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The Politics of Standards

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The business of setting academic standards is getting complicated. While virtually everyone now agrees that schoolchildren need to work toward cohesive, world-class standards, parents, educators, and policymakers disagree on who should implement and enforce them.

This spring, the unveiling of the language-arts standards marked the completion of the writing of these national academic blueprints. With states poised to adapt these national-level standards for their own uses, educators and policymakers are rethinking how, and whether, to put national standards in place.

The idea of academic standards, set at a national level and implemented nationwide, gained political currency at an education summit convened by President Bush in 1989. But today's vastly different political climate favors a devolution of all decisionmaking to the state and local levels. Keep the federal government out of it, states and localities seem to be saying.

The education summit this March delved into how these national standards, which have already been written, might be used in states, districts, and schools. Governors and business leaders voiced their support for the concept of standards. They emphasized, though, that they want the benchmarks to be their own.

In this special Commentary section, five authors examine the politics of standards. Their experiences with creating, advocating, and using standards point to the new challenges in adapting national standards to state and local levels.

As one author points out, national standards are a necessary means for ensuring that all U.S. students master similar, transferable skills and have equal footing in a global economy. On the other hand, a conservative opponent of standards, skeptical of national summits and national standards, argues that parents need not look past their own back yard for direction.

A governor, present at both the 1989 and 1996 education summits, advocates overlaying a national template onto state and local curricular standards. And a writer of one set of subject-area standards says that with adequate resources and expertise at every level, national standards should be given a chance. Finally, a teacher asserts that, without the will to enforce higher expectations at a classroom level, simply setting high standards is meaningless.

When it comes to academic standards, it's everyone's business.

See the next commentary in this special report,

Margaret S. Branson.

This special Commentary report, one in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

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