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Backlash Puts Standards WorkIn Harm's Way

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The movement to set national academic standards, in which several years of work and several millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested, is in danger of falling victim to a political backlash.

While the voluntary standards proposed for U.S. and world history have served as the primary lightning rod for critics, other projects have not gone untouched. The U.S. Education Department has backed away from paying for a new English-language-arts project, and the draft science standards have come in for some sniping.

What is more, in recent weeks, there have been signs that even the venerated benchmarks for mathematics will be challenged.

The question now is whether the quest to establish rigorous academic standards nationally and at the state and local levels can survive increasing pressure and waning political support.

The new Republican majority in Congress already has indicated that it will reopen debate on standards-related provisions of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and G.O.P. lawmakers in the state legislatures may follow suit.

"I am really concerned that the back-to-basics movement--the rote memory in math and phonics--fits right in with that political agenda," said Fred Tempes, the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the California education department.

At a meeting in Washington last month, John F. Jennings, who recently retired after 27 years as a top Democratic aide to the House Education and Labor Committee, briefed the national-standards projects' directors on what they might expect from incoming members of Congress.

They will be arriving in Washington, Mr. Jennings said, under the presumption that existing structures, programs, and legislation "ought to be thrown out."

"There is going to be a great deal of skepticism on the part of many members of Congress on the standards movement," Mr. Jennings said.

But some educators and policymakers still believe that the standards movement will ride out the troubles that have befallen it.

Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, both point out that polls show overwhelming public support for national academic standards. The two private education-reform groups have long advocated rigorous academic standards.

"I am very optimistic," said Mr. Tucker, whose center, based in Rochester, N.Y., is collaborating on the New Standards Project, which is developing a variety of standards and assessments.

Unconfined Damage

For the first few years, it seemed as though the drive to set voluntary national standards in major subjects was proceeding smoothly, at least publicly.

Then last March, the first fissure developed.

Citing major problems with the English-language-arts work, the Education Department refused to continue financing the project and said it would seek new proposals. (See Education Week, 03/30/94.)

Then last fall, Lynne V. Cheney, who had championed the drafting of history standards when she headed the National Endowment for the Humanities, wrote a caustic review of the new U.S. history standards for The Wall Street Journal.

She charged that they unfairly portray the United States and its white male leadership as oppressors and downplay the role of traditional historical figures. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

Even as the attacks against the U.S. history standards--and later those for world history--mounted, many educators believed the damage would be confined to history.

But that view is changing. Emily O. Wurtz, a senior education associate for the National Education Goals Panel, noted at the recent project directors' meeting: "The success or failure will depend on what people are saying about all the standards. It's not an inappropriate read to think that the standards are at risk."

That the peril is spreading is evident from remarks that Ms. Cheney made in a recent interview.

She said she has been fielding complaints about the pioneering and widely praised mathematics standards, which were developed and financed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and have been in circulation since 1989. Most of the complaints stem from a de-emphasis on computational skills.

"I was in error before when I said the trouble was going to be in the softer areas," Ms. Cheney said. "I think the standards across the board need to be looked at more carefully."

Salvaging History

By and large, last month's meeting of the project directors focused on salvaging the history standards and safeguarding the whole national-standards movement.

Gary Nash, the co-director of the history-standards project, outlined several steps the project leaders plan to take.

First, the group has been soliciting endorsement letters from the nation's most prominent historians.

Second, it is seeking private funding to publish a book containing only the content standards and excluding the suggested teaching activities, which have proved to be the more troublesome part of the history package.

The project leaders are also scheduled to meet this week in Washington with some of the leading critics of the history standards, such as Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in an attempt to fine-tune the more problematic areas. Ms. Cheney has also been invited. Revised volumes will be published.

Mr. Nash cautioned that "it's not so easy to include Native Americans and enslaved Africans without changing the tone of a textbook, a curriculum guideline, or anything else."

At the urging of others at the December meeting, the history-standards group decided to reach out to someone who may seem an unlikely ally--Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. If he is amenable, they will put together a delegation of historians to visit the new Speaker of the House, himself a historian.

Despite the history group's attempts to win over its critics, there are signs that turning the tide may be difficult.

Waning Washington Support

"If people are going to write standards based on political correctness," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the new chairman of the House education committee, "I can assure you we will have to rethink the whole thing--whether the federal role has already grown too large, whether we'll need NESIC."

Nesic--the National Education Standards and Improvement Council created by Congress to certify model national standards and standards states submit voluntarily--is in deep trouble on Capitol Hill and may never get off the ground. (See related story )

And Mr. Goodling, a retired educator who has sometimes been supportive of voluntary national(See education issues.

Observers also see little support coming from the Clinton Administration, which has emphasized standards development at the state and local levels for both philosophical and political reasons.

For example, in deciding not to pay for a new project for the development of English-language-arts standards, Education Department officials reasoned, at least in part, that the money might better be used by states to write their own.

Although the department has pledged to supplement funding for an economics-standards project, the level will be "nowhere near the large-scale effort that went on in the original funding," said Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education.

The department is even making the effort to refrain from calling the national standards "national standards."

"There really aren't national standards yet," Mr. Smith said. "There have been standards developed by clusters of national organizations in their areas. They aren't endorsed by anybody that is representative of the nation."

States of Uncertainty

How standards will fare at the state level is also uncertain.

A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed strong support for standards among the chairmen of legislative education committees. But the survey was conducted before the big G.O.P. gains in November's elections.

In Montana, for example, religious conservatives--who have tended to be critical of the standards movement--were largely responsible for the election of about 30 new legislators in November, according to Julie Davis Bell, the director of the N.C.S.L.'s education program.

"Clearly, when you look at these numbers and know standards is one of the things that has mobilized [religious conservatives], you can predict you are going to see some pulling back in the states," said Ms. Bell.

Regardless of the shift in political power, however, many states are forging ahead.

Illinois, for instance, has a Republican Governor, Senate, and House--the latter for the first time in 40 years. But educators there planned to start developing standards this week.

Delaware, which has been out front in setting state standards, is also moving forward.

But Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the state superintendent of public instruction, acknowledges that the woes of the national standards could affect state efforts.

"There is a concern that the static from the national level may clog up our radar screen," he said.

However, even some critics of some of the standards-setting projects are unwilling to give up on the whole idea.

"I don't know the first model of an automobile or a computer or anything that works," said Mr. Shanker.

Ms. Cheney also said she does not want to abandon the concept of standards.

"I think the whole idea of having rigorous standards is still widely applauded," she said. "It just may be something that has to be developed at the state and local level instead."

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