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'Which Government Should Do What?'

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We have four years to lead the world. By 2000, according to presidents, governors, legislators, and other prognosticators, America's students will lead the world in mathematics and science achievements. All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. And to what purposes? In 1994, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act defined the purposes as preparing students for "responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation's modern economy."

One major way in which this and other ambitious goals were to be achieved was through the development of national standards in eight core disciplines. These standards--national, not federal; voluntary, not mandatory--would define what is essential for all students to know and be able to do. Standards were not intended to be a national curriculum nor a day-to-day "how to" guidebook for teachers. They were to focus on knowledge most worth knowing and on ways of thinking relevant to each discipline.

Many Americans were encouraged that attention was at last focused on what schools are about--teaching and learning. They were heartened to learn the nation's governors were taking the lead on proposals for standards that long had been coming from the business community.

Given the high hopes and bipartisan, grass-roots support for national academic standards, why are critics pronouncing them dead?

Some wounds were self-inflicted by the organizations commissioned to compose national standards. The U.S. and world history standards are a case in point. Not only was their sheer bulk daunting, but they set off an ideological firestorm that prejudiced the reception of other standards.

Other wounds were inflicted by agencies that could have provided leadership and oversight. For example, despite repeated requests, the U.S. Department of Education did not help develop consensus about the length or format of the documents. Nor did it respond to requests for assistance in obtaining standards from other nations so that U.S. standards could be internationally benchmarked.

Another less obvious, but more telling, reason for the failure to embrace national standards is our nation's historic mistrust of federal government. It has resulted in an uneasy, ill-defined, and often contentious relationship between federal and state governments.

Deciding which government should do what--and how much--did not come easily either to President Bush or President Clinton. Although Mr. Bush helped launch the national standards movement, he did not forward it. He promoted school choice and left local communities alone in working to achieve the national goals outlined in America 2000, his administration's precursor to Goals 2000.

Candidate Clinton took a different approach. He promised, if elected, to "establish tough standards and a national examination system." By 1994, he had modified his stance, saying only that "we must set tough world-class academic and occupational standards for all our children." And at the recent education summit, the president pulled back further, advocating shifting responsibility of standards and assessment to the states.

Adequate--let alone world-class--standards cannot be developed if states do not have the expertise or resources needed, and most states readily admit they do not. One must ask, therefore, whether hoping that 50 flowers will bloom is realistic. Is there such thing as Nebraska science, Kentucky English, Texas mathematics, or Montana civics and government? If not, does pride of ownership or the dubious distinction of involving everyone justify substandard standards?

The states had begun as early as 1992 to develop academic standards with federal funds. Some states developed their own standards without reference to national standards because they received grants before most of the standards were published. Other states have used national standards as resources, picking and choosing, rewriting and adapting them as states or districts saw fit.

The results have not always been favorable. A 1995 report by the American Federation of Teachers found that "only 13 states have standards that are strong enough to carry the weight of the reforms being built upon them." The AFT analysis showed that only one-fourth of the states have standards clear and specific enough to lead to a core curriculum for all students.

The issue of whether standards are developed at the state or national level has been blown out of proportion. The real imperative is helping all children develop competency over challenging subject matter and become responsible citizens.

The standards-setting process can go awry at the national, state, or local level. But, it also can go well--as in the case of the National Standards for Civics and Government, which have been endorsed by civic, business, labor, religious, academic, and professional groups, as well as by governors and members of Congress and state legislatures.

The civics standards are also attracting great interest abroad. Five thousand copies have been distributed worldwide through U.S. embassies. Nations from Poland to Nicaragua and Ghana to Mongolia are using the civics standards in their efforts to build or strengthen democracy. It is paradoxical but true that the U.S. civics standards are rapidly becoming world standards.

Closer to home, two other developments are worth noting. First, the civics standards are being reflected in new textbooks and classroom materials. Given the widespread use of textbooks, this is a step toward improved instruction. Second, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has adopted these standards for the 1998 assessment in civics.

As Americans, we cannot afford to abandon our efforts to develop and implement nationwide standards for all students. High standards can increase learning, foster excellence, and provide equity in the classroom. They also can help us achieve the purposes we as a people have set as goals for education: preparing students for citizenship, higher education, and employment in our changing economy.

See the next commentary in this special report,

Roy Romer.

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