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The Politics of National Standards

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As the American school's latest reform movement gathered momentum in the 1980's, the idea of national standards raised a noble hope, the belief that if we spotlighted the grandest peaks of knowledge in school subjects, teachers and students would strive to scale them. We are now close to seeing Congress pass legislation establishing national standards (the "goals 2000: educate America act''), but as befalls many great ideas, the codified reality is distinguished more by pragmatic compromises than by soaring aspirations. Though essential to the art of governing, in this case political compromise has dealt a potentially mortal blow to original purpose.

National education goals will succeed or fail on their ability to raise American students' and parents' and teachers' appreciation for the work that they do, to motivate the key actors in schooling by placing their day-to-day labors within a larger, national mission. It is not the conservative complaint that national standards usurp local authority over education that tarnishes the latest effort. Nor is it the liberal complaint that standards supply new justifications for condemning the historically disadvantaged members of our society. Both are legitimate concerns. But, unfortunately, in accommodating these and other concerns, Goals 2000 lost its focus. What we have now looks more like 2,000 educational goals--and a missed opportunity to debate and to resolve what our schools are about, a lost opportunity to sharpen the purpose of schooling in America. Moreover, the failure of the standards to speak directly to teachers and students renders the recent debate largely irrelevant to the nation's classrooms. Schoolpeople are not the audience for this legislation; more than anything else, Goals 2000 consists of a conversation among governments--federal, state, and local. How did this happen?

The three sets of educational standards--content, performance, and delivery--have their own interesting political histories. Content standards define the curriculum schools are to offer; performance standards establish content-mastery levels and include assessments to measure whether students meet acceptable thresholds; and delivery standards spell out the quality of services schools must provide so that students have a reasonable opportunity to achieve the expected levels of learning. Under the legislation, a National Education Standards and Improvement Council would set voluntary national standards in the three areas, with states submitting their own standards to the council for certification that they meet or exceed the national benchmarks. The emphasis on state autonomy is designed to allay fears of an intrusive federal government.

Content standards in core academic subjects (English, mathematics, science, history, and geography) were originally suggested by the education summit convened by President Bush and the nation's governors in 1989. After complaints from professional educators' groups representing other subject disciplines, foreign languages and the arts were added to the core group, and standards development is proceeding in civics and physical education as well. Faced with choosing between a spare or expansive core curriculum, educational leaders have opted for the latter.

Performance standards require tests of some kind to measure student achievement. After the public outcry following A Nation At Risk in 1983, most states instituted assessment systems to monitor student learning. For the most part, these tests are used to determine if minimum competency in basic subjects has been attained, with high school graduation or grade promotion dependent upon the results. Responding to concerns for equity, Goals 2000 would bar states for the first five years from using assessments under the new program for such high-stakes outcomes. The lesson from the states' experience with testing poses a conundrum. If tests are to be taken seriously, they must have important consequences. If tests have important consequences, however, they tend to be designed so that most current students can pass them, set at the level of minimum competency, not at the level of world-class standards. The five-year moratorium only delays confronting this dilemma.

Delivery standards mark a departure from reform legislation pushed by Republican administrations in the past and from the original legislation offered by the Clinton Administration. When the reform bill was introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year, several Democratic members of Congress, led by Rep. William D. Ford of Michigan, the chairman of the House committee considering the legislation, rejected the bill's sole emphasis on educational outcomes, insisting that it also address systemic inputs (for example, class size, expenditures per pupil, school facilities). One amendment adopted by the House committee mandates that states establish time lines to remedy school districts not meeting these service and facility requirements. Another forbids states from implementing the other standards--content and performance--until delivery standards are in place. These provisions are designed to promote a level playing field for all students before judgments are made about who has succeeded and who has failed. Unfortunately, however, they provide no new revenues to assist states or local districts in bringing impoverished schools up to standard. Notwithstanding their voluntary nature, the delivery standards smack of federal mandate without crucial federal funding. In addition, as Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers has correctly warned, delivery standards are an invitation to excuse resource-poor schools from meeting national expectations for achievement. If this happens, it is our nation's most disadvantaged students who stand to lose.

The legislation relies upon the elaborate machinery of governmental bureaucracies to operate as a catalyst for school reform. The federal government will tell state governments that they need to do better, state governments will tell local districts that they need to do better, local districts will tell school principals that they need to do better, and principals will tell teachers that they need to do better--trickle-down school reform. This fundamental flaw in the legislation is exacerbated by the political pressures mentioned above--pressures from liberal and conservative politicians, state interests, and professional groups. It originates, however, from the federal government's trying to alter, without incentives or sanctions, the inherently local nature of school governance and finance. For the legislation to succeed, either creative implementation or future amendments need to connect the federal government with local schoolpeople in a useful, purposeful manner. Three improvements would begin to forge this connection:

  • Redefine the audience and narrow the standards. Diminish the intergovernmental thrust of the bill. Talk to teachers and students and parents, not just governments. National standards should clearly lay out what the nation expects students to learn and teachers to teach in a way that teachers, students, and parents can understand. If this can only be done in a few school subjects, so much the better. Trying to describe everything a fully enlightened individual needs to know in a complex society entering the 21st century should be left to others.
  • Develop and distribute a useful test. Another test that identifies the students who have not learned material is not very valuable to teachers; they already know. Another test that identifies struggling schools is not very valuable to district and state administrators; they already know. What would be valuable is a test that tells teachers, students, and parents the knowledge an individual student has learned and the knowledge remaining to be learned in core subjects.If this information is made available early enough in the school year, teachers could build it into their curricular planning. Diagnostic testing is extremely expensive, but the potential payoffs are enormous. Schools that can afford such information already purchase it from private testing companies. This approach would require that we change the posture of national performance standards from monitoring and compliance to gathering information and sharing it with the most important people in learning.
  • Collect and publicize information on school services. This information is already in the hands of savvy real-estate agents, but the real audience for such information is parents. Let them know schools' average class sizes, whether teachers are teaching in the subject areas for which they were credentialed, and if rigorous Advanced Placement courses are offered. Forget setting national delivery standards that dictate specific features. There is too much variation in the local contingencies affecting critical school characteristics, too much within states to set enforceable state standards, let alone national standards. In addition, the provision of adequate school services is ultimately a political decision made by states and localities, involving taxation and revenue distribution, or a local judicial decision, involving state constitutional requirements. The federal government cannot force local governments to provide schools with challenging curriculum and productive environments, but parents might be able to do so if they were armed with data documenting glaring deficiencies.

The educational-reform movementbegan with great hope, and national standards represent one effort to satisfy our yearning for better schools. Unfortunately, political compromises have diminished the promise of Goals 2000, the national-standards legislation. By responding to powerful interests, the bill proclaims to layers of government that education needs fundamental reform, ignoring the teachers, students, and parents who sit at the center of educational efforts. Like a puff of smoke on a distant horizon, the political battle over Goals 2000 was a remote event to those who should have been involved, but were not.

Tom Loveless is an assistant professor of public policy and a faculty affiliate of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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