Assuming that the next year and a half goes as planned, I’m going to become a high school English teacher after I graduate in the spring of 2011. And as I’ve started thinking more about what that job will entail, I’ve come to some conclusions about education. One is that not all students are going to choose to go to college after they graduate from high school, and there are a variety of reasons that make that decision okay. But students feeling like they aren’t smart enough or that they are unprepared for higher education shouldn’t be among the reasons not to go to college.
That’s why the recently proposed national education standards are so important. Without national standards, students from some states are disenfranchised by standards that don’t prepare them for college — and, even worse, make them feel like they couldn’t cut it in a university setting. National standards would force states to stop setting low education standards to hold onto government funding and would encourage expectations that foster students’ learning.
A proposal for national education standards for K-12 was released last week by a panel of educators and experts sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization made up of superintendents. The suggested standards, which have received support from the Obama administration, outline the math and English skills that students should have at the completion of each grade level. The state of Michigan has signed on to the standards.
But some states have rejected them. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said that only Texans have the right to determine how their children are educated, according to a Mar. 10 The New York Times report. Alaska rejected the standards as well — at least for now. According to a Mar. 10 AOL News report, the state is trying to work out which of the suggested national standards are more or less rigorous than current state standards. And Massachusetts has said that because its standards are already higher than the suggested national standards, it shouldn’t have to adopt them.
There’s something to be said for Massachusetts’s argument. States determined to challenge students shouldn’t be discouraged from doing so. But the national standards should still exist to prevent some schools from setting low standards to keep government funding.
The standards could help solve several problems in the American education system — many of which are directly connected to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Some NCLB regulations have contributed to states setting low standards. NCLB penalizes schools that don’t make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (usually referred to as AYP by educators) by counter-intuitively cutting their government funding. And while simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix everything, taking it away doesn’t solve any problems either. If anything, it only makes them worse. Schools know this, so some have taken drastic measures to make sure that they reach AYP and maintain their federal funding.
The national standards could even the playing field between schools that are attempting to make AYP. To get around having to cover a lot of ground to make AYP, some states set low standards. With lower standards, it’s easier for low-performing states to look good on paper. So Massachusetts may turn out students who are better than those in, say, Georgia, but its schools could be penalized because the state’s higher standards make it more difficult to achieve AYP.
Yet, even though schools with ambitious — and maybe even unrealistic — standards are the ones getting the cuts, it’s really the students at schools that maintain low standards who suffer. By starting students off at lower standards, schools are setting up their students for failure. Students who enter college without basic reasoning, math or English skills can’t succeed because they don’t have the tools they need in a university environment.
The worst part is that students know this. When they’re unprepared, they feel it, and that leaves them feeling like they aren’t good enough. And that feeling can severely damage people’s zest to learn. As someone who loves learning, that’s unacceptable to me. Setting low standards might save schools’ income, but it damns students. And that trade-off isn’t worth it. Not by a long shot.
There’s a good chance that I’ll have to leave Michigan to find a job after graduation (the market for teachers isn’t great right now, with funding being cut and schools consolidating), so I have a vested interest in ensuring that all students are being pushed to their potentials and that I’ll be able to expect high achievement from them. And I don’t want excessively low standards to hamper me or, more importantly, the students for which I’ll be responsible.
Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.