De Facto National Standards

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Although supporters of national standards may be disappointed, the debate about them is effectively over. It is just as well. In the halls of Congress the national-standards debate had become divisive, even bitter; unhappily, it quickly descended into ideological posturing.When then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, a Republican, proposed national standards earlier in this decade, Democrats were derisive. Republicans returned the favor several years later when Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, a Democrat, endorsed them. Indeed, an unholy coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal, big-city Democrats defeated Secretary Riley's proposal. It fell to the education pundit Chester E. Finn Jr. to offer a convincing explanation. "Republicans oppose any proposal with the word 'national' in it; Democrats oppose anything with the word 'standards' in it," he wryly observed.

It is clear that de jure national standards--that is to say, federal government standards--are not in the cards. But even if standards won't be "federalized" in the near future, they are quietly going national as the century draws to a close. They are doing so for two reasons: First, in the realm of education at least, there is more that unites Americans than divides them, congressional posturing notwithstanding. Second, high technology is playing a significant role.

What unites Americans? As both Gallup and Public Agenda polls reveal, Americans share a common vision of what school should offer: at minimum, English, mathematics, science, and social science. To be sure, this vision is not highly intellectual. It is not clear, for example, that Americans value learning for its own sake. To the contrary, we are a pragmatic people and, to quote the historian Henry Steele Commager, we expect of education what we expect of religion: "that it be practical and pay dividends." Above all, schooling should be useful.

Not believing in teaching math for its own sake, most Americans have been loath to impose advanced-math requirements on hapless students. But when they learn (thanks to an Educational Testing Service study) that the course sequence of algebra and geometry predicts college enrollment, they are more amenable to the idea. (Even practical people, on occasion, act on ideas.)

So, too, the "idea" of standards, and a state assessment showing each student's proficiency, makes good sense. The proverbial man or woman in the street expects school to impart knowledge. And they think that their graduates, college admissions officers, Army recruiters, prospective employers, and the public at large should know that it was accomplished.

Once the idea of standards gains currency, and because--in our system of government--education is a state responsibility, it is only natural that 50 sets of standards emerge. (To be precise, 49 sets. Iowa refuses to set state standards. That Iowa has for years led the nation in high test scores may account for such insouciance.)

But a question emerges. Do the 49 sets of standards differ, each from the other? Not surprisingly, the short answer is "not much." Truth be told, there is no Portland, Ore., math vs. Portland, Maine, math, anymore than there is Arizona science vs. Pennsylvania science. And while there may be differences in emphasis (the story of the Alamo fails to capture the Virginia imagination as it does Texans'), historical narratives are structurally similar. Scope and sequence are essential to understanding, even as the facts are distinctive.

How do we know this to be true? You can see for yourself when you visit on the World Wide Web. Achieve Inc. is the nonprofit creation of a group of business CEOs and the National Governors' Association that is currently co-chaired by IBM's chief executive officer, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., and Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. Among other things, Achieve is busily posting state standards in English, math, science, and social studies. Building on pioneering work with the Mid-continent Regional Education Laboratory, or McREL, in Aurora, Colo., the standards of each state are "normalized." In simple English, this means that at this moment, 40 states' standards (and one foreign country's) are rendered in comprehensible and comparable "chunks." For example, you can call up all geometry standards for grades 6-8 for a given state. Each state or country can be compared with another in a very useful, side-by-side screen presentation.

At what grade level do states X and Y teach multiplication of fractions? Algebra? Differential equations? And so on. More to the point, the Achieve Web site not only presents state standards in easy-to-use form, it also presents them in a searchable database. Would you like to search a state English standard for all occurrences of the word "phonics," or the science standard for the word "computer"? And even more important, the Web site is beginning to provide examples of some states' graded student work. What satisfies a particular standard? Here it is for all to see.

The next step is for Achieve to link standards to lesson plans. But Achieve will not be alone. A particularly impressive example already in use is The New York Times Learning Network. Every day, new lesson plans--keyed to "national" standards--appear. And the old ones are archived. And even more interesting, The New York Times also uses the McREL normalizing language. Voila! Each lesson plan can be directly linked to any state's standard on the Achieve Web site.

No state can admit to having low standards. And any state with low standards will be exposed to public view.

The next step requires little imagination to envision. If The New York Times can do it, so can textbook publishers. So can schools of education. So can school districts. Professional associations. Schools. Individual teachers. Even students.

The Achieve Web site gives new meaning to the old saw, "You can run, but you can't hide." By doing so, it makes the debate about national standards moot. National standards are not a matter of Congress legislating or failing to legislate, but a matter of cultural consensus. Attempting to impose standards on Americans by edict is like herding cats. But put 49 sets of state standards side by side on a Web site and it is just a matter of time until they converge into one set of super-standards.

Because the Internet is radically democratic (with a small "d"), healthy competitive pressure among states and districts will emerge. No state can admit to having low standards. And any state with low standards will be exposed to public view. Just as governors boast about football scores, so too they will boast about their high standards. Indeed, it is already happening. When the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation rated standards by "rigor," its highest marks went to Texas. Gov. George W. Bush quickly assumed bragging rights. Make no mistake: This is a good sign. For too long, Americans have been indifferent to academic excellence. Crowing about academic accomplishment may smack of boosterism to some, but it will be beneficial over the long haul.

Most important, however, will be the impact of standards comparisons at the local level. Any PTA president, editorial board member, chamber of commerce leader, school board member, or interested citizen can challenge his or her state or local standards. Standards-setting bodies, from state boards of education to local school boards, will have to defend their choices. And it is hard to imagine anyone publicly defending low standards.

The real and present danger that the old national-standards debate revealed was the strong possibility, if not probability, that standards set by Washington bureaucrats would, by their very nature, sink to a lowest common denominator. Standards-setting state by state, slow and uneconomic as it may be, at least stimulates robust and productive comparisons and leads ineluctably to de facto national standards. And as each state aspires to be as good as the best, the rising standards' tide floats all academic boats.

Denis P. Doyle is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent book, with Susan Pimentel, is Raising the Standard (Corwin Press, 1998).

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Pages 36, 56

Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as De Facto National Standards
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