The national research journal Education Next published a report in 2005 with this catchy title: "Johnny can't read ... in South Carolina. But if his folks move to Texas, he'll be reading up a storm. What's going on?"
The report pointed out that because the federal No Child Left Behind Act allows each state to define for itself what "academically proficient" means, there are dramatic differences from one state to the next. A student who scores "proficient" in one state might score "below basic" if his parents move to South Carolina because our state's proficiency standards are just about the toughest in the nation. That's why state-to-state comparisons under the No Child Left Behind Act are virtually worthless.
In addition to setting "proficiency standards" on their tests, individual states also are empowered under the U.S. Constitution to define "curriculum standards," the skills and knowledge that students should learn at each grade level. States decide how these standards are taught in the classroom and how students are tested to measure their progress.
The result is that there are 50 different sets of standards across the nation, and a student who moves from North Carolina to South Carolina may face a very different set of requirements. On top of that, America's crazy quilt of standards may not be comparable with standards in the countries we're competing against for high-quality jobs.
Teachers, governors, state superintendents of education, business leaders and colleges and universities are increasingly viewing this as unacceptable. The governors and state superintendents of 46 states recently announced their participation in a state-led process to develop a "common core" of state K-12 standards in mathematics and English language arts. Although South Carolina is prevented from being an "official" participant due to Gov. Mark Sanford's refusal to sign on, I have been assured by the effort's leaders -- including the National Governors Association -- that we can participate unofficially.
These common core standards will be research and evidence-based, and their development will be guided by the best minds and expertise from across the country and around the world. They will be benchmarked against standards from other nations -- the same nations whose children will compete against ours in the global marketplace.
Once the standards are complete, each state can decide on its own whether to adopt them. Here in South Carolina, any change to our standards would have to be approved by the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee.
Already we're hearing concerns from some that this project will lead to a conspiratorial "power grab" by the federal government and that it will open the door to national standards and national tests. But South Carolina's previous experience with similar state-led efforts suggests otherwise.
In 1987, a consortium of state education agencies and national education organizations joined forces to reach a national consensus on teacher training and licensing matters. The "model standards" that resulted from the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium were used as resources for individual states to develop their own policies around what good teaching looks like and how it should be evaluated. In South Carolina, they became the foundation of our efforts to improve teacher quality.
Another example of how national consistency can be created without federal control is the relationship states have with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. This organization creates pathways for educators to move throughout America by linking states through the NASDTEC Interstate Agreement, which provides a common core for teacher certification while giving states autonomy to tailor certification requirements to fit their individual needs.
A few alarmists have even suggested that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative will ultimately produce "dumbed down" standards just to make schools "look good." But that ludicrous idea ignores the stark reality of our world.
The U.S. economy has changed dramatically. American companies compete today not only with businesses on the other side of town but also with businesses on the other side of the globe. American schools compete with schools in Taipei, Bangalore and Beijing, and they must prepare students to meet challenges that can't even be imagined today.
To me, the goals of a consensus approach to stronger curriculum standards in English and math seem logical and worthwhile. After all, how could our ability to compete be damaged if our best minds reach agreement on how students can communicate better with words and numbers? And how could our nation not become stronger if students in our increasingly mobile society find academic continuity when their families move from one state to another?
Derrick Manuel, a South Carolina father of three, told a television reporter recently that he thinks common core standards would help his children. "For my family, we're in the military," Manuel said. "It'll get them back on the same level as the state we recently left. So I think it's a pretty good idea."
I think it's a good idea, too.