Are National Standards the Right Move?
National standards would take U.S. education further in the wrong direction without achieving the desired outcomes. The assumption that common standards
will raise American students’ achievement on international
tests and thus enable the United States to compete globally
and close its internal achievement gaps fuels the drive toward
standards. But there is no evidence that common standards
will accomplish this.
The United States is one of a small number of countries
that does not have a national curriculum or standards.
Judging from students’ performance on international tests,
countries with a decentralized curriculum do not necessarily
perform worse than those with a national curriculum: Many
nations with national standards perform much worse than the
China is a well-known example of how establishing a
national curriculum does not necessarily reduce achievement
gaps. Despite years of a highly nationalized system and a
homogeneous culture, China still sees significant gaps in test
scores among students in different regions.
As a result of NCLB, all U.S. states have developed state
standards and assessments; some have adopted common standards in core academic areas. But there is no clear evidence
that these efforts have either significantly improved student
achievement overall or narrowed achievement gaps.
The negative consequences of national standards are well
documented. Common standards lead to distortion of the
purpose of schooling and deprive students of a real education.
Governments inevitably use high-stakes testing to enforce standards.
Such testing forces teachers to focus
on what is tested and spend less time
on what is not. The focus of
curriculum gets narrowed to a few
subjects, and students wind up with a
depressed education experience
National standards stifle creativity
and reduce diversity. To be creative is
to be different, to deviate from the norm—but common standards demand a uniform way of thinking, learning, and
demonstrating one’s learning. Standardized testing rewards
those who conform and penalizes those who deviate.
Those who happen to do well on a particular assessment
are often considered successful, whereas those who do less
well are labeled “at-risk,” regardless of other strengths. A
student who may be extremely talented in art but cannot pass
the reading test in the time required, for instance, is deemed
inadequate. A student who arrives at school without the skills
and knowledge her classmates have is forced to fix “
deficien-cies” instead of developing strengths. As a result, talents are
suppressed and wither. Once a standard is established, it
becomes a uniform measure that’s used to include or exclude
Yong Zhao is Director of the U.S.-China Center for Research
on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University, East
effectiveness of what a student learned
while in that school in addition to what
the student knows in total.
Even if we achieve commonality in
curriculum and performance standards,
these questions will remain. We should
ask ourselves, Do we want a common
version of the current operating model,
or do we want to work more on the
Teachers have seen the locus of power
move up the governmental hierarchy
over the past few decades. Educators at
all levels should stay tuned and use
their on-the-ground experience and
judgment to determine what is good for
students—and for educational equity—
as we consider whether national stan-
dards are to be or not to be. EL
Barton, P. E. (2009). National education stan-
dards: Getting beneath the surface.
Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing
Service, Policy Information Center.
Beatty, A. (2008). Common standards for
K– 12 education? Considering the evidence.
Washington, DC: National Academy
Paul E. Barton is an education writer
and consultant and Senior Associate in
the Policy Information Center at Educa-
tional Testing Service; paulebarton