding cuts. States get a certain number of points if they include common education and college or career-ready graduation standards. Top-performing schools are rewarded and underperformers receive assistance.
"We really do feel this is a step forward and a step in the right direction," says Joan Wodiska, director of the National Governors Association's education and workforce committee. " This is a vision, and now we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the details."
Many states have already started down this path. Last week the governors association, along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, released a new draft of common graduation standards that states will agree individually to sign on to. "There is a role for the federal government, but the role is to look at where to assist, not where to direct," said former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, head of a group called the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The standards released last week by the Governors Association are the product of a state-based Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is being led by the governors and school officials of 48 states and the District of Columbia. The draft common standards are broad guidelines for what children should be learning at a given grade level, but don't go so far as to dictate, for example, what books they should be reading. That's by design, to allow local control over the specifics of the curriculum. "What's encouraging about this one is that it's really boiling up from the state level," says Gary Huggins, director of the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind. "I think what we keep an eye on is make sure it's a state-led effort."
It seems the White House has essentially endorsed the work of the Common Core Standards Initiative. On a conference call with reporters, Duncan pointed to Common Core specifically, saying "they're providing extraordinary leadership."
Of course, the entire process still has to make it through the U.S. Congress, and in an election year with no shortage of partisan squabbling on Capitol Hill, everything's subject to politics. But for the time being, Obama's plan to build off what the states have already done seems to be exactly what many officials want to hear. "It's nice to see the federal government getting on board with the state agenda," says Dane Linn, director of the NGA Center's Education Division.