Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fordham releases "The State of State Standards" report

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on issues in elementary and secondary education) released today its much-anticipated "State of the State Standards" report for 2006.

Among the report's findings:
Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America attend class in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn.
Don't expect this report to be universally embraced; the Fordham Foundation (home of legendary Chester Finn, Jr., a.k.a. "The Education Gadfly") is known for its conservative views on many education issues. This report, which names names, so to speak, is sure to receive both kudos and a good lambasting.

But regardless of how it's received, the report is good fodder for a discussion on education standards -- especially at an international school like JIS, which gets to set its own educational program outside of governmental restrictions like the "No Child Left Behind Act" in the United States.

Technically speaking, standards are concrete descriptions of what a state (or school like JIS) wants its students to be able to accomplish at each grade level in the four major academic subjects: English, mathematics, science, and history. These accomplishments usually fall into two categories:
  • Specific subject area knowledge (for example, multiplication facts from 0 to 12)
  • Specific academic skills (like being able to comprehend a non-fiction text)
"The State of the State Standards" report gives letter grades to each state's standards. For example, Illinois (the state where I used to teach) received a B for its English standards. That, in and of itself, isn't very interesting or useful -- but what is useful is the rationale behind that grade:
English, language arts and reading receive good coverage, and vocabulary benchmarks are clearly outlined. Illinois students cannot expect to receive a full-bodied English education, however, when their state standards eschew naming specific authors, literary periods, literary genres, and texts. No substantive curriculum can be formed without these components. Illinois avoids them, though, and in so doing cheats its K-12 population of a major segment of English education that they surely deserve.
What's the useful part? The descriptions of what makes a good the case of English, according to Fordham, it's not only skill benchmarks, but also subject area knowledge (for English, that includes things like books written by specific authors).

Designing standards is complicated, and no state (or school) ever feels like it's come up with the perfect set. It should be an ongoing process -- a process that the Fordham report describes in great detail in its analysis of three states' success stories. (These are definitely worth a read.)

If you're a parent from the United States (or have lived in -- or will be moving to -- the States), here's a webpage that has links to the actual academic standards in all 50 states so that you can see what the Fordham report is analyzing.


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