Federalism, the concept of government operating as a collection of self-managed units under the umbrella of central control, is the glory of the American political system. For good reason we don’t want Washington dictating every aspect of the local management of our lives, although we obviously want and appreciate federal regulations that ensure our health and safety. When it comes to our public schools, both elected and appointed state education officials decide how to best implement federal laws meant to ensure that our school children are safe and well-educated, and we presume that all will work as it should because everyone is working from the same playbook. Unfortunately, federalism failed us when it came to the efforts of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates to improve public education because the law allowed each state to set their own curriculum guidelines, thus allowing each state to decide what constituted a complete education. This produced peculiar, and perhaps not wholly unexpected, results as each state’s recommended curriculum standard was subject to the twin strains of politics and an inevitable narrowing in an effort to teach to the mandated standardized tests also designed and implemented by each state.
However, recently the U.S. Department of Education, after a yearlong effort that involved the work of education officials from 48 states (Texas and Alaska declined to participate), proposed that every state adopt a standard curriculum. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) in Literacy, Writing, Math, History, Social Studies, and Science—combined with other recent proposals to modify NCLB mandated standardized tests to both make them more similar from state to state and allow a broader range of material to be tested—might finally level the playing field for all our nation’s schools and students. Instead of our current patchwork system that encourages both undemanding curriculum and easier tests to ensure that more schools “pass” each year, we could very shortly be seeing a system where the materials to be mastered—and the tests designed to test that mastery—look much the same in Florida, New York, Arizona, and every other state. A visit to the U.S. Department of Education web link for the CCSSI at http://www.corestandards.org/ is well worth the trip for anyone who cares about the future of our public schools. There is much to like, some to question, and little to be lost if we move toward rigorous common standards because the current system of state control of matters relating to curriculum and testing has fallen well short of expectations for raising all of our students up to the standards of the rest of the world.
In addition, we may be looking at some equally far-reaching changes for our high schools in the near future. Starting in fall 2011, approximately 100 high schools in eight states—Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont—will introduce new courses and mastery tests that will allow students to choose to graduate from high school after 10th grade and immediately enroll in community college. Should this system, using commonly-designed tests of subject mastery rather than seat time to measure progress, spread as quickly as is expected to other states and high schools, the entire fabric of our K-12 (or K-10) system will surely change dramatically as we encourage students, perhaps with the aid of substantially more computer-based modules, to learn at their own pace both inside and outside of the classroom and class day. As this system compels increased partnership between our high schools and community colleges, perhaps to the point of community college faculty routinely teaching in public high schools and helping to design college preparatory curriculum, we could see our traditional four year model of high school gradual evolve into something more pointedly sensitive to the individual academic needs and goals of our student population.
Added all together—CCSSI, NCLB changes, and experiments with a K-10 model—the changes we may see in the next few years will dictate a need for more nimble teachers, administrators, and state bureaucracies as we move to a model of public education that more explicitly celebrates actual achievement over mere attendance and places more responsibility for teaching and learning squarely on the shoulders of our schools and the students they serve.