Academic Standards Adoption Procedures

Introduction

State academic content standards, which became widespread among the states in the 1990s as a response to the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), are the single most influential documents in America’s education system. State education departments use them to provide guidance to each public K-12 school district and charter school as they create their own courses. State standards also influence what textbook authors write and what assessment companies such as the College Board test for in their advanced placement examinations. They affect teacher training and they provide the framework for teachers’ individual lesson plans. Private schools and homeschool parents also keep an eye on state standards.

Standards adoption procedures, unfortunately, frequently allow permanent education bureaucracies undue power to draft academic standards, without allowing for proper accountability to the public or to elected officials. Since education department personnel frequently possess radical political commitments, both individually and corporately, the unaccountable power of education bureaucracies forwards the politicization of academic standards.

The American people can only restore depoliticized academic standards if they reform state academic standards adoption procedures, to strengthen transparency and accountability.

We present here principles that should guide state-level reform of academic standards adoption procedures. While we generally articulate our preferred policies as model legislative language, we do not think that approach will be helpful here. Academic standards procedures are extremely complex, vary substantially between the states, and have been enacted as a mixture of statute and as administrative code. Some states, moreover, have adopted some of the principles we suggest. These principles provide a fair level of detail for how academic standards adoption procedures should be reformed—but the precise form should be adopted to fit each state.

These principles only concern the administrative procedures for drafting and adopting academic standards. We provide model statutory language legislative review of academic standards elsewhere, in the Legislative Review Act. We also believe that it may be appropriate for a governor to appoint a special commission to draft an academic standard, as a means to sidestep the permanent bureaucracies of education departments. The principles we outline here are not meant to preclude either legislative veto or gubernatorial initiative.

Principles

Number: State legislatures should provide an absolute limit to the number of different academic standards—both the larger disciplinary standards such as social studies, and individual standards for courses such as psychology or sociology.

Style: Academic standards should be clear, concise, jargon-free, objective, measurable, and grade-level appropriate.

Format: Each academic standard should be published as one PDF file.

Factual Content: Academic standards should consist exclusively of factual content and include no skills.

National Standards: The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts, the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) all force academic standards to be politicized, to forward skills and/or action civics, and to reduce student learning. State legislatures should forbid state academic standards from following any of these national standards.

Politically Diverse Drafting Personnel: State education departments should include personnel nominated by both the majority and minority parties in the state legislature.

Equal Access: State education departments should not provide formal preferential access to any portion of the public, or to any professional, for-profit, or not-for-profit organizations, in the drafting of academic standards.

Elected Officials: An elected state Board of Education should review draft academic standards before they are officially submitted to the Board for approval and have the power to require the state education department to alter the draft standards before they are submitted for approval. The elected state Board of Education should have independent staff, who are neither members of the state education department nor chosen by it. The elected state Board of Education should have the power to amend academic standards further before final approval. 

Draft Standards Transparency: The state education department, in each stage of the drafting and public comment of an academic standard, should provide easily an accessible redlined PDF of the entire academic standard on its website, which allows the Board of Education and the public to see how precisely the current draft differs from the previously approved academic standard, and from the previous draft of the academic standards. 

Public Comment Period: The state education department should provide a four-month period of public comment for all academic standards, including at least four public meetings in different parts of the state. It also should establish a website containing the draft standards and posted public comments. The state education department should make a good faith effort to post responses to the comments on the website.

Standards Revision: The state education department should publish a revised version of the academic standards no later than three months after the close of public comment, for submission to the elected state Board of Education for final approval. 

School District Autonomy: The state education department should not require any school district to adopt its academic standards.

Accountability: State education departments should report to the governor and the legislature annually on their success in fulfilling these principles, including Politically Diverse Drafting Personnel, Equal Access, Draft Standards Transparency, Public Comment Period, Standards Revision, and School District Autonomy.

The National Association of Scholars, in consultation with other supporters and friends of the Civics Alliance, drafted these model bills to translate into legislative language the principles in the Civics Alliance’s Civics Curriculum Statement & Open Letter. Just as these bills have been drafted with the expectation that different states will modify them as they see fit, they also have been drafted with the expectation that not every supporter of the Civics Alliance will endorse these bills or every part of them. Individual Civics Alliance signatories and supporters should not be assumed to have endorsed these bills, unless they say so explicitly.

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