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Standards In Collision

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While some other teachers were reading novels at the beach last summer, Richard Aieta was slogging through thick, dense drafts of national academic standards. Those documents lay out in varying detail the considered opinions of a wide range of academics and educators about what students from Maine to California should know and be able to do at key points in their schooling.

The drafts Aieta read covered the study of history, geography, and civics. In all, they contained 439 pages.

Aieta read them for two reasons. First, because he feels that is part of his job as the chairman of the social-studies department at Hamilton-Wenham High School in Gloucester, Mass.

But he also read them because he is wary of those outside his profession telling him what to teach.

And now he is worried.

"I have a major concern about being held accountable for all this,'' he says. "I'm already trying to fit 10 pounds into a five-pound bag.''

"If all these documents come out this way,'' he adds, "somebody's going to have to take a sabbatical to read it all.''

While Aieta may be one of the few teachers across the country who have actually read drafts of proposed, voluntary national academic standards, his concerns are far from unique. As the standards-setting movement continues to gain momentum, worries that the documents may turn out to be too numerous, too lengthy, too much to teach, and too different from one another are being voiced with increasing frequency. And, in the end, Aieta fears, it may be educators like himself at the local level--curriculum supervisors and department heads and teachers--who must try to put it all together.

The movement to set national standards in precollegiate subjects was launched by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In the early 1980's the council began to develop a common set of benchmarks for teaching math that all of its teachers could strive to reach. Its curriculum standards were completed in 1989; soon after, the organization set out to develop teaching and assessment standards to accompany them.

President Bush and the nation's governors picked up on the idea in 1990 when they set national goals for improving education. One of those goals calls for setting voluntary "world class'' standards for what students should know and be able to do in five core subject areas.

State, Other Efforts

Now, four years later, at least 11 national professional and subject-matter groups are spearheading efforts to set academic standards for their own disciplines. And the federal government is helping to support those efforts in seven commonly taught subjects: the arts, civics, English, foreign language, geography, history, and science.

President Clinton's "goals 2000: educate America act,'' which is pending in Congress, would set up a national panel to review and certify the standards--to lend them, in other words, a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

But that bill would also add more standards. It would authorize the development of performance standards by which to judge student achievement, of "opportunity to learn'' or "delivery'' standards to help insure that schools have the resources to meet the new academic standards, and of vocational-skills standards to make sure that students have the tools they need to succeed in the workplace.

And all of this activity comes as states are setting out on their own to do much the same thing. According to a federally sponsored study completed last summer by Policy Studies Associates, a Washington firm, at least 45 states are planning, developing, or implementing new curriculum standards. They may be calling the standards "frameworks'' or "outcomes,'' but the idea is the same: to set high benchmarks for student learning.

Academic standards are also central to the missions of a number of other independent projects that are nationwide in scope, such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the College Board's Pacesetter program, and the New Standards Project.

"There's a legitimate apprehension that there's an awful lot of people and organizations calling the shots and the shots that they're calling are too different,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department.

"What's less legitimate is people who will look for any and every reason to not be held accountable for their results,'' he adds. "If you trash the standards as unrealistic and confusing, then you've given yourself a reason to not even try to reach the standards.''

Still, most of those who are engaged in or are studying the standards movement agree that what is emerging so far is nothing short of confusing.

"When you stand back and look at all these different projects, it's difficult to see what a typical 8th grader should look like,'' says Patte Barth, the director of publications for the Council for Basic Education.

A Foot Thick

The issue is bound to gain in prominence in the month ahead if, as expected, the Goals 2000 bill wins Congressional approval. Then the Education Department plans to embark on a major campaign to promote the new content standards. And, while the standards are voluntary, the hope is that every state and school district will make them part of its own goals for education.

While only the math standards have been finished, nearly all of the other standards-setting projects have at least something in writing. Those documents range from a five-page framework for standards to nearly complete drafts, as is the case for geography and for the arts.

In their current forms, many of the documents contain 200 or more pages and dozens of separate standards. The curriculum and evaluation standards devised by the math teachers' council, which have served as a model for most of the efforts, are 256 pages long.

"I think these documents would just end up sitting on the shelf if you expect teachers to read them the way they are,'' says Diane Massell, who has tracked the standards movement as a research associate at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University.

"And God help the elementary school teacher when all of this is going to come down on them,'' Aieta adds. Those teachers, who are responsible for instructing their students in eight or more subjects, could face a stack of standards a foot or more thick.

In practice, however, the job of translating standards may not even fall on some teachers. That task may go to curriculum supervisors at the state or district level. But observers say that even those specially trained professionals will find it difficult to mold the new standards to existing state education goals, to line them all up and see where they overlap, and to translate them for others.

That job will be made even harder by budget cuts that have left many state education departments without adequate staffing to handle the new standards.

The 'Barbershop' Test

But leaders of most standards-setting groups insist that standards should be for teachers and parents and policymakers as much as they are for anybody else. And teachers should at least read some version of the final standards for their subject areas.

For that reason, the finished documents need to be both manageable and readable. In the words of one national panel that has recommended some common criteria for the standards, they must pass the "barbershop and beauty-salon test.''

"In other words,'' explains Finn, a member of that panel, "if you took this into people waiting for a haircut or a perm, would it make sense? I don't think you want a whole lot of barbershops saying this is politically unacceptable or elitist.''

Thus far, some experts say, at least a few of the standards drafts are falling short in that regard.

"It's going to take an educationist to sit down and read and study these documents,'' says Glen Cutlip, who follows the standards effort for the National Education Association. "I just don't think they're quite as readable at the classroom level.''

Such concerns have not gone entirely unheeded. For example, the Center for Civic Education, the National Center for History in the Schools, and the Geography Education Standards Project--the three groups that have led standards-writing in Richard Aieta's areas of expertise--are already engaged in the process of paring down their standards and documents. And the arts-standards project has added a glossary to explain some of the jargon associated with that field.

Fitting It All In

The larger issue may be whether schools can possibly do all that the standards documents are asking.

"It's my observation that each of these projects is using its project to sort of stake out its area and occupy a certain amount of time in the curriculum,'' says Ramsay Selden, the director of the Council of Chief State School Officers' state education-assessment center.

"This is a unique event, and if they don't lay out comprehensively what kids should be taught, chances are it'll never happen again,'' he adds. "But, in essence, they're saying to states and localities, 'Here, you work it out. You squeeze it and juggle it to fit things.'''

Aieta offers a case in point. He sits on a national panel that is overseeing the standards-setting effort in geography. His school is located in an affluent suburb on Boston's North Shore, and he supervises a department of seven social-studies educators. Yet, he says, his students cannot be taught everything that the history, geography, and civics standards currently maintain they should learn.

"The standards are going to fit if you give me the latitude not to graduate students until they're 28 years old,'' he says.

Finn, in response to such concerns, points out, "It's going to have to be a matter of picking and choosing.''

"You can't use both the metric system and feet and pounds at the same time,'' he says.

Finn says he once thought schools should be expected to meet all of the standards.

"Then I realized nobody was saying 'No' to the subject groups,'' he says, referring to the burgeoning movement. The number of federally sanctioned standards projects, for example, has grown from five to eight over three years.

"I fully expect we will wake up one day and have standards for home economics and driver education,'' Finn says.

But, as Aieta observes, local school boards may not see the standards as a smorgasbord.

"If you were a school board member, would you want this to be a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from, or want kids to be able to do all these things?'' he asks. "I'm afraid this is being set up to blame the teacher.''

Finding Solutions

Some educators argue that if there are too many standards to fit, part of the solution may be to extend the school day or year to accommodate them. Similarly, ways might be found to integrate subject matter into interdisciplinary courses.

"Probably, if you took all these documents across the states, there's a core [of standards] there so that some of these initial fears will be calmed,'' Massell of CPRE at Rutgers says. "There's going to be some overlap.''

"It's all in there. It's just a matter of pulling it out,'' adds Barth of the Council for Basic Education, which is proposing to do just that.

Showing schools those points of intersection, however, is beyond the charge of most of the national-standards group. Only those federally supported standards-writing groups that fall under the rubric of the social sciences are planning to come out with a separate, integrated document aimed at the elementary school level. The rest may be forced to leave that job to others.

The task of integration is made more challenging by the different forms the standards are taking. The English-standards group, for example, plans to use classroom vignettes to tell much of its story. While both the arts and geography groups are using the term "content standards'' to describe their work, each has defined the term differently. Some of the documents are written in broad language. Others, in the words of one prominent educator, "are trying to nail down everything that moves.''

"Now, they appear to be working in isolation from one another, and maybe they have to at this stage,'' says Joan Palmer, the deputy superintendent for school improvement at the Maryland education department. "Somebody needs to line them all up and look at what is reasonable and feasible, what are the essentials, and where is the overlap.''

Some further mismatches are expected between the national standards and the curricular benchmarks that 45 states, including Maryland, have already set or are in the process of developing. Maine's "common core of learning,'' for example, eschews traditional subject-area boundaries and instead maps out broad skills that cut across the disciplines. While California's historyand social-sciences framework may come close to what the proposed national history standards recommend, Alabama has taken a different route and made ecology the core of its social-studies program. And draft versions of standards documents in Colorado so far contain only six standards for mathematics--far short of the N.C.T.M.'s 55 standards.

On the other hand, groups such as the N.C.T.M. contend that states are already trying to align themselves with national standards. In a survey published last year, the math teachers' council said it found 41 states that were incorporating its standards into their own curricular guidelines.

Stepping Into the Void

To some degree, the job of the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, or NESIC, which would be established under the Goals 2000 bill to review the new standards, may be to introduce some order into the standards-setting process. A national advisory panel has already recommended that NESIC consider requiring states that submit standards for certification to take steps to insure that the entire package adds up to a "feasible, coherent'' curriculum. But the standards council does not yet exist.

In the meantime, a number of national groups are proposing to step into the void and make the standards more "user friendly'' for educators at the local level. The Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council for Basic Education, and the National Center for Improving Science Education are seeking funding for efforts aimed at finding areas of commonality among the variousstandards and repackaging them in more manageable ways. The C.C.S.S.O. is also looking to set up a network to provide the standards efforts with feedback from the states and to provide technical assistance to states planning to incorporate the new standards.

The College Board has proposed that a national center be created to explore interdisciplinary issues. And the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, an umbrella group of 25 subject-matter organizations, is seeking funding to support a network of schools as they struggle to implement the standards.

The degree to which national and state standards will look alike will, however, ultimately depend on what the public wants from its voluntary national academic standards. Not long ago, the idea of a national curriculum was anathema, and control of the curriculum was seen as the sole province of local communities.

"If you view the task of government as providing sufficient resources to let a thousand flowers bloom, then the situation being described is not a big problem,'' says Marc S. Tucker, the director of the New Standards Project, which is seeking to develop a system of assessments that is based on some of the standards.

If, on the other hand, the responsibility is to insure that all children, regardless of where they live, have access to schools that teach to the same high academic standards, then the differences among the standards, and negative perceptions about their usefulness, could pose a problem.

"That,'' Tucker says, "may be the most important decision that NESIC has to make.''

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