Recent months have witnessed more setbacks than gains in the quest to bind high academic standards into schooling and to "reinvent" U.S. education.
Reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that many U.S. students are underachieving. The mathematics assessment released in mid 1994 reported small gains at each trade level. Yet, the percentage of students who tested "below basic" remains appallingly high: 39% of fourth-graders, 37% of eighth-graders, and 36% of 12th-graders. Those meeting the "proficiency" standard remain lamentably few: 18% of fourth-grades, 25% of eighth-graders, and 16% of 12th-graders.
The 1994 reading assessment also yielded discouraging news. Since 1992, reading performance for fourth and eighth grades held steady, but dropped significantly for 12th-graders. The percentage of high school seniors who are "proficient" readers fell from 37 to 34%, and those "below basic" rose from 25 to 30%. NAEP reports generally get a lot of media attention. However, for the first time in memory, the Secretary of Education skipped the press briefing on the 1994 reading results, which contradicted the Clinton Administration's assertion that America has turned the corner on the problem of poor achievement, as well as apologists' claims that U.S. schools are better than ever.
Those never were very plausible conclusions, in light of persistent reports from colleges and employers about the week preparation of high school graduates crossing their thresholds. Moreover, they have been contradicted sharply by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose 1994 survey of the U.S. economy concluded that "the effectiveness of the primary and secondary education system, while highly variable, can broadly be characterized as mediocre at best."
If any proof is needed of the absence of standards in American elementary/secondary education, the mass confusion, irresolution, and conflict that currently envelop this topic should provide ample evidence. Among every state agreed to participate in Goals 2000, the Clinton Administration's major education reform initiative, designed to promote development of state and national standards. This program has hit rocky shoals, though, becoming a major battleground in the war over the Federal role in education. A number of freshman in the 104th Congress came to Washington determined to eliminate it, and the House of Representatives voted to eliminate all funding for it in Fiscal Year 1996. Although it may limp along--the Senate is friendlier--one scarcely can describe it as the centerpiece of anything significant.
This is no great loss. Goals 2000 is prescriptive in a variety of ways that undermine the ability of states and districts to carry out their own standards and accountability strategies. For instance, it prescribes the membership of state committees that are supposed to develop the state reform plans. It also includes extensive prohibitions on the uses of testing, which means that students will know that their test scores do not count for anything.
While almost every state welcomes new Federal resources, no state or district really needed a new Federal program to develop educational standards and accountability (that is, after all, the essence of their job), nor did they need the stimulus of relatively small amounts of cash to pay serious attention to the national education goals. Neither does participation in Goals 2000 guarantee that states will make progress toward those goals.
Perhaps the biggest furor was the storm that broke out over proposed national standards for the teaching of history. The U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to express its disapproved of the draft standards. Columnists and politicians declaimed against them. Though the Council for Basic Education subsequently issued revised guidelines for the overhaul of these standards, they are not likely to be able to dispel the criticism that surrounds the issue. …