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By All Measures: 'Rooted in Common Sense'

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Why do educators need something as far-reaching as national standards? Some reasons are rooted in common sense. National curriculum standards in basic subjects act as frames of reference for teachers. They provide a baseline of core knowledge and academic achievement. They promote higher and more even expectations for students across the country.

Many schools today presume that students will decide themselves how much and what they will learn. While teachers may have set expectations, the tendency is to fudge or hold to porous standards that accommodate the largest number of pupils. At present, high student performers are driven by internal, family, or teacher expectations, not by a coherent curricular standard.

A scaffolding of basic information gives keys to the workings of language, numbers, and civics--virtually a precondition for success for children of all backgrounds. Such knowledge--widely held--is essential if the United States chooses to remain encased in its system of democratic capitalism.

Much "fear of standards'' derives from egalitarian unease at recognizing individual accomplishment--at the risk of "hurting'' other students' self-esteem. Cooperative student behavior often makes the real standard, even if performance is in doubt. The equity issues prevalent in discourse over national standards are vast--but not daunting. All Americans should remember that the academic standards under discussion will be voluntary in the end. These standards will constitute an effort to improve curricula and student performance by suasion rather than by fiat or shaming.

Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council and a member of the National Council for History Standards.

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