Q: Do Public Schools Need State-Mandated Educational Standards?

By Cross, Christopher T.; Liberman, Myron | Insight on the News, February 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Q: Do Public Schools Need State-Mandated Educational Standards?


Cross, Christopher T., Liberman, Myron, Insight on the News


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. …

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