Today, the National Governors Association released a draft of its core standards for grades K-12. Almost all the states (well, 48 of them) have signed on to this idea of creating standards that define what students should know at any given grade level.
I've been reading through the standards (available here) and I think there is a lot to like about them.
For starters, the math standards were specifically benchmarked against countries that routinely eat America for lunch in international comparisons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea). And so they are far from the lowest common denominator standards that some folks had fretted about. Kindergartners need to know how to count by tens, to understand what adding and subtracting are as concepts, and to think about geometric concepts such as 2- and 3-dimensions. By 6th grade, students are learning to think algebraically about problems (if I can walk half a mile in 10 minutes, how can I use that information to figure out how many miles I can walk per hour?) By 7th grade, students are learning about probability concepts--if I guess on 10 true-false questions, what are the chances I get 7 right?--and in 8th grade, they're thinking about the slopes of lines and concepts in solid geometry that in general many kids these days get around to in 10th grade.
Some critics in the news articles about these standards have said so what, what's the point in learning concepts earlier? That doesn't mean you'll really know them. But I disagree with this -- the earlier things are introduced, the more time you have to think about them. And waiting to introduce concepts until later has had the effect of watering down standards, to the point where 4th graders are still working on addition because you have to fill time with something.
The National Governors Association also released the language arts standards, and at least on the writing front, I'm cautiously optimistic about them. Many of the student writing samples in the appendix are pretty good (one 4th grade short story blew me away, though the authors of the standards pointed out that it may have been edited -- then again, so is all professional writing!).
I think it is encouraging that the common standards will be aimed high, and I also think it's encouraging that we will have common standards, in part because I hope this will pay off for gifted kids. If we define as a nation exactly what an 8th grader should know, then it raises an obvious question. If a 10-year-old knows what an 8th grader should know, why can't that 10-year-old be in 8th grade? This question exists now, but because there are so many varying standards on 8th grade knowledge, there is always wiggle room. Common standards help take that away -- which I think is a good thing.