Strong States & Common Standards

Leadership, State Policy

Strong states and common expectations are fundamental to the future of K-12 education in America. New tools create the opportunity for new schools; standards and states are the framework for quality at scale.

When talk turns to innovation, we usually think of a wizbang app, but advances in public policy can have an even bigger impact particularly on disadvantaged neighborhoods. The two most important policy advances in the last twenty years are Common Core State Standards and stronger state roles in education policy.

Why common standards matter. It doesn’t makes sense to have different reading standards in every state. It doesn’t make sense to use tests that don’t value writing. It doesn’t make sense to emphasize memorization over problem solving. It doesn’t make sense for every state to have a different definition of college and career ready. Common Core, and related tests, address these problems.

Common expectations give all students a shot at college and family wage jobs–anywhere. They are a big improvement over the hodgepodge of expectations developed state by state. They emphasize reading for comprehension, thinking critically, and writing persuasively.

Common expectations and digital networks are breaking down the isolation of the teaching profession and empowering teachers to share tools, resources, and strategies across state lines for the first time. Foundations, nonprofits, and companies big and small are investing billions in new digital learning materials and tools that–for the first time–can be easily shared across state lines. Teachers are working in teams, personalizing student learning using data, and sharing resources and strategies with other teachers–in their school and around the country.

Piloting new Common Core assessments unleashed a recent round of test bashing. It’s true that tests take a lot of time at the end of the year. Grade level tests aren’t always a good indication of what students were taught or what they know and can do. However, those tests represent an important commitment to equity and comparability–and that starts with measurement and transparency.

Common expectations connect innovation to the classroom, encourage equitable preparation, and open up new learning options.

Why strong states matter. In some places, there is a call for more of the same. In others,

the distrust of government has led to reflexive support for local control. But in both blue and red states there has been a steady 20 year aggregation of state influence over the seven big policy levers: standards, assessment, accountability, human capital, funding, data, and authorizing.

This is a good trend if you care about equity. Strong states are the only way to provide weighted funding that reflects need. Strong state accountability is the best chance to ensure that every family has access to a good neighborhood school.

Digital learning, online and blended options, mean that opportunity isn’t limited by zip code–at least where there is a strong state government that authorizes multiple providers, monitors quality, and facilitates thoughtful choices (see Navigating the Digital Shift for a detailed discussion).

Education is incorporating the potential of digital learning and a shift from adult and time-centered systems to a student-centered learning-focused system. It will be a generation long phase change, but one that has the potential to dramatically improve results. Common expectations and strong state policies are critical to making most of the shift.

It just doesn’t make sense to have every community set their own reading and math expectation and try to figure out the shift to digital on their own. It just doesn’t make sense in the digital age to limit families to the learning options presented by local schools. Relying on local control means uneven, inequitable, and parochial education. Common expectations and strong states encourage innovation, collaboration, and expanding options for American families.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

1 Comments

Dave Guymon /

Tom, this is a great post. It is also one that challenges my previously established beliefs about state vs federal control of education policy. Until reading your post, I hadn’t considered common standards as a platform to build digital practices from. Yet, it makes sense. Additionally, I hadn’t made the connection between common standards and the opportunity for borderless collaboration. The points that you make here are well-thought out. I appreciate how they have made me reconsider my existing schema.