50 States, 50 Standards: The Continuing Need for National Voluntary Standards in Education

Diane Ravitch

In March 1994 Congress enacted Goals 2000, the culmination of a bipartisan effort to raise academic standards in the nation’s schools. The Bush administration began the ambitious process, awarding grants to national groups of teachers and scholars in science, history, English, and other fields to develop national voluntary standards. The Clinton administration carried it on. Goals 2000, which became the centerpiece of the administration’s education agenda, featured a 19-member National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) charged with certifying the voluntary national standards and approving, as well, all state standards and assessments. All that remained was for the president to appoint the council members.

The appointments were never made. The movement to develop national standards in education fell victim to errors by both its enemies and its friends (sometimes it is hard to tell them apart). Its enemies opposed higher standards, especially at the national level, and its friends overreached, thinking that they could use the legislation to impose their own controversial ideas about standards and tests. Besides, Goals 2000 itself had serious flaws: it restricted how states might use test results; it mandated a highly political process for selecting the reform panels in each state; it introduced the questionable concept of “opportunity-to-learn” standards; it required domination of NESIC by professional educators. Each such feature served to protect the status quo.

A One-Two Knockout Punch

In the United States, education has always been a state function. Under current law it is not legal for the Department of Education to supervise or direct any curriculum. While the coalition supporting standards in education never sought federal standards—that is, standards controlled by the federal government—it did seek voluntary national standards that would be used by the states and districts, by their own decision, to change what was taught and tested to all students.

During the summer and fall of 1994, conservative candidates for Congress attacked Goals 2000 as a dangerous step toward federal control of education. For Republican leaders determined to reduce the power of the federal government by devolving functions to state governments and restoring local control wherever possible, Goals 2000 was an obvious target. And NESIC, with its power to approve state standards and assessments, was its most objectionable feature.

Two weeks before the 1994 congressional elections, the issue of national standards became hotly controversial when Lynne V. Cheney, formerly chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Bush administration, attacked the soon-to-be-released national history standards in the Wall Street Journal. Cheney had approved the original history standards grant, but she assailed the history standards as written, finding them too negative in their treatment of the United States, the West, and white males, and too uncritical in their embrace of multiculturalism and other themes of interest to the political left. Other critics, including historians, agreed that the standards were politically biased.

The National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles, which had prepared the standards in collaboration with hundreds of scholars, teachers, and organizations, staunchly defended them, pointing to the consensus process itself as evidence that the standards had broad acceptability. (Ironically, Cheney herself had created and sustained the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA; its products, statements, and appointments were closely reviewed by Cheney and her staff.) But the storm over the history standards became a hurricane as news magazines, editorialists, columnists, and commentators on radio and television weighed in to praise or condemn them. The history standards became a favorite punching bag for right-wing commentators, but they were also criticized by moderates, including Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. More tellingly, Secretary of Education Richard Riley said on behalf of the Clinton administration, “The president does not believe, and I do not believe, that the UCLA standards should form the basis for a history curriculum in our schools.” In January 1995 the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to censure the standards.

The debacle of the history standards doomed NESIC. Some believe it doomed the national standards movement itself. And it is true that what had already been an uphill battle has, for the time being at least, taken on Sisyphean proportions.

Although the nonpartisan Council for Basic Education subsequently reworked the history standards, and although the revised standards were generally well received when they were published this past April, the damage was done. Eighteen months of verbal battle had made the history standards a symbol of the impossibility of forging national standards that might win broad public support.

Matters did not improve when the national English standards produced by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association were published in March to the jeers and derision of the press. Federal funding had already been withdrawn from the English standards project by the Clinton administration in 1994, when peer reviewers concluded that it was not producing anything that could be recognized as standards. But the project went on, issuing a document of 69 pages printed with wide margins and profuse illustrations. Rich in professional jargon but poor in specific guidance about what students of English should know and be able to do, the supposed standards recommended that local teachers and administrators, not a national group such as itself, should decide “what should be taught.”

This past spring, when IBM and the National Governors’ Association convened a national education summit to renew support for higher standards, the conventional wisdom among participants was that the pursuit of national standards had self-destructed. Both Republican and Democratic governors made clear that they wanted no part of national standards. The future of standards, they insisted, would be determined by the states.

President Clinton, standing by his earlier insistence on the need for standards, assessments, and accountability, embraced the turn to state standards but cautioned that “being promoted ought to mean more or less the same thing in Pasadena, California, that it does in Palisades, New York. In a global society, it ought to mean more or less the same thing.” And here was the rub. The governors recognized their dilemma: how could states, working independently of each other, produce “world-class standards”?

We Already Have National Standards

Meanwhile, despite the protestations about, variously, the impossibility and the danger of a national curriculum, the reality is that most American public schools already have one. If a visitor from another nation were dropped into an American public school classroom without knowing the state or the region, he or she would be likely to see the same lesson taught in the same way to children of the same age. In the most important subjects, with only a few exceptions, the textbooks and tests are indistinguishable from each other. Concentration in the educational publishing industry has meant that a few large companies supply tests and textbooks to most school districts. Even were there more publishers, most tests are based on the same multiple-choice approach, and most textbooks are like peas in a pod regardless of publisher. But this informal national curriculum is not good enough. It is mainly geared to minimal competencies, and expectations about what students should learn are frequently low and unchallenging.

At the same time that we have low national standards in common use, we have high national standards at hand for specific, important purposes. Even as we debate whether we should have any national standards, even as we fret about our inability to figure out how to develop good ones, high national standards are already available. Questions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the congressionally mandated, federally funded examination of a national sample of students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades—are based on rigorous, challenging content standards in every subject area. NAEP’s independent governing board has identified performance standards that it calls “achievement levels” (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic). While the nation was in an uproar about the proposed national history standards, NAEP assessed a broad cross-section of American students using its own carefully developed curriculum framework, which is closely aligned with the core issues in the national history standards. There is no doubt that NAEP’s curriculum frameworks represent national content and performance standards that are credible with educators and the public.

Similarly, there can be no doubt that other important tests, such as the College Board’s Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and the International Baccalaureate, embody high standards that are recognized and respected in every state in the nation. The significant common element in all of these tests and curricula is that they incorporate not just national standards but international standards in every subject area. They acknowledge implicitly that there may be a thousand different and equally valuable ways to teach science, mathematics, and English, but that their fundamental principles are the same across the nation and indeed the world. If we fail to identify these principles and teach them, how will our children learn them?

This is the problem with unrelated state standards. The United States is one nation, not fifty independent states. There is no such thing as Nevada science, New Jersey mathematics, and Illinois English. The science, mathematics, and English that students need to know is the same everywhere. Even though students may speak English with a different regional or local accent, the English dictionary is the same around the nation and the world. The airplane that just flew over my house doesn’t care what country it is in; it doesn’t care about the culture or the color or the religion of the people below. It works the same way in Austria, Nigeria, and Japan as it does in the United States. Students in my neighborhood need to know exactly the same mathematical and scientific concepts that are taught in the best schools in other cities, states, and nations.

The idea of national standards has remarkable validity, no matter what the politicians may say. Politicians, after all, tend to be experts on what is possible today, rather than what should happen tomorrow. National standards—not federal standards managed by the federal government—are a necessity in an advanced society.

Developing National Standards

Clearly, developing credible national standards is going to take some time. Here are some observations, based on the experience of the past few years, about how the process and the products could be improved.

First, every group formulating standards should include not less than 30 percent who are neither teachers nor scholars, but members of the public—legislators, journalists, doctors, publishers, engineers, lawyers, civic leaders, men and women who are not specialists but who are deeply concerned about helping to improve education. Concerned citizens who live outside the academic world would have added immeasurably to the value and credibility of the history and English standards and might have saved them from some of their more egregious problems. The English standards would certainly not have been written “by the profession, for the profession” (as stated explicitly on the cover) had their authors been required to include laymen in their discussions about the teaching and learning of our common language.

Second, the standards documents should be restricted in length. The English standards were mercifully brief, but only because they had so little to convey. The original history standards exceeded 600 pages, and the science standards went on for more than 300 pages. It is instructive that the entire Japanese national curriculum, covering every school subject in all grades, requires only about 450 pages. Japan’s expectations for any one subject or any one grade may be easily read and understood by teachers and parents. If the U.S. standards projects had been restricted to not more than 100 pages in total, all would have been forced to make hard choices about what is most important to learn. In the absence of limits on length, a good deal of consensus was achieved through log-rolling, allowing everyone to get a pet idea inserted. An arbitrary limit on length is a useful way to force the setting of priorities.

Third, the standards should be limited only to what students should know and be able to do so as to be well prepared for subsequent grades, higher education, or technical careers. Some standards projects used their documents as a bully pulpit to lecture the field on how the subject should be taught or to demand additional resources. No one was commissioned to write pedagogical or political treatises, yet the temptation proved too great to resist. But this flaw is traceable in part to the question of length, for if the documents had been restricted to a certain size, there would not have been unlimited space in which to offer advice on subjects that belonged elsewhere.

Fourth, any proposed national standards should be first distributed widely in a loose-leaf notebook with wide margins for comments. There should be a public review period in which copies would be available in every school and public library for teachers, parents, students, and other interested citizens. Comments would be gathered and forwarded to the group in charge of revisions (which might not be the same one as the group that wrote the initial standards). Then there would be another public review period.

Fifth, after wide review and revision, the proposed standards should be field-tested in several districts or states for at least three years before they may be recommended as national standards. Shaping standards takes time, of course, but implementing them must take even more time. There must be an iterative process in which the standards are rewritten and retooled in light of field experience. What works in theory may not work in practice. The ultimate judgment on the value of standards must be whether their use in the classroom actually improves student performance.

Sixth, any standards that deserve to be called national in scope should describe content but not dictate pedagogy. Teachers and schools must remain free to use the pedagogical method that is best in their own judgment. Different methods will suit different teachers. This is as it should be, and national standards should not intrude on teachers’ decisions about the method that they find most effective.

All this is hindsight, which has the advantage of offering 20-20 vision. But hindsight is better than no sight at all. There are lessons to be learned from the efforts to develop national standards, and we should pay attention because it is possible that we will be this way again. Regardless of the skittishness of politicians and policymakers today about national standards, the issue will not go away. I venture to predict that our nation will find a way to evolve national (not federal) standards because the world of work, education, and communications requires them. If students expect to gain admission to a good university, they had better earn a world-class education, not one that was tailored for Idaho or Vermont. If graduates expect to get a job in a major corporation, they had better prepare in accordance with world-class standards, not standards written only for Arizona or Florida.

Some day, when we get serious about education standards again, we will think of them as a series of concentric circles. One ring will be the skills and ideas that everyone in the nation (and the world) needs to know. Another ring will be peculiar to the state (reflecting its history, geography, and regional concerns). And the third will be local (supplying whatever the community cares deeply about). This approach ensures enough uniformity so that children have equal opportunity to learn what their peers are learning elsewhere; and it ensures that the state and locality can teach what their children need to know.

In the meanwhile, governors and educational leaders who seek standards need not wait for the millennium. The NAEP tests are based on high standards that have been developed by a thoughtful consensus process, slightly below the radar screen of the usual forces that battle to control education policy. The performance standards of the NAEP tests are rigorous. States can use NAEP to sample students’ achievement and find out whether it has been rising or falling on comparable measures; they can use NAEP to compare their students’ scores with those of students in other states and even other nations. Last year, NAEP scores called California’s attention to the disastrous results of its embrace of the “whole language” (nonphonics) method of teaching reading and provided momentum for restoring a balanced approach. Even school districts can contract with NAEP to see how their students are doing in key areas.

Almost all of America’s children are cheated by the current low expectations in our schools. For several decades American students have been registering weak or flat achievement in every subject area. On international tests they have performed poorly, revealing beyond doubt that they have not learned what their peers in other countries— that have had national education standards for years— have learned. But the children who are cheated most by our schools are the very brightest, who are never challenged, and the very neediest, of whom so little is expected.

The issue of national standards will recur because standards are essential both for excellence and for equal opportunity. We can leave the shaping of national standards to the marketers of tests and textbooks, or we can figure out how to develop them through a credible public process. It probably will not be done by the federal government, because of justifiable fear that a federal agency might threaten to cut off federal funding to states that refuse to accept its mandates. But a pluralistic democratic society has many nonfederal, even nongovernmental mechanisms by which to accomplish important purposes. When we decide that this purpose demands our attention, we will turn to it again. Perhaps it will take 10 or 20 years to accomplish. The process may already have begun.