Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Standards for National Standards?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Standards for National Standards?

Article excerpt

Those who administer Goals 2000 and those who guide any successor to the National Educational Standards and Improvement Council should interpret their mandate broadly, in Mr. Cohen's view. Their mission should be to educate themselves and America about standards-based reform even as they build the capability to enact it.

Goals 2000 became law roughly a year ago, the fruit of nearly a decade's effort to dramatically transform American education.(1) It embodied the belief of reformers that American schools generally encourage mediocre and undemanding work and that much more intellectually challenging instruction would be needed to make students more academically and economically competitive. Goals 2000 is astonishingly ambitious: it aims to create a new guiding framework for public education that would focus on demanding academic standards and assessments and tighten the links between standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

The legislation also envisioned new relationships between national, state, and local school systems, built around new standards and assessments. To that end Title III of Goals 2000 appropriated funds both to support each state's efforts to create its own ambitious academic standards and assessments and to support the subsequent local school improvement that would be tied to those standards and assessments. Goals 2000 hoped to strengthen both state and local school systems and to focus them on much more ambitious instruction.

Title II of Goals 2000 created the National Educational Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC), a federally funded agency that would devise national content and performance standards in key academic subjects and certify any standards that states chose to submit. By these and other means the legislation's sponsors hoped to encourage states to create demanding new standards for schools, to revise curricula and assessments in light of those standards, and thereby to improve teaching and learning dramatically.

But NESIC seems to be dead on arrival. Barely half a year after Goals 2000 was signed into law, Republicans took control of the Congress. Although many Republicans had supported the legislation in the previous Congress, the new faces were generally more conservative and had little use for any sort of national school reform. They had especially little use for an agency that would devise, promulgate, and certify national educational standards.(2) The rest of Goals 2000 seems to be made of more durable stuff, because most of it is organized around grants of money to states.

Though everyone seems to agree that NESIC is finished, reformers find it difficult to imagine Goals 2000 without some NESIC-like agency. One reason is that NESIC's national content and performance standards were to have been examples of the kind of high-quality work that states might adopt or emulate. Another reason is that, lacking such an agency, who would comment on state standards or otherwise help to sustain a national conversation about standards-based reform? And without such commentary and conversation, the national movement for standards-based reform might lose momentum or degenerate into many divergent state movements. As a result, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado and other stalwarts in the standards movement are trying to create a private agency that would do at least some of the things that NESIC would have done.

Whatever form a possible successor to NESIC may take, the ambitions associated with Goals 2000 remain amazing and would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But like most amazing ambitions, these will be accompanied by equally impressive problems of implementation. One problem is that, to be effective, any successor to NESIC will have to become relevant to school reform. And that will not be easy, in part because America is awash with competing schemes to save the schools. Some of these resemble Goals 2000, many do not, and others seek to save the schools from Goals 2000 and similar reforms. …

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