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Should every student in this country be able to name the president? If so, by what age? Should every child know how to tell time to the nearest minute? By first grade, or by fifth grade?

Surprisingly, only 26 states have learning standards that say students should be able to name the president. Iowa is not among them. Students in Arizona and Arkansas are expected to know who the president is by kindergarten, whereas students in Maine don’t need to know until eighth grade.

Thirty-three states expect students to learn how to tell time to the nearest minute. Once again, Iowa is not among them. Students in South Dakota and Tennessee are supposed to master this skill by second grade, but in Alaska there’s no such expectation until fifth grade.

Interactive

Want to see how different state standards measure up? Check out our map showing when students have to learn who the president is, how to tell time and how to use an adverb.

The arbitrariness of our nation’s education standards – who learns what, when – has had politicians, policy makers and teachers scratching their heads for decades. Why should what you learn in school depend so heavily on your Zip code?

Questions about content and timing – what students should learn and when – were the impetus for development of the “common core standards” unveiled in early June. These standards lay out a vision for what public school students across the nation should learn in English and mathematics each year from kindergarten to 12th grade. Each state must now decide individually whether to adopt them.

The effort to develop common standards was spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government. The Obama administration kept its distance because of a general wariness at both the district and state levels of federal involvement in education.

Those most opposed to common standards tend to label them “national” standards, viewing them as the first step in a seismic shift toward national assessments and a national curriculum. Defenders of common standards counter they’re more necessary than ever because of increasing mobility in the globalized world and because it doesn’t make sense for students in one state to learn drastically different things from students in another state. And those who support the common standards don’t necessarily believe that a national exam and curriculum must, or even should, follow the adoption of common standards.

The debate over what students should learn in each grade isn’t new. American public education has a long tradition of local control, with many decisions made by schools or districts and the rest typically settled at the state level. The U.S. Constitution makes no provision for public education, and thus it has widely been seen as the domain of the states.

Beginning in the late 1950s in reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and especially with the “Nation at Risk” report in 1983 drawing attention to a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education, policy makers and politicians began pushing for greater uniformity across states in what is taught to public schoolchildren.

Today, almost all schools and districts do have specific standards that articulate what students should know and be able to do in different subject areas and grade levels. But this fact is increasingly seen as more hindrance than help: There are too many standards, and they vary too widely throughout districts and across states. In short, experts argue that current U.S. standards tend to be too voluminous, scattered and repetitive. The result is a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum that shortchanges students.

Public education in this country is at a crossroads. Complacency isn’t an option, even for states like Iowa that often fare well in national comparisons. Though Iowa is above average nationally in the percentage of adults with at least a high school diploma, the state is below average in the percentage of adults with postsecondary degrees. Only 1 in 3 Iowans has a postsecondary degree, but 81 percent of the state’s jobs are classified as middle or high skill and require some postsecondary training or education, according to Iowa Workforce Development data.

Though the standards debate is an old one, a solution seems for the first time to be within reach. The new standards, it is hoped, will raise the achievement of U.S. students by focusing on fewer topics in greater depth – which is what standards look like in the Asian and European countries that outperform us on international tests.

Articulating, and then adopting, a handful of clear and high standards for our students is a necessary but not sufficient step to raise achievement. It’s a starting point, not a destination. For true change to come, rigorous standards must be aligned with equally rigorous assessments, curricula and instruction.

Designing rigorous assessments and curricula is a tough task that states are well-positioned to tackle together, with support from the federal government. But rigorous instruction is best fostered at the local level, with teachers and administrators sharing and spreading what works best in their classrooms.

This article originally appeared on July 2, 2010 in the Des Moines Register.

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Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. Previously, Snider taught high-school English...

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