Academic Standards: A Matter of Civil Rights without Credible Benchmarks That Apply Everywhere, Many US Schoolchildren Will Remain Trapped in Educational Backwaters

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If we want tougher academic standards for America's public schools, then we need a more tough-minded answer to the question "Why?" Pundits and politicians who argue that higher standards are essential to global competitiveness miss the point. It's not the economy, stupid. It's a moral question. It's a matter of basic civil rights.

After all, the United States already boasts far and away the most competitive economy in the world. And our best public school districts - most of them in affluent suburbs - are already performing at world-class levels. For example, last year a consortium of 20 school districts in suburban Chicago participated in the prestigious Third International Mathematics and Science Study. If those 20 districts had been a separate country, they would have ranked second in the world (behind Singapore) in science and among the top five nations in math.

Johnny competes just fine So the issue isn't whether Johnny can compete academically with Johann, Yoko, and Yuri. The real issue is whether kids in rural and inner-city schools will be challenged and enabled to achieve at the same high levels as their best suburban counterparts. The most pernicious inequality is not necessarily in funding, but rather in academic expectations, goals, and requirements - in a word, standards. Schools without even minimal standards - schools that pass kids who can't read or compute - flunk a basic moral test. Says E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia: "A systematic failure to teach all children the knowledge they need in order to understand what the next grade has to offer is the major source of avoidable injustice in our schools." Indeed, Professor Hirsch correctly characterizes the struggle for equality of educational opportunity as "the new civil rights frontier." This gives rise to a disturbing historical parallel: In the 1950s and 1960s, elected officials literally stood in the schoolhouse door to deny the civil rights of minority children. They did so in the name of "states' rights." Today, many governors are engaged in a new "massive resistance." In the name of "local control," they have steadfastly rejected all efforts to create nationwide academic standards. In recent months, however, this wall of resistance has shown cracks. Fed up with struggling school districts, the same governors who give lip service to "local control" are imposing statewide academic standards and, in some cases, taking over management of local school districts. Virginia Gov. George Allen is a remarkable case in point. No one has more flamboyantly opposed the Goals 2000 effort to develop voluntary national standards. He has staked his resistance on the Jeffersonian ideal that local folks know best. …

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