In another featured article from the Washington Monthly‘s special report on the “next wave of school reform” from our May/June issue, Robert Rothman of the Alliance for Excellent Education offers a recent history of the drive for national education standards that has most recently produced the “common core standards” being implemented around the country.

Prior to the development of “common core standards,” Rothman explains, the country went through two decades of uneven efforts towards standard-setting in public education, one in the 1990s led by the Clinton administration, and another under the Bush’s administration’s No Child Left Behind regime. States were mostly left to their own devices until a 2009 compact involving governors and state education directors authorized the development of “common core standards” for English-language proficiency and mathematics, presumably to be followed by more comprehensive standards. These new national norms, which the Obama administration has quietly supported, were potentially a big leap forward:

The writers of the standards, who included some of the nation’s leading subject-area experts, were guided by a simple mantra: “Fewer, higher, clearer.” That is, they wanted to produce a document that was leaner than many state standards and would provide the focus and coherence that many of the state standards lacked. They wanted standards that would surpass the expectations embodied in many state guidelines—and that, in fact, would be as high as those embodied in the standards of high-performing nations like Finland and Singapore. And they wanted standards that would be clear, so teachers could understand the goals students would be expected to reach and redesign their classrooms to help students attain them….

But adopting the new standards was merely the first step. The steps necessary to implement the standards in classrooms, and to support that implementation through new materials and training for teachers, have been and will continue to be far more significant.

In particular, “common assessments”–a.k.a. standardized tests–based on the new standards, being developed currently by two consortia of states (and funded by the U.S. Department of Education) are not due to hit the classrooms until the 2014-15 school year. They are intended to go far “deeper” in terms of judging student skills than the typical multiple-choice tests that have disatisfied so many teachers and parents. Beyond the tests, textbooks and other instructional materials keyed to the new standards are just now being developed.

You get a sense from Rothman that schools trying to implement the common core standards are engaged in something of a race against time, particularly thanks to a growing backlash in more conservative states where Republican legislators either bridle at the basic idea of national standards, or fear their extension into more controversial content-areas like the natural and social sciences. Indeed, you wonder if the standards would have so rapidly adopted had they not been developed prior to the 2010 elections. But Rothman is optimistic:

The result, if it is sustained, will be a major advancement for equal opportunity. Well before most other countries, the United States opened access to education and made universal public schooling common. With the advent of the standards movement, states began to define what that education should consist of. Now there is near-nationwide agreement on the matter, and the bar is higher than ever before. All students, regardless of their background or where they live, are now expected to learn what they need to know to be ready for college or the workplace by the time they graduate from high school. The tough part—living up to that challenge—comes next. But the foundation is in place.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.