Standards: Running Out of Steam

By Karen Diegmueller — April 12, 1995 25 min read
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From the richest to the poorest, from the learning disabled to the gifted, students throughout the United States are taught from a common, demanding body of knowledge. They outperform all others on international assessments. They graduate from high school and make a seamless transition into college or the workplace, where they demonstrate world-class skills, creativity, and academic prowess.

Such an educational utopia is what some educators have long hoped will result from reform efforts that make high academic standards their starting point. If schools nationwide would only raise their expectations for all students by setting rigorous standards, the premise goes, then learning and achievement would surely blossom.

The Standards Movement:
A Progress Report
Overview: Struggling for Standards
Running Out of Steam
Standards Times 50
The View From the Classroom
Missing From The Debate

To that end, thousands of educators and policymakers have been laboring since the late 1980’s to craft voluntary standards that will promote academic excellence and equity. At the national level, the movement began with an effort in the mathematics community to redefine radically how that subject is taught. But it quickly gained momentum and swept across the disciplines. Along the way, it picked up federal funding and support and--to some observers--became more of a federal than a national effort.

The movement also picked up opponents. Some fear the development of a national curriculum and excessive intrusion by the federal government into matters of state and local control. Others question whether the emerging standards really meet the needs of all students.

Today, just as most of the multimillion-dollar efforts are nearing completion and final or draft documents are widely available, the movement has begun to show signs of slowing. Even its most ardent supporters question how useful the standards ultimately will be. They say that while some districts and states appear determined to adopt rigorous academic standards, others seem bent on maintaining a status quo that will deprive many children of a first-class education. “Some of the expectations were unrealistic to begin with,” acknowledges Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education. Setting standards for the core subjects is a much more complex enterprise than many had imagined.

But Cross believes that the idea of standards remains “as vital and powerful today as it has ever been. Standards are the bedrock of making major improvements in our schools.”

Building Blocks

The work of designing standards began with content standards. Essentially, these describe what students should know and be able to do in a given subject area by the time they complete the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

For several years now, a dozen groups have been developing these standards. Half the groups have completed their work, four are in the last draft stages, and two have yet to release drafts. Some of the resulting standards, such as those in health, offer general descriptions. The arts standards, on the other hand, are very specific in laying out what is expected of students.

Content standards were to be the foundation on which excellence and equity would be built. Once schools had content standards in place, other pieces were to follow--new assessments, professional development, new textbooks and other appropriate resources, and policies to reinforce the expectation of academic rigor.

Such a design bears a striking resemblance to the way school systems are structured in other industrialized nations, where students often outperform U.S. students on international assessments.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, likes to point out that France, Germany, and Japan have an interlocking system of curriculum, teacher training, textbooks, assessments, and consequences. Students are tested on curriculum that is based on national standards. And those who perform well are rewarded with entree to institutions of higher education and better jobs.

“They have a connected system,” Shanker says. “We have a system that doesn’t count.”

But in these other nations, the national governments generally have a hand in setting academic standards, a concept that is anathema to many in the United States.

Not that the federal government has kept out of educational affairs. It has required schools to educate minority students alongside white children. It has forced districts to provide a free, appropriate education for special-needs students and to give girls the same academic and athletic opportunities as boys.

But the uneasy truce between states and districts and the federal government in these areas has not meant that state and local officials were willing to permit Washington to trespass onto such sensitive turf as what is taught in the schools.

So it was a radical departure when President George Bush and the nation’s governors met in Charlottesville, Va., in September 1989 and agreed to set national education goals.

“It was a major breakthrough,” says Cross, who was an assistant secretary of education under Bush. “It was inspired by a sense of crisis about the perform~ance of schools and what was happening. We had to put aside our traditional beliefs and positions and come together around a new way to look at things, a new way to do things.”

A Mathematical Model

None of the national goals eventually adopted by Congress specifically mentions academic standards.

One, however, calls for “all students [to] leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography” by 2000.

Another calls for students to be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.”

But without some way to define and measure terms like “competency” and “world class,” educators asked, how could the nation ever determine if the goals had been met?

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics had a ready-made answer. Shortly before the historic goals-setting, the N.C.T.M. published a 258-page book of curriculum and student-evaluation standards. It redefined the study of math so that topics and concepts would be introduced at an earlier age, and students would view math as a relevant problem-solving discipline rather than as a set of obscure formulas to be memorized.

Meanwhile, other education groups issued critical reports calling for changes in curriculum. The National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, launched their own curriculum projects.

And the nation’s most populous state, California, began a massive restructuring of its curriculum frameworks that incorporated the latest research about how children learn.

“We were converging on this notion from many different directions,” says Shirley M. Malcom, the head of education for the a.a.a.s.

Diane Ravitch, then an assistant secretary of education, recalls that officials of the National Academy of Sciences used the math standards in urging Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to underwrite national standards-setting projects. Alexander bankrolled the projects out of his office’s discretionary budget.

Shortly thereafter, the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, a Congressionally chartered bipartisan panel, recommended that content and performance standards be developed along with a system of national assessments based on the standards. It also recommended that states establish “school delivery standards” so that students have the necessary resources available to provide them with the “opportunity to learn.”

Educational Apartheid

To be sure, critics quickly emerged. Some argued that national standards diverted attention from more pressing issues. They also feared that a government imprimatur might lead to the dangerous precedent of establishing a body of official knowledge.

Some of those same arguments reverberate today. “Some kids [are] going to schools which are barely habitable,” says Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools. “The maps on the wall [of classrooms] still call it the Belgian Congo. Those are the things that just cry out for attention.”

Writing about the national history standards, historian Hanna Holborn Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago, questioned why national standards were needed at all.

“However respectable the motive, a nationally certified, federally funded, consensus-laden version of history can only be seen as a kind of mandated interpretation of the past, an official regulation of its lessons--and a sure invitation to political misuse,” she wrote in a column in The Washington Post in January.

Michael W. Apple’s fears hinge not so much on standards as on national testing, which, in the name of accountability, he is sure will follow.

Apple, the John Bascom professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, believes that the current political climate and budget crises in the states will make it difficult to bring about the improvements in assessments needed to give a true indication of whether all students are mastering the content. Consequently, traditional standardized tests will be used, low-income and minority children will continue to fare poorly on them, and their schools will receive failing grades. Taxpayers and policymakers will refuse to fund such institutions, and they will be effectively abandoned.

“National standards and national testing are the first steps toward educational apartheid under the rhetoric of accountability,” Apple contends.

Broad-Based Support

Despite these concerns, numerous polls show the public overwhelmingly supports the idea of high standard

One of the most in-depth gauges of public sentiment was undertaken in the fall of 1991. A series of focus groups, made up predominantly of parents, was conducted in 10 cities for the New Standards project, a consortium of states and school districts that is creating a national system of standards and assessments.

“There was a near consensus that there should be a set of standards established for the nation as a whole,” says Vince Breglio, the president of RSM, the Lanham, Md.-based consulting firm that convened the groups.

High standards were more important to working- and middle-class parents who worried that their children might not succeed because the schools did not expect or demand as much of them, Breglio explains.

But the focus groups were wary about “Big Brother” setting the standards and said it would be imperative for parents and teachers to be involved.

They were also skeptical about applying the same standards to all children--a central tenet of the movement.

The poor performance of U.S. students, as meas~ured by such tests as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also brought the business community on board. Heightening employers’ anxiety was the realization that the workforce of the future had to be far better skilled and knowledgeable than previous generations because of the changing world economy.

A uniform system of standards and assessments would also help employers judge prospective workers. A recent federal survey of managers from more than 3,000 companies found that employers were reluctant to base their hiring decisions on grades, teacher recommendations, and school reputations because of a lack of confidence in their reliability.

“We would ultimately like to see national standards and national assessments,” says Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the vice president and director of education for the Committee for Economic Development. “You have to have an assessment system to go with it. Just to have standards is meaningless.”

Standards Everywhere

The notion of academic standards is really not a new one. Whether they know it or not, every school already has standards. Schools that send large proportions of their students on to the most selective universities year in and year out clearly maintain rigorous standards. In schools where students ordinarily don’t perform well, individual teachers may have high expectations. Even in schools in which the administrators, teachers, and students don’t know about standards, they exist in the form of tests and textbooks. But the likelihood that those standards are rigorous is slim.

The differing standards, advocates of a national approach believe, sharpen the inequities within and between schools.

Paul A. Gagnon says the Cambridge, Mass., public high school his children attended offered only two world-history classes for about 30 students each. “The rest of the students in a 2,000-student high school never had a course,” the research professor at Boston University says.

One honors student recounts how after his freshman year in an urban school system in New Jersey, he moved to a nearby suburb and his grades dropped. “The school system was so hard,” he says, and teachers expected more.

“When teachers see you fail or skipping, they’re constantly on your back. ‘Come to me this period and I’ll explain it to you.’ If that doesn’t work, they call the seniors as tutors.”

“It would be bad,” he continues, “if people in one state or one city succeed or fail because their school systems are different.”

Although the United States, in theory, has 15,000 sets of curricula for its 15,000 districts, many educators believe there exists a de facto national curriculum established by the textbook and test publishers. And it’s not a good one.

“What do these guys think is going on out there now?” Bill Honig, the former superintendent of public instruction who initiated standards-based reform in California, asks of opponents of national standards. Right now, Honig says, there are too many trivial, superficial lessons derived in large part from watered-down textbooks.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and a former assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, describes the K-12 curriculum enveloping our nation as reflecting the lowest common denominator--the kind that turns O.J. Simpson and the Super Bowl into national standards. “I thought we could change that,” he says. “President Bush thought we could change that. The governors thought we could do that.” Finn doesn’t think so anymore, in part because of what’s in the documents that have been produced thus far. And, in part, because he thinks the federal government got too involved.

Federal Involvement

In 1991, science and history became the first standards projects to receive funding from the Education Department. Then, in summer 1992, the arts, civics, and geography projects were funded, later to be joined by English/language arts and foreign languages. Last month, the Education Department decided against funding the economics project, which will have to go it alone.

Other federal agencies and philanthropic foundations also contributed to the projects.

There was no competition for the grants. “It was never really the desire of the federal agencies that there be competing proposals,” says one insider. Federal officials wanted all the key players working together to build consensus documents rather than fighting each other over federal funds.

Essentially, groups interested in developing standards in a given discipline simply approached the Education Department for funding. In some cases, such as English/language arts, professional teachers’ organizations headed up the projects. In others, such as geography, it was a collective of interested parties. A nonprofit educational center took the lead in history and civics.

Meanwhile, other groups started writing standards in physical education, health, and social studies without the benefit of federal monies.

Most project leaders quickly discarded the notion of developing performance standards, which basically describe what students must do and how well they must do it to meet the standards--or how good is good enough. They decided there was neither the time nor the money. They had only two or three years to meet their deadlines--a relatively short time for the amount of work required and the number of constituencies involved.

History, for example, received funding in December 1991 and had to complete three documents by fall 1994. In addition to its 29-member oversight council, it had to satisfy 33 constituency groups.

Each project was also supposed to develop standards for all students, but bilingual and special educators, in particular, question whether they satisfied that requirement.

Confusion Reigns

In the beginning, policymakers and educators had hoped to see concise standards documents that had common definitions and symmetry. “We begged them to use the same terminology and definitions of their work lest there be total confusion,” recalls Malcom, who was chairwoman of a committee for the National Education Goals Panel.

Malcom says she feared the projects would not be taken seriously if they did not keep a tight rein on their list of standards. “If you say everything is equally important, you run a risk of saying nothing is of importance,” she says. “None has met the parsimony test.”

Finn is less gracious in his critique. “The professional associations, without exception, lacked discipline. They all demonstrated gluttonous and imperialistic tendencies.”

Taken together, the standards documents to date weigh 14 pounds and stand six inches tall, excluding English/language arts and economics. All told, their pages number 2,312. The shortest document is in health and the longest is in science. Some, of course, are still in draft form, and final versions could shrink or expand.

By contrast, the Japanese national curriculum fits into “three slender volumes, one for elementary schools, one for lower secondary schools, and one for upper secondary schools,” according to Ravitch’s book National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide. And in France, Gagnon says, the standards for history, geography, and civics combined run about 130 pages.

“In order to meet all the standards, we would have to have 14-hour days,” says Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association.

Some of the projects’ leaders had hoped to develop standards that were compatible across subjects, making them easier for curriculum specialists and teachers to use. Others balked, preferring to follow their own muse.

The end result has been 12 documents, thus far, each with its own format and definitions, including the four that were self-financed--math, social studies, physical education, and health. Two others, English/language arts and economics, have yet to be released.

Some cover content standards only; some include performance standards, and some list “opportunity to learn” standards that describe the resources students need to meet the standards. Some even have assessment recommendations. Some include teaching activities; others don’t.

And they clearly speak to different audiences. For example, the history standards’ teaching activities speak to classroom teachers. Civics standards, on the other hand, have no activities and are described as a technical document to be used for planning frameworks.

Only in one area are they nearly uniform. Except for physical education and health, they have all set their benchmarks at three levels: grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

At least four organizations--the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, the College Board’s Forum on Standards and Learning, the Council for Basic Education, and the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory--are looking at ways to reconcile the standards documents.

Walking a Tightrope

The standards-setters acknowledge that their documents are voluminous. But they maintain that they are realistic if schools approach them as guides, picking and choosing what is appropriate for their students. They also say the material is cumulative and practical if schools start offering core courses earlier and more often.

Moreover, they believe that some topics can be taught across the curriculum. History and geography, for instance, have standards related to migration; geography and science both address the environment.

And, they note, they are in a no-win situation. They’ve been criticized for their omissions and commissions alike.

Gagnon, who served in the U.S. Education Department when the standards projects were first funded, compiled a list of criteria for the groups to follow. But in the end, other officials chose a less formal approach.

“What I emphasized was brevity,” says Ravitch. She says she also told the groups to avoid “pedagogical imperialism--to say there was only one way to do things. Some of them at any rate did what they wanted to do.”

Both Ravitch, who worked for Bush, and Marshall S. Smith, the current undersecretary of education, say department officials have always walked a tightrope where the standards projects were concerned: Take too strong a position and the federal government is accused of dictating standards. Be too lenient and be accused of lackadaisical oversight.

“If I had it all to do over again,” says Ravitch, “I would hope to have more time. I would have told all of these projects they had to be deliverable in under 100 pages.”

Had it been his call, Smith says he would have liked to have seen the standards developed over a seven- to eight-year period, using the same voluntary collaborative and reflective model the N.C.T.M. followed.

Lynne V. Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the whole affair illustrates the pitfalls of government entanglement. “As long as you have an instrument of the state involved, any effort to control content is problematic,” she says. “It’s a perfect argument for why the government shouldn’t be involved in these.”

A Public Lashing

The first public sign that the national standards were in trouble came in March 1994, when the Education Department refused to continue funding the English/language arts project. Department officials complained that the project hadn’t made sufficient progress. In addition, its draft standards were vague and dwelt too much on opportunity-to-learn standards.

Cheney says that an early version of the document defined literacy as the creation of meaning. “Come on,” she scoffs. “We have kids who can’t read bus schedules and we’re going to say [that]? Literacy is figuring out when it says the bus is going to come.”

The International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English are continuing with the project. The groups hope to produce a leaner, more focused document with the help of a broader range of people.

But the delay has cost them precious time. Their first publishable draft is not expected before late summer.

Because of the central place that English/language arts holds in elementary schools in particular, districts and states have not waited around for the N.C.T.E.-I.R.A. standards. “They will be well on their way to completion by the time ours are rolled out,” acknowledges Terry Salinger, the director of research for the I.R.A. “What we hope to do is work in a way that is congruent.” Possible options include professional development and assistance in turning standards into curriculum.

But the controversy over English/language arts was nothing compared to what was to come.

Last fall, a few weeks before the completed versions of the history standards were scheduled for release, Cheney unleashed a blistering attack on the U.S. history standards.

She accused the document of portraying the United States and its white, male-dominated power structure as an oppressive society that victimizes minorities and women. She also argued that it downplayed--or outright ignored--such traditional historical figures as George Washington and Robert E. Lee to placate advocates of multicultural education. Suddenly, the relatively parochial issue of education standards burst into the public consciousness via a flood of newspaper, radio, and television coverage.

Cheney’s views won such exceptionally wide exposure because, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she had lobbied for history standards, funded the project, and selected its leaders and many of the people on its 29-member board.

Soon it became evident that the criticism was not about to subside--even though there were far more supporters than detractors.

The U.S. Senate even weighed in, denouncing the history standards by a vote of 99 to 1.

Many of those who had worked hard for a national system of standards began to see it falling apart.

Gordon Cawelti, for one, thinks it’s a shame that a few people could destroy all the hard work that has gone into the history standards, and he cautions not to write off the entire movement because of it. “The large majority of standards haven’t been rejected. They simply haven’t had exposure yet,” says Cawelti, the former director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and a founder of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform.

Since the assault on the history standards, the back-to-basics movement has gained momentum. Fresh assaults have been made on math. Educators are bracing for an attack when the science standards are more widely circulated because of continuing turmoil over “creationism” and evolution. And English/language arts is still likely to raise hackles in some quarters.

Political Pains

Other obstacles have arisen that have little to do with the merits of the documents themselves. Some of the earliest backers of national standards claim that Congressional meddling has taken a toll on the broadly supported movement.

The harshest debates centered on the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. It provides millions of dollars for states that develop education-reform plans including the development of standards and a related system of assessments. As part of Goals 2000, the Democratic-controlled Congress tried to require states to develop opportunity-to-learn standards for the sake of its poor, urban constituency.

But the idea rankled some of the governors who supported the measure because such standards implied that states would have to fork over huge sums of money to the schools.

“If you go back and read the report of the NCEST committee, we had it nailed,” says Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado. “Where we started getting off track was in the Congressional enactment of Goals 2000 when they began to micromanage and to come up with the [opportunity-to-learn] standards, and it frightened people.”

In the end, the law required states to establish standards or strategies for providing all students with an opportunity to learn. But the implementation of those standards would remain voluntary on the part of states, districts, and schools. Congress also created the National Education Standards and Improvement Council. The panel, to be appointed by the President, was expected to review national and state standards and assessments that were voluntarily submitted for its approval. The law also set up a confusing and cumbersome system of grant-giving to the states.

No appointments have ever been made to nesic, and now it is likely that none ever will be. The chairs of the education committees in both the Senate and the House, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Rep. Bill Goodling, have introduced bills that would kill nesic, excise all references to opportunity-to-learn standards or strategies, and eliminate all federal funding for the development of national standards.

The G.O.P.-led Congress may also dismantle the grant-giving process.

Despite concerns that nesic represented too much federal intrusion in education, some educators and policymakers believe that some sort of national review process is necessary. Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wants a body to address such issues as, “Are [model standards] comparable with the best standards in the world? Are they technically correct? You shouldn’t have to do that 50 times over.”

Ravitch recommends a return to the original proposal by Presidents Bush and Clinton: a NESIC-type board made up of educators, public officials, and lay members and appointed by the bipartisan National Education Goals Panel.

No Public Airing

Some analysts also suggest that there has never been a true public airing of what the standards involve, which has led to confusion and frustration.

During the 1992 Presidential campaign, for example, all three candidates endorsed national standards and national examinations. “An unfortunate side effect of this unusual agreement was that there was very little debate among the candidates about this issue,” notes John F. Jennings, the former general counsel for the House education committee, in a book he is writing about standards. “In retrospect, it would have been healthier for the country to have had a full debate over the need for such a shift in education and of the merits and demerits of such a change.”

Ravitch believes the public and parents will accept standards-based reform if educators can demonstrate high-quality results, as they can at Mission High School in San Francisco, where inner-city students devote days and weeks to algebra and geometry projects.

“You see these kids who in most instances would have their heads down on their arms and be half asleep and looking at their textbook with dread,” she says. “They’re very excited. They’re actively engaged in math.”

Fifty Experiments

Even though many educators and policymakers believe a wholesale adoption of national standards is doomed, they are equally certain that many schools will adopt higher standards in some shape or form.

Interest is running high, and orders are pouring into the offices of the various standards groups. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District recently bought $2,500 worth of civics-standards documents.

Evidence strongly suggests that the reforms will be state- or district-based. Almost all state education officials say they are at least reviewing the national documents.

“I have always thought of this as 50 experiments, but 50 experiments carried out around the notion of improving quality and improving equity,” says the Education Department’s Smith.

In Romer’s view, the controversy won’t kill off the concept because it is too logical.

“Standards are simply that process that says, school year by school year, this is the content of what you should know and how good is good enough in terms of good performance. And if you’re in the 6th grade and you want to be employed by mci, you’d better know if you’re on a track to being employable. And if a school can’t tell you that, the school has failed you.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Standards: Running Out of Steam


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