Yet everyone also knows that standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they’re ignored. Educators instead obsess about what’s on the high-stakes test—and how much students actually have to know in order to pass—which becomes the real standard. After making the most superficial ad- justments, textbook publishers assert that their wares are “aligned” with the standards. Ed schools simply ignore them.
So it’s no great surprise that serious analysts, recently including the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst, have found no link between the quality of state standards and actual student performance.3 That’s because standards seldom get real traction on the ground. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet. Or like purchasing a treadmill; owning that machine only makes a difference if you tie on your sneakers and run.
But when great standards are combined with smart implementation, policy makers can move mountains.