What Common Standards for Schools Can and Can't Do

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So far, 37 states have committed to adopting these standards, known as the Common Core. That's a remarkable number, given how controversial national standards were only a decade ago.

But excitement about the new standards is creating some confusion — and exaggeration — about what they can be expected to accomplish. Proponents say the Common Core is the only way to deal with today's variance between states. But if Congress or the White House really wanted to, Washington could address the unevenness of state standards by providing more specificity and oversight of how passing scores on tests are set by states — with more public transparency of that process. Meanwhile, unless states agree to use common assessments with comparable passing scores to test how well students are learning — something that has yet to be decided — we'll still have trouble comparing outcomes from state to state.

In the meantime, Common Core advocates point to the standards used by countries that do well on international tests as a sign that we're headed in the right direction. But some of the lowest-performing countries use nationwide standards too. They are not a panacea.

So what's the big deal?

Assuming quality and comparability are maintained, the new standards offer a common denominator in public education to help think about student performance and productivity. Sounds wonky, but it's hard to overstate the importance of this to the national effort to improve schools across 50 states and thousands of communities. Right now, anything goes in this $650 billion industry. A common benchmark for quality would help change that.

A common baseline would also empower teachers to meaningfully compare their work with the work of peers in other states. It would force publishers and other education vendors to compete using actual results that are common across states rather than based on relationships, politics and claims that are often impossible to judge. Commonality would also make it harder for politicians and various stakeholders to hide behind their own data and claim their states as educational capitals when they're not.

Common standards would, of course, leave unaddressed a variety of challenges facing schools, such as inequitable financing, uneven teacher quality and an anemic research-and-development sector. Still, Common Core is a watershed achievement, because large-scale improvement is impossible as long as we treat school quality with the same casualness as we do a debate over lobsters.

Rotherham, who writes the EduWonk blog, is a co-founder of and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.

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