The new conventional wisdom about education standards includes two related propositions: National standards are dead, and every state will develop its own standards. This approach is endorsed by the nation’s governors, and even President Clinton apparently agrees. The president recently said that the history standards and English standards had been “less than successful,” which undermined support for any future national standards.
The policymakers, for the moment, are right. The states are in the driver’s seat on standards.
But, in a larger sense, the policymakers are wrong, because national standards--not federal standards from the federal government--are a necessity in an advanced society operating in an interdependent, competitive global economy. We are one nation, not 50. It is naive to believe that each state should have markedly different standards in science, mathematics, English, and other important subjects.
The irony is that we already have national standards: the textbooks and tests used in the overwhelming majority of schools.
We also have another set of national standards, embodied in such high-level tests as the Advanced Placement tests, the Scholastic Assessment Test, and the International Baccalaureate. Students who take these tests know that they must meet not just high national standards, but world-class standards. The vocabulary, mathematics, and science questions on these tests are similar to those that well-prepared students in other nations encounter.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is an anomaly. This federally funded test is given only to a national (and sometimes state) sample of students, but it is not geared to “minimum competency” standards. Instead, its content and performance standards--approved by a nonpartisan, independent board, not by federal officials--are tied to high expectations. NAEP stands as proof that it is indeed possible to establish high national standards that achieve broad credibility with the public and educators.
In certain subjects--such as mathematics, science, and English--there are currently widely accepted international standards. There are many different and equally valuable ways to teach these fields of knowledge, but their fundamental principles and concepts are the same all over the world. This is why international assessments can be administered to students in different nations and different continents, because no matter how students are taught, they are expected to comprehend and answer the same questions in mathematics and science.
If we fail to identify and teach these fundamental principles and concepts, how will our children learn them? Why pretend that there is Nevada mathematics, New Jersey science, and Oklahoma English? Given the high mobility of our society, many children will move from state to state. They will surely have teachers who use different teaching methods, but they should just as surely expect to learn the concepts that will prepare them for full participation in an advanced knowledge-based society.
The goal of the standards movement should not be to create brand-new standards that are experimental or on the cutting edge of theory. The point should be to describe those concepts and knowledge that have been taught successfully and that are embodied in the best tests.
Our nation will evolve national (not federal!) standards because the world of work and communications requires them. If students want to get a good job, they must have well-developed literacy and mathematical skills--or they will lose out to other applicants who do. If students hope to gain admission to a good university and keep up with their classmates, they had better have a world-class education.
If we ever get serious about high standards, they are likely to be arrayed in concentric circles. One ring will be the skills and knowledge that everyone in the nation (and in other advanced nations) needs to know; another ring will be specific to the state (for example, its history, geography, and regional concerns); and a third will be local. This ensures enough uniformity so that children have equal opportunity to learn what their peers are learning elsewhere. And it ensures that the state and school district can teach what their citizens need to know.
The governors should be wise enough to create a review mechanism for educational standards, recognizing the real difference between “national” and “federal.” Governors of both parties worry that a federal agency might one day decide to cut off federal funding to states that refuse its mandates. But a nongovernmental agency would not have any enforcement weapons with which to threaten states and districts.
Governors and educational leaders who seek high standards do not have to wait for the millennium. NAEP assessments are based on high standards developed by a thoughtful consensus process. States can use NAEP to find out whether student achievement is rising or falling and how their students compare to those in other states and nations. Even individual districts can now contract for NAEP assessments. (Milwaukee did so in 1996.) NAEP is our best national indicator for determining whether state standards are helping students meet the high expectations necessary for work, civic life, and higher education in the 21st century. States participate if they choose, not by requirement. It is not appropriate for accountability, because it tests only a sample; but it is nonetheless a useful measure of student performance.
National standards are essential both for equal opportunity and excellence. We cannot avoid the issue. The only question is whether they will continue to be minimal or whether they will be as challenging as the international standards used on our leading tests and by our leading competitors.
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1996 edition of Education Week as ‘We Are One Nation, Not 50'