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What We Stand For: Standards

beyond high standards: supporting the common core to improve student learning

A White Paper by Kathleen Porter Magee for the Stand for Children Leadership Center

Standards have been at the center of the education reform movement in America for almost three decades. Beginning in the early 1980s, state leaders began to take seriously the task of defining what students should know and be able to do in all schools, in order to help ensure that all students were held to equally rigorous standards. In so doing, they created the academic standards that would become the foundation upon which state accountability and assessments, teacher and principal evaluations, and classroom-level curriculum and instruction would be built.

Since then, every state has articulated content standards for at least four core content areas—English language arts, math, science, and social studies—and often more. These standards list the knowledge that states expect students to learn and the skills they expect students to master at each grade level. These standards are—or should be—the targets to which state assessments are aligned; the basis upon which curricula, textbooks, and instruction are created; and the targets to which students, teachers, and leaders are held accountable.

However, the fact that this work was done in every state does not mean it was done well. Analyses of the quality of state standards have found few that are clear, comprehensive, and grade-appropriate. Far too many state standards are vague, fail to prioritize essential content and skills, or include serious content gaps and omissions, making it unlikely that students across a state are held accountable for learning the same material. In fact, reports released over the past decade by both the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute show that state standards range from the clear, comprehensive, and rigorous, to the poorly organized, vague, and weak, with the overall average for the nation ending up, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhere in the middle.

The rest of this paper is available as a PDF download:


Kathleen Porter-Magee is the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.

About Stand for Children Leadership Center

Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides  leadership development and training to everyday citizens. Our mission is to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate  from high school prepared for, and with access to, college and career  training. To make that happen, we:

  • Educate and empower parents, teachers, and community members to demand excellent public schools.
  • Advocate for effective local, state and national education policies and investments.

  • Ensure the policies and funding we advocate for reach classrooms and help students.

Why Stand?

A message from Stand Leadership Center board member John Legend.

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