Commentary: Why national education standards are important

Who knew algebra could stir up such a fuss?

But there's been a fast and furious debate going on in the Observer's Forum on whether algebra should be a high school requirement. Some declared algebra an "elitist subject not needed for living" — better to make it an elective and require basic math where people learn how to "understand the math behind the mortgage we sign" and determining the "best price per pound" of beef. But others defended algebra as necessary because it is "math for living," helpful they say in understanding that mortgage and in calculating income taxes and the sales tax on that pound of beef.

I fall into the second category, mainly because I don't think of algebra so much as equations and expressions but as using and developing critical and analytical thinking, deductive reasoning and logic. Those skills are valuable whatever you choose to do in life.

They're even more valuable in the global environment in which young people must now compete for jobs, careers and educational opportunities. Thankfully, that's what a panel of educators convened by most of the nation's governors and school superintendents understood. On Wednesday, they issued draft national guidelines for a uniform set of academic standards in math and English from kindergarten through 12th grade. On the list of math standards for high school? Algebra.

Because I've pushed for uniform, national academic standards for several years, I say hallelujah to the effort. You can view the draft guidelines and comment at www.corestandards.org. The comment period ends April 2.

Last year, I wrote of the National Governors Association's efforts to devise national standards and assessments. In a report called "Ensuring U.S. students receive a world-class education," the group called for states to adopt "a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12."

Other nations already employ such standards and they have led to improved student performance, the report said. Those countries are now outstripping the U.S. academically. In 1995, America was tied for first in the world in college and university graduation rates. By 2006, the U.S. had dropped to 14th. That same year, we had the second-highest high-school dropout rate of 27 countries.

Supporters of the project led by the governors association and the Council of Chief State School Officers want the lists of things kids should learn at each grade level to replace a patchwork of systems nationwide. That patchwork has spawned a system where not only does the quality of education vary substantially from state to state but where assessment of what students are learning nationwide is fundamentally flawed. States devise their own tests - and standards. Some are rigorous. Many are not.

The proposed guidelines are important because they aim to raise expectations of student achievement in states that set the bar low and be on par with the expectations of top-performing states and countries. And the standards are not aimed at just college readiness. They are targeted to provide what students need to know for jobs as well as further education.

All but two states endorsed the effort, as did two territories and the District of Columbia. Texas and Alaska opted out. Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said only Texans should decide what Texas children learn in school. Unfortunately, the rest of us can't keep those children corralled in Texas once they grow up.

Some others, of course, share that states' rights point of view. They view this move as a step toward, gasp, nationalizing education and a federal takeover of state authority. But this is a bottom-up movement from the states, governors and educators who recognize - correctly - the shared benefits we all will accrue from an education system that pushes all children to meet their potential and sets a baseline for standards and assessments that is meaningful and strong.

I've heard it from teachers, and know from experience, that when expectations and standards are set high, children most often live up to them. It's to our benefit and theirs that we push them to reach for the stars.