The future of our increasingly complex and diverse democracy depends on the quality and equality of educational opportunity.
A national system of standards and assessment will improve educational quality only if it is part of a coherent, sustained, and systemic effort to improve instruction. The link to improving curriculum and instruction comes through the guidance provided by the vision and content goals embedded in the standards and the assessment.
Now, teacher professional-development activities, curriculum materials, and the incentive structure for instructional improvement in the system are chaotic, fragmented, and mediocre. Challenging content and performance standards (which set out what students should learn and how well they should learn it) could give direction and focus to sustained improvement in the quality of the education system.
Improvement in equality will come only if all of the nation’s students and schools share in the improvements in quality. Three considerations are critical:
- National content standards must respect the diversity of the nation and its students. They must be voluntary, reflecting the traditions and laws of the nation. They must give vision and focus, not detailed specification of a curriculum. Schools must be able to shape their curriculum in effective substantive and pedagogical ways to meet the needs of their students. Variation in perspective, understandings, and culture should be used to help improve the quality of the curriculum and instruction.
- An examination system based on national content standards should be instituted only if it is voluntary and valid. The key here is validity, which rests not in the test itself but in its use. If the proposed examinations are to have high stakes for students, they will only be valid if the students have had the opportunity to learn the material in the content standards. And if the examination results are to have high stakes for teachers and schools, teachers must have been trained to teach the material and the school must have the capacity to deliver it to all its students.
- We must move toward the goal of providing all students an equal opportunity to learn. Content standards could help provide the substantive structure for the development of school-delivery standards that assess whether a school has the human and capital capacity to provide its students an equal opportunity. Such standards would establish criteria and benchmarks for improving schools and could help provide the means for judging the validity of the examinations.
These considerations provide grist for moral and legal arguments that we can no longer tolerate one curriculum for the advantaged and another less challenging and less supported curriculum for the poor and minorities.
Will they guarantee equality of opportunity? Certainly not. Only we collectively can do that.
Would they offer more hope than we have under the present system? I think so.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: ‘Sharing in the Improvements’