Yes: Standards spur student achievement and hold educators accountable for public monies.
With standards so well accepted in our society, why are they so resisted in education?
Standards are everywhere. Federal standards protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the medication we take. Radio, television and pilots and planes all are subject to federal standards. Automobile mechanics, veterinarians, lawyers, plumbers and even hairdressers and barbers must meet standards set by states.
Why do we have standards in these and other areas? As a society, we are dedicated to maintaining excellence in the resources and services we depend on; we want to hold government and business accountable for ensuring our high quality of life. Why then, are we willing to accept an education system that has no publicly accepted standards?
It seems that citizens expect but do not demand a great deal from public education. We hope that it provides the knowledge and skills students need to become productive members in the workforce and in our democracy. We would like public education to convey a sense of what it means to be an American. And we would be pleased if public education resulted in students' appreciation for culture and ideas. But how does one verify whether students are learning what they need? How does one help students and schools improve? How do educators ensure that no student is left behind?
Academic standards -- statements that describe what all students should know and be able to do by the time they reach specified grade levels -- address these questions in four important ways. First, standards set clear, high expectations for student achievement. Second, they provide a basis to hold educators and students accountable. Third, standards promote educational equity by demanding that all students achieve at high levels. Finally, they help guide efforts to measure student achievement, improve teacher training and develop more effective curricula and instructional strategies.
In the absence of academic standards, academic content is shaped by publishers of textbooks and tests. Many educators have concluded that this content is trivial and superficial. Their opinion is supported by the largest international study of student achievement ever taken, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1996. The study compared the mathematics and science achievement of eighth-grade students from 41 countries and analyzed each of the countries' curricula, textbooks and teaching. American students performed slightly better than average in science and below average in mathematics. The authors of the study warned that lack of a coherent vision of how to educate U.S. students in mathematics and science resulted in unfocused curricula and textbooks that failed to define clearly what is intended to be taught.
Academic standards provide students, teachers and parents a clear set of objectives for what students should know and be able to do at various points of their educational careers. For example, one math standard might state: By the end of fourth grade, all students will be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions. Students would have a concrete goal to work toward, and teachers would have a framework for developing curricula and assessments that accurately measure student achievement. Parents would have an understanding of the specific goals their children are working toward, which would allow them to increase their participation in the learning process. Finally, future employers and the American public in general would have a clearer sense of the expectations for students of different ages.
Without standards, citizens cannot know whether students are learning essential material because no one can specify what that material is. Similarly, the public cannot know whether a school's educational program is effective, because there is nothing against which it can be measured.
This lack of accountability has eroded the public's faith in public schools: A 1995 survey found that almost half of Americans believe that it is possible to get a high-school diploma without learning even the most basic skills. Many teachers agree there is a problem, but, interestingly, in a recent survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, 44 percent of teachers said that they promoted undeserving students because there were no standards to hold them accountable.
Refusing to hold students accountable for learning sends the message to children that they need not work hard or learn essential information and skills; it allows schools to ignore the needs of failing students; and it detracts from the value of a high-school diploma. With standards, schools have a basis to measure student achievement, an objective measure against which students can be assessed to determine whether they need greater assistance before moving on to the next grade. Standards also provide the basis for the public to assess the effectiveness of schools in preparing students to meet explicit goals.
Low-income students who do not perform well in school appear to suffer the most from the absence of standards. Students in poverty-stricken schools often receive good grades despite poor skills and little understanding of basic facts. A 1994 Department of Education study concluded that students in poverty-stricken schools who receive mostly A's in English read only as well as "C" and "D" students in affluent schools. Similarly, students receiving mostly A's in mathematics in poverty-stricken schools perform in math about the same as "D" students in affluent schools.
Without standards, there is no benchmark against which student performance is measured, allowing students and teachers in one classroom to settle for performance that would not be acceptable in another school or classroom.
Grade inflation in poverty-stricken schools not only hurts students, but it incurs real economic costs. For instance, in recent years one result has been an increase in the percentage of students who qualify for college but who require remedial course work once enrolled. In Maryland, an estimated $17 million was spent last year in public colleges and universities to help students gain skills they should have learned in high school. This money would be better spent helping all students to meet higher standards before they graduated from high school. Students not only would be prepared for postsecondary education, but for the responsibilities of a career and civic life. Moreover, employers, college-admissions officers, the public and students would understand and appreciate the value of a high-school diploma.
Academic standards also will lead to other necessary educational reforms that, taken together, will significantly raise student achievement. Highly qualified teachers must be recruited, educated in the subjects they teach and trained to know the most effective instructional strategies. Teachers need to be evaluated, and those who are unqualified must be let go. Resources must be reallocated to focus on classroom instruction and student learning. Tests must be created to assess student learning and strategies must be developed for students who fail to meet the academic goals. Finally, schools and districts must engage parents and community members to ensure support for reforms and public responsibility for the education of all students. In order for these reforms to be effective, they must be centered on a common set of goals and coordinated to work in unison. By defining what we expect of students, standards serve as a road map to guide these reforms.
But who should develop the standards and how should they be chosen? Stakeholders include business leaders, educators, parents, citizens and students themselves -- all have a strong interest in determining what students should know and be able to do. And meaningful, effective standards must represent a consensus of all these groups. Government, as the manifestation of our democratic process, can lead stakeholders to begin this process. State government, in particular, is uniquely situated to bridge local and national interests in the development of meaningful standards. School districts can and do use the state standards as a starting point for their own more localized, more rigorous, requirements. That's what happened in Chicago three years ago: Educators and community representatives defined standards that exceeded the Illinois state goals.
State governments also have a great deal of legal authority to ensure educational quality. The Constitution grants the states the authority to provide free education to all children. The Supreme Court has upheld this authority, acknowledging states' fundamental interests in ensuring that children are educated to be productive individuals and responsible citizens.
The court has asserted that "education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments [as] it is the very foundation of good citizenship" (Brown v. Board of Education). In other decisions, the court has held that "providing public schools ranks at the very apex of the function of a state" (Wisconsin v. Yoder), end that one objective of education is "the inculcation of fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic system" (Bethel School District No 403 v. Fraser). The setting of academic standards, we have argued, helps states to meet their responsibility.
There is some early evidence to suggest that rigorous standards aligned with meaningful assessments can raise the quality of the education system. Cornell University Professor John Bishop examined states, nations and provinces that required students to pass exams tied to their curriculum at the end of high school. He discovered that such systems had higher standards for beginning teachers, paid higher teacher salaries, targeted more resources on core instructional functions, had students who scored higher in mathematics and geography and employed more teachers with a major in the subject that they teach.
Academic standards, however, are not the silver bullet for improving public education. The setting of academic standards does not mean that all or even most students suddenly are going to meet them. The adoption of air-quality standards did not suddenly improve the quality of air in Los Angeles. A great deal of work and new technologies went into reducing the pollutants that came from automobiles and factories. The work and technologies, however, were guided and coordinated by the air-quality standards. Similarly, content standards are a necessary starting point toward meaningful education reform and increased student achievement.
Cross is president of the Council for Basic Education and the Maryland Board of Education, and led the educational in initiative of the Business Roundtable from 1991-94.
No: The standards the public-education lobby more than students.
Since publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, educational reform has been a growth industry in the United States. Public-school choice, restructuring, outcome-based education, back to the basics -- the educational-reform movement, if we can call it that, has generated a number of submovements that claim to hold the key to significant improvements in educational achievement. Perhaps none of these submovements has gone as far or as fast as "the standards movement."
The standards movement is based on the argument that U.S. students do not study under clear and rigorous standards with high-stakes penalties for failure to meet the standards. For example, no matter how poorly students achieve, some colleges are willing to accept them. The fact that one out of every four college freshmen in the United States takes a remedial course illustrates the magnitude of the problem. Remediation likely would not be needed if K-12 schools had adopted high standards, and students knew they could not be admitted to college without meeting them.
Proponents of state standards argue that because textbooks have been "dumbed down," the standards will help make educators more accountable. But this criticism raises some troublesome issues. If so many school districts have adopted dumbed-down instructional materials, one must question whether state legislators or bureaucrats answering to the governor will do a better job. Why should state legislators, who are not responsible for running schools, dictate standards to school boards? Undoubtedly, members of school boards will argue that lack of funds is the problem and use the standards as leverage for a larger state subsidy of local schools.
Note that the standards movement has a commercial as well as an educational dimension. The National Council on Education and the Economy, or NCEE, is the leading source of leadership for the standards movement. NCEE has developed academic content standards for several subjects; the standards are embodied in textbooks and instructional materials marketed by Harcourt Brace, a leading publisher of instructional materials. NCEE receives royalties from the sales of the materials. The Council for Basic Education, or CBE, another organization promoting state standards, serves as a consultant to states on standards. Unlike NCEE, CBE does not have a stable of standards for various courses; it provides assistance on the process of establishing state standards. There is nothing wrong with these practices, but it should be noted that producers do not typically inform their consumers of all the negatives associated with their products and/or services.
The Carnegie Foundation is the major source of funding for the standards movement. Its cash contributions are exceeded by those from the federal government under Goals 2000 legislation, but the standards movement has been driven by organizations and leaders funded by Carnegie. Under Goals 2000, the federal government provides funding which the states can use to develop standards, and all states, except Iowa and Wyoming, have bought into the process.
Typically, the leaders of the standards movement emphasize the slow pace of U.S. education. Our students frequently lag behind students elsewhere in the age levels at which certain subjects are introduced. To phrase the point differently, students can and should learn by 14 or 15 what they currently learn by age 17. The numbers vary, but there is widespread agreement (which I share) that large-scale acceleration is academically viable.
Unfortunately, many students do not want earlier completion of formal education. Academic acceleration means giving up social life, athletics and other nonacademic benefits of secondary school. And many communities are deeply attached to their high-school athletic teams. Acceleration is not simply an educational issue; it is a social and cultural issue as well.
Suppose that a state adopts an excellent set of standards. How will the standards be implemented? Presumably, the current teachers and existing instructional materials deviate significantly from the standards; otherwise, why the concern in the first place? What will it take for the teachers to become proficient in teaching the new standards? In-service training would be required at a huge cost; the school districts cannot simply require teachers to take the necessary training. Most districts do not have the right to insist upon training outside the regular school day, even if the district pays for it. The restrictions are woven into collective-bargaining contracts of one- to five-years duration. Will school boards tell teachers who have received favorable evaluations for several years that they must undergo the training or lose their positions? Not likely. School districts will demand more public monies to retrain teaching staffs. Teachers and their unions strongly oppose a policy that holds teachers accountable for poor academic performance; in their view, social factors over which teachers have no control are the causes of low academic achievement.
Will higher standards affect the many thousands of students going to college with athletic scholarships? Students can be admitted to our largest institutions of higher education with the equivalent of a ninth-grade education; witness the continuing battles over the requirements for college student athletes. As our football and basketball factories compete more intensively for 250-pound tackles and skillful dribblers than they ever have (or will?) for outstanding young scholars, we have seen the huge stakes involved in maintaining the status quo in college admissions. Furthermore, colleges have dormitories, cafeterias, bookstores and other sources of revenue that depend on large numbers of students, and large numbers of students cannot be reconciled with "world-class standards."
Unfortunately, the leaders of the standards movement are afraid to challenge this obvious truth; they fear being characterized as "elitist" or "racist" or some other pejorative if they admit publicly what everyone willing to look at the facts recognizes privately.
The naivete that characterizes the standards movement is evident from the track record of its major proponents. Inasmuch as they do not view the public-school monopoly as a major problem, they are under some pressure to identify the obstacles to raising the levels of educational achievement. "High standards" meets this need. The teachers' unions are always happy with an educational diagnosis that ignores their responsibility for the state of U.S. education. The practical impossibility of adopting and implementing high standards for everyone will keep the teachers' unions off the hook for several years to come.
What will happen is thoroughly predictable. States that adopt high-school standards and try to impose high stakes for failure to fulfill them will encounter a firewall of criticism. The argument will be made -- and already is being made -- that it is unfair to expect all students to fulfill high standards unless there is equality of learning opportunity. To achieve equality of learning opportunity, we must allocate huge expenditures for remediation. By the time this argument is played out, another 5 or 10 years will go by -- plenty of time to come up with another excuse to maintain the public-school monopoly.
Actually, if the supporters of high standards for all students really believed in the possibility, they should be promoting a show-case example to support their position. They should identify a state or a few districts large enough to test the hypothesis that all children, except for a small minority, can achieve at world-class levels. Instead of dribbling away a few dollars in thousands of school districts, let us find out how much it would cost to enable all children to meet high standards. Does it cost $1,000 more per pupil? $5,000? $25,000? Whatever the cost, let's get on with the experiment. Perhaps the foundations that are trying to convince us that all children can learn at world-class levels will be willing to invest the millions required to test their rhetoric.
Surely, if significant differences in student achievement are due to unequal opportunities to learn, let's find out what it would cost to equalize the opportunities. If it takes one teacher per child, so be it. But will the average citizen sign on to astronomical new expenditures in public education to get this outcome? Would many parents and taxpayers prefer the alternative of home schooling or school vouchers to obtain the same result outside the public-school system?
In my opinion, the standards movement is afraid to raise these questions, because it fears, and rightly so, that the answer to them will undermine its egalitarian assumptions. Educational standards are lower today than in the past precisely because of futile efforts to apply the high standards for college admission to larger and larger school populations.
True, academic acceleration is desirable. But the feasibility of higher standards leading to acceleration is only one dimension of a complex problem. It is very unlikely that states will reduce the duration of formal education; teacher unions' opposition probably will be sufficient to block that highly desirable option. On the other hand, if substantial numbers of students enroll in colleges at ages 14 and 15 instead of 17 and 18, one has to wonder about the ability of the colleges to manage such a diverse age group in the same academic environment.
The standards movement offers what essentially is a statist approach to the issue of acceleration. Its proponents argue that students should not be allowed to go to work until they have completed a lengthy period of formal education with a piece of paper at the end of the process--a high-school diploma or "certificate of mastery."
But why protect the education monopoly this way? If education had to compete against the work option, the competition would force the schools to demonstrate and continue to demonstrate that more formal education was preferable to getting a job--not the case for millions of students. In all the rhetoric about standards, we should not overlook the fact that most of what we know and use on the job does not come from formal education. Furthermore, we could do a great deal to equalize lifetime incomes if young people not interested in extended formal education could go to work sooner.
Lieberman is senior research scholar at the Social Philosophy & Policy Center of Bowling Green University and chairs the Education Policy Institute in Washington.…