50 Ways to Teach Them Grammar

April 11, 1996

One theme was repeatedly sounded at the recent education summit in Palisades, N.Y.: National standards are dead. Apparently, the United States should have 50 state standards or even 16,000 local standards. But not national standards. The governors, Democratic and Republican, said it; the president said it. And they are all wrong.

National standards—not federal standards managed by the federal government—are a necessity in an advanced society. We are one nation, not 50. It is simply naive to believe that each state should have different standards in science, mathematics, English and other important subjects.

We already have a national curriculum, and it is not a very good one. In most subject areas, the textbooks and tests are indistinguishable from each other. The informal national curriculum is based on minimum competencies, and for most students, expectations are consistently low.

We need high national standards, not the current low-level standards. In the real world, certain subjects—such as mathematics, science and English—demand knowledge of high international standards. There may be a thousand different and equally valuable ways to teach science, mathematics and English, but their fundamental principles are the same all over the world.

If we fail to identify these principles and spell them out, how will our children learn them? Students who take advanced placement tests, the SAT, the International Baccalaureate and the National Assessment of Educational Progress are expected to meet high standards in the major subject areas; none of these tests pretends that there is Oregon math, New York science and Nebraska English.

Mathematics and science work according to the same principles regardless of the city, state or nation. The airplane that just flew over my house doesn’t care what country it is in; 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 mathematics and science that are taught in the best schools in other cities, states and nations.

When I served in the Department of Education in the Bush administration, we made grants to develop voluntary national standards in various academic subjects. The standards were supposed to be “national,” not “federal.” The documents were supposed to identify what students need to know and be able to do for higher education and good technical jobs.

The sorry story of the history and English standards led many to conclude that national standards were released in the fall of 1994, they were criticized as biased against white males, America and the West, and the Senate censured them by a vote of 99 to 1. But a revised version of the history standards was released on April 3, and it is balanced, nonpartisan—indeed, first-rate. The revised history standards—still, of course, voluntary—offer rigor and substance, in contrast to our current national curriculum of mushy, insubstantial “social studies.”

The English standards, published last month, were quickly dismissed by the same process of public review that judged the history standards inadequate. Written in impenetrable jargon, the English standards are an embarrassment to the profession. They do not describe what students need to know to speak, write and read English well. (To its credit, the Clinton administration recognized a disaster in the making and defunded the English project two years ago.)

The lesson the politicians have drawn from these debacles is that national standards are an impossibility. But in both cases, the national process of public review did work. It caused the revision and improvement of the history standards, and it immediately saw through the English non-standards.

Our nation will evolve national (not federal!) standards because the world of work and communications requires them. If students want to get a high-level job with one of the big corporations represented at the national summit, or if they expect to gain admission to a good university, they had better have a world-class education, not one that was tailored for Ohio or Arizona.

If we ever get serious about standards, they are likely to look like 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. 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 locality can teach what their citizens need to know.

The governors should be wise enough to create their own review mechanism for educational standards, recognizing the real difference between “federal” and “national.” Governors of both parties worry that a federal agency might one day decide to cut off federal funding to states that refuse to accept its mandates. But a nongovernmental agency would not have any enforcement weapons with which to threaten states and districts.

National standards are essential both for equal opportunity and for excellence. We cannot avoid the issue. The only question is whether they will continue to be minimal or will be as challenging as the international standards used on our leading tests and by our leading competitors.