What U.S. Democracy Requires Of Its Schools

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"Everyone" knows that the American education system suffers from a lack of high standards. As a result, money and energy have been devoted to defining a widely accepted body of knowledge that will be taught by all teachers and learned by all students. Everyone also knows that the effort to develop acceptable standards is going through a patch of rough sledding. Recently released history standards, coupled with other misfortunes, caused the rough patch. The reaction threatens to slow the acceptance of standards, even the less controversial math and science standards.

The standards movements need a new strategy. Lost ground cannot be recaptured by changing the players who are resisting change. Advocates need, instead, to reconsider why standards are needed in the first place. Such rethinking leads this writer to conclude that standards need a firmer foundation provided by, yes, another commission--a National Commission To Define "What U.S. Democracy Requires of Its Schools."

  • Begin with purpose-based standards.

The turbulent reaction to the proposed history standards, released in late 1994, and the resistance to standards generally should have been expected. They are the predictable results of three flaws in the way the government set about to develop education standards. The first mistake was starting with standards for academic disciplines. They should have started by developing what might be called purpose-based standards. These are standards for the three broad purposes of education--namely employment, citizenship, and personal development. The omission naturally led to the second flaw. Standards-setters have been almost exclusively providers--teachers and scholars in the academic disciplines, rather than consumers (customers) of educational services. These professionals naturally emphasized the importance of their own academic disciplines. Their perspective ignored cross-disciplinary learning or even the need to fit all the standards into a reasonable curriculum. Meeting the arts standards alone would take half the school day. Relying almost exclusively on providers led to the third strike against standards. Feedback has been sought almost exclusively from teachers and other providers, rather than from the public at large.

The standards movement in general, and the history standards in particular, ran into resistance because of these three flaws. The standards-setting process was not anchored by an externally accepted set of criteria. Standards-setters were missing an operational definition of what it means to be a good citizen. The lack of criteria, rather than the work done by the professionals at the National Center for History in the Schools, is the primary reason why the history standards were so unsatisfactory. Because standards-setters had no working definition of citizenship and because the scope of the inquiry was restricted to history, they could not ask, for example, whether all high school students should take economics and statistics. Yet, the lack of economics and statistics makes for too many graduates who have only a vague idea about what is at stake in this year's federal budget struggle or in many of the nation's other policy issues. Nor did the standards-setters inquire whether graduates are prepared to participate in those civic organizations that Alexis de Tocqueville cites as hallmarks of American democracy and modern scholars, such as Harvard University's Robert Putnam, think are declining.

The resistance to standards does not emanate from satisfaction with the current state of affairs. There is widespread concern over the decline of "citizenship" as reflected in meaningful public discourse, declining citizen participation in civic affairs, and the falling share of the electorate that votes. According to a recent survey, only 12 percent of American teenagers said voting was important to being a good citizen. A recent poll by Harvard University and the Kaiser Foundation, reported in a series in The Washington Post, depicts the public's weak grasp of basic facts. A substantial share of the population does not know who the "players" are in their government; only 60 percent could name the U.S. vice president, 46 percent at least one of their senators, and 6 percent the chief justice of the United States. Remembering names was not the only problem: 48 percent did not know whether the Republican Party is more conservative than the Democratic Party. An amazing 46 percent did not know what institution rules on the constitutionality of our laws, and 74 percent did not know the duration of a U.S. senator's term.

  • Establish a commission.

Recovering from the history-standards debacle now requires asking representatives of adult society what they think high school graduates should "know and be able to do" in order to be good citizens. Current controversies make it impossible for academics alone to develop history standards without a framework developed in partnership with those from outside the education system. Godel's Theorem formally explains why self-contained systems cannot be proven true or false. Common sense and recent experience demonstrate why education standards need the credibility that naturally accrues to a group that includes representatives from outside the system.

Standards-setters made a serious mistake when they failed to consult with education's customers. In the case of one group of customers--the employers--this deficiency is being remedied. The U.S. departments of Labor and Education undertook a major effort--starting with SCANS (the Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills). The majority of the members of the SCANS commission came from outside the education system. The outsiders represented firms (often as the vice president for human resources) and industrial unions. In addition, there were experts in cognitive science, school principals, representatives of the teachers' unions, and public figures (such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor William Brock, the commission's chair). Their focus was not academic disciplines; instead it was "What Work Requires of School," the title of the first SCANS publication.

The same outsider view informs the industry skills standards that are being developed for the electronics, retail, hospitality, and 20-odd other industries. It is continuing as the National Skills Standards Board asks employers about the skills future workers will need. This information, coming from outside the education system, is helping to shape the evolution of the math, science, and language-arts standards. For example, consider the draft standards for these three disciplines developed by the New Standards project. These refer to SCANS as well as to the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The standards effort needs a Citizenship Commission To Determine What U.S. Democracy Requires of Schools. The proposed commission would not produce history standards or decide on the relative importance of studying the Magna Carta or the Mongol empire. Rather, it would define the "big ideas," comparable to the big ideas in the science standards. These might be concepts such as democracy, exploitation, pluralism, etc. The commission might ask that high school graduates be able to read, understand, and discuss articles that appear on the front page of the nation's major newspapers. It might also ask that students be equipped to participate in civic or political organizations in their communities. It should do enough survey research to ensure that the findings represent the broad public view. Finally, the commission needs to be constituted so that protection of academic turf is missing from its efforts.

  • Listen to customers.

"Protection of academic turf" has a pejorative ring to it. But it is inevitable that dedicated suppliers of any service will think that the world needs more of what their profession has to offer. Few professionals will volunteer to stand aside to make room for the services of those who are currently outsiders. Those who are dedicated to their calling naturally have an exaggerated sense of its universal importance, whether they are surgeons or history professors, lawyers or music teachers, economists or biology teachers.

Citizenship, not vocational or economic requirements, was what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when calling for public education. But he was concerned about the functioning of democracy, not about producing professional historians. Granted, professional historians have very important things to say about what graduates need to know and be able to do if they are going to fulfill their citizenship responsibilities. But they hardly have the only opinions worth hearing.

Whose opinions should be solicited, who are the "customers" for citizenship education that are analogous to employers for the job-preparation dimension of schools?

Politicians are perhaps the most despised class in the country today, but they are worth listening to on this subject. They are customers. Their messages--on welfare, immigration, balancing the budget, trade, foreign involvement, and so on have to be understood by the electorate. But it is tough to sell foreign aid when only 27 percent of the population knows that the federal government spends more on Medicare than on foreign aid. The survey reported in The Washington Post shows that the least well-informed Americans are least likely to vote. More than 70 percent of "high knowledge" respondents voted in the last Congressional elections. Only 24 percent of those classified as "low knowledge" did so.

The print and electronic media are also important customers of the education system. They must write and produce for a large audience. Academics' concern over media pandering to the least common denominator is less useful than a citizenship standard that ensures that the least common denominator is politically literate. Civic organizations are other customers of the schools. They require graduates who understand how to operate within democratic organizations. That may mean imparting leadership (or followership) competencies. It may mean ensuring that all students are familiar with Robert's Rules of Order or only that they know how to participate in a public meeting.

The public at large, the body politic, is the crucial group of customers. Their opinions need to be scientifically surveyed. The commission could include politician-public servants such as Jimmy Carter, a journalist or editor, the head of a civic organization, a social commentator like William J. Bennett, college presidents with experience in public service, a religious leader or two, a few historians, and most likely others. Unlike the SCANS commission, it should not be funded by the government, so that it can be insulated from immediate political pressures.

Purpose-based standards have important implications for curricula. The purpose-based SCANS standards did not detail the course content needed to meet the requirements for work in the 21st century. Similarly, a commission to determine what democracy requires of schools should not define the standards for history or any other specific academic discipline. Yet a focus on the requirements for democracy will imply important things about curricula. Take mathematics, for example. If the math curriculum is to better serve the purposes of either work or citizenship, then statistics is likely to increase in importance and trigonometry to diminish. Psychology or sociology may be able to break into the triad of biology, chemistry, and physics in a science curriculum serving these ends. And in the social sciences, economics may become an important part of the study of history or geography. This is, of course, pure speculation until a commission is formed, does its work, and reaches its conclusions. The results of the proposed commission should then be taken, along with the SCANS (and industry-skills-standards) findings to determine the curricula that will serve both purposes.

The proposed commission would seek to determine what high school graduates should know and be able to do to be good citizens. The SCANS commission, with its focus on "What Work Requires of School," appears to have changed the conversation in many school districts. But it was narrowly conceived (by the U.S. Department of Labor) to deal with employment. This new commission would deal with the next leg in education's three-legged stool. Its report might be entitled "What Democracy Requires of Schools." Work on the third leg, "What a Well-Educated Person Requires" should follow. With all three purpose-based standards in place, academicians could reasonably conclude their work on discipline-based standards.

Vol. 15, Issue 27, Pages 47, 56

Published in Print: March 27, 1996, as What U.S. Democracy Requires Of Its Schools
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