Last week President Obama announced plans to require all states to certify that their standards were “college- and career-ready” in order to obtain their portion of $14.5 billion in federal education funds. This is the single largest pot of education money in the federal budget–it’s previously been called Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)–and it is the promise of this money that led to states following the rules in the ESEA, including those in the latest version, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Theoretically any state could choose to opt out of these funds and their attached restrictions. Many states have threatened to pull out, but none have done so.
Would the college- and career-ready standards requirement be the last straw to push states over the limit? No, it wouldn’t, and the reason is because nothing will stop states from asserting their standards are preparing students for colleges and careers, even if they really are not. That’s federalism, and Obama is not likely to actually try to, nor could he, change it.
Others have pointed out that college- and career-ready is actually a higher standard than what exists now. Under current law, states just have to define a set of standards in math, reading, and science, have a set of assessments to measure student success, and then evaluate schools on whether students are “proficient” on those standards. States have set their standards at a rather low level; forcing those state standards to prepare students to be “college- and career-ready” would be a significantly higher benchmark.
The political opposition to No Child Left Behind has not really been about standards–most people believe it’s a good thing for teachers to have some common understanding of what students need to learn each year, even if they disagree about who should determine what those things are. Rather, the political opposition has mostly been about accountability policies, the things that operationalize the standards and make them meaningful. This presents an opportunity for Obama, and he would be wise to focus on improving the accountability policies of the federal law while leaving states to the standards-setting.
Ultimately, the phrase “college- and career-ready” can mean something in the real world. It is tangible and measurable in a way that “proficiency” is not. If a student finishes high school and immediately begins college but needs remedial work once there, they probably were not college-ready. If a graduate attempts to enter the world of work but is unable to find meaningful employment, they would not be considered career-ready.
Perhaps most importantly, defining college- and career-ready would require real collaboration at the local level. School districts would have to get serious about engaging with local colleges and universities to determine what a successful freshmen knows and can do, and the same for local businesses and beginning employees. Such a shift would change the emphasis from proxies of student success–things like how well they do on a standardized test of achievement–to an actual demonstration of it–outcomes measures like college-going rates, full-time employment rates, and success in their first years after graduation.
This would not mean the ongoing work of defining a (voluntary) national common core curriculum has been for naught. There is a need for that as well, especially to make sure younger children learn essential knowledge that will allow them to succeed in later years. “College- and career-ready” implies something real for an exiting high school graduate, but it becomes less meaningful the further away they are from actually starting college or careers. It’s difficult, for example, to extrapolate what it means exactly for a third-grader to be college- and career-ready.
Attaching the “college- and career-ready” moniker to a set of standards for all of K-12 would be a mistake. It would allow states to abuse the phrase by adopting their own standards and certifying them as “college- and career-ready” without it actually meaning anything. Ssome assume that Obama is using his proposed change as leverage to encourage states to adopt the Common Core State Standards being developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, but those remain a work in progress. Obama should continue both his political and financial support of the common core effort, but standards are only one side of the equation. They happen to be the side least suited for federal policy.
To hear more about this important issue, sign up to attend “College- and Career-Ready Students: How Can We Tell?” on March 11, a joint event between Education Sector and College Summit moderated by Linda Perlstein, public editor of Education Writers Association and writer of Educated Reporter blog; featuring myself, David Coleman, founder and CEO of Student Achievement Partners; Nina Lopez, special assistant to the commissioner, Colorado Department of Education; Angelique Simpson Marcus, principal of Largo High School, Prince George’s County, Maryland; and J.B. Schramm, founder and CEO of College Summit.