Today, a Washington Post story reported that the push for common national standards in reading and math is gaining ground. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have now agreed to adopt the standards as their own.

This is notable progress when one considers how all prior efforts to promote a common set of academic standards in the United States have failed. But as the Post’s Nick Anderson reports, the Obama administration, working in concert with the National Governors Association, has been effective where others have failed by “encouraging the movement and dangling potential financial incentives for states to join.” The administration has also opted not to fund the actual work of the groups that drafted the standards, relying instead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private donors.

As with many other major issues, the question of standards has become a polarizing issue with starkly divided camps. On one side are advocates like Massachusetts state education commissioner Mitch Chester, who believe the proposed standards would provide “clearer signals to K-12 students about their readiness for success at the next level, including readiness for college or careers.” On the other side are folks like the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey, who worry that the push for common standards “is opening the door to federal control. It is the most alarming centralization of power in education you can come up with.”

Who’s right?

Well, as is usually the case, I think you can quickly dismiss the folks who inhabit the extreme poles of each camp. Clearly, standards by themselves will achieve nothing but, well, a new set of standards. Just as clearly, a set of common standards need not mean the end of local control and teacher autonomy, or the arrival of full-scale standardization.

Looking around the world is instructive here. Finland, the country with the best education system in the world, has national standards (in all subjects), but it uses them to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. Furthermore, standards are viewed as indicators of wisdom that students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction. In fact, Finland has no national exams, and student assessments are devised and implemented locally, thanks to the deep investments that country has made in its teachers.

This is a good model for how national standards should be used, says Andreas Schleicher, who heads the OECD’s Education Indicators and Analysis Division in Paris. “The question for the U.S. is not just how many charter schools it establishes,” he said, “but how to build the capacity for all schools to assume charter-like autonomy, as happens in some of the best-performing education systems.” Schleicher also points out how the U.S. relies disproportionately on “external accountability, ” or tests and consequences for poor performance, to improve schools.  By contrast, other countries do more to build their schools’ overall capacities for success, and rely on a variety of measures to gauge their progress.

Viewed in this way, national standards become helpful guideposts that contribute to a greater sense of shared clarity about what children should generally know and be able to do, not hurtful hitching posts that circumscribe local creativity, personalization, and autonomy.

Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. (Just look at the recent financial reform bill, and the last-minute changes made to it that will continue to allow banks to engage in the sorts of activities that led to the global economic crisis in the first place!)

Princeton economist Allan Blinder echoes a similar note of caution. “It is clear that the U.S. and other rich nations will have to transform their educational systems so as to produce workers for the jobs that will actually exist in their societies. Simply providing more education is probably a good thing on balance, especially if a more educated labor force is a more flexible labor force that can cope more readily with non-routine tasks and occupational change. But it is far from a panacea. In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them.”

Done correctly, I believe a new set of national standards (in all subjects) can help us clarify both how and what we teach our children, just as it has in other countries around the world. But if the end result of this movement is little more than a new set of national exams, we will do little more than fall further behind.