Standards: Struggling for Standards

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It all seemed so straightforward. Experts in the various disciplines would develop national standards for what students should know and be able to do at key points in their schooling; a federal council of distinguished citizens would review and certify the standards as worthy of emulation; states and school districts would voluntarily adopt them; teachers would teach to them; and students would achieve them. The result? American youngsters would demonstrate world-class skills, creativeness, and academic prowess.

Content standards were to be the foundation on which educators would build excellence and equity in the nation's schools. The underlying premise was that all children can learn at high levels. For the first time, Americans would spell out what mathematics they expected students to learn in grade 4. Or how well they expected 8th graders to understand and put into practice the principles of the democracy in which they live. Once schools had content standards in place, other pieces were to follow--better assessments, teacher training, new textbooks, and other resources to help students achieve the standards.

Thousands of educators and policymakers have struggled toward this vision since the math community began the quest in 1983. A dozen disciplinary groups have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars drafting a small mound of books. Half have completed their work, four are in the final draft stages, and two have yet to release drafts.

Republican and Democratic Administrations and governors on both sides of the political aisle have embraced the need for standards in education. Government officials at the state and federal levels have passed legislation, created structures, and allocated funds to facilitate the standards-setting process. And parents and taxpayers have voiced strong support for the idea.

But in recent months, just as it seemed to be gaining momentum, the national-standards movement has begun to founder. As an abstraction, the idea had few critics; as an emerging reality, it has sparked questions and provoked controversy.

Who should set standards and who has the right to say whether they are good enough? Are the proposed standards really for all children, from the gifted and talented to those with special needs? Will all students have access to the instruction and resources needed to achieve the standards? Will the standards dictate a national curriculum in a country that has a strong tradition of local control in education? What role, if any, should the federal government have played in developing standards? And are the emerging documents both politically balanced and academically rigorous?

As attacks on the movement have multiplied, even its supporters have grown cautious and concerned. They now know that they underestimated the complexity of drafting academic standards. They worry about how comprehensive the standards are and whether the educational system can assimilate them. They are stung by the hostility of political conservatives and troubled by a doubting Congress.

Meanwhile, states and districts have reasserted their authority to determine what students learn. And they are not always waiting for the national standards to guide them.

In short, says historian Diane Ravitch, "Actually developing voluntary national standards is going to be very difficult. It's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of good will. And the jury is still out on whether it will succeed."

This Education Week special report, "Struggling for Standards," focuses on the effort to set academic standards. It looks at what has happened to the national movement; recaps the efforts of the dozen disciplinary projects now completed or under way; surveys initiatives in the 50 states; and delves into the experiences of one school district that is writing its own standards. It also includes reports of two focus groups in which elementary school teachers and high school students share their views on the subject.

We designed this to be a user's guide to the standards movement. It includes three large charts. The first describes the status of the national documents and how they were developed. The second summarizes an Education Week survey of standards-setting activities in the 50 states. The third presents excerpts of the content standards that have been published in 10 subject areas.

Vol. 14, Issue 29

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