The Magazine

Against National Standards

Let the states decide what to teach- they'll do less harm.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By LIAM JULIAN
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America's system of K-12 educational standards is confused and bothersome. Standards differ from state to state, and while some are quite good, many are dreadful, beset by sundry problems including mammoth omissions and factual errors.

What's more, states have an incentive to make their standards--and the tests that ascertain whether children have met them--easy, the better to allow large majorities of their students to do well. So it is that fully 88 percent of Georgia's eighth graders scored proficient in 2007 on the state's own reading exam, while just 26 percent hit the proficient mark on a national reading assessment the same year.

The often-suggested and seemingly sensible remedy--now em-braced by the Obama administration--is national standards. Said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February, "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America." Yet before such homogenization gets too far advanced, it is advisable to recall the recent history of national education standards and in particular the problems that ultimately sank an earlier draft.

The idea of national standards emerged in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush and the nation's governors convened for an "education summit" in Charlottesville, Virginia. The meeting endorsed six goals, one of which was that by 2000, "American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography."

But Bush and the governors eschewed the onerous task of defining what "competency" meant and exactly what "challenging subject matter" should be mastered. The president also avoided legislating national standards, thinking, as did many, that this would give the federal government inappropriate and potentially unconstitutional power over local education.

Bill Clinton showed less compunction. He picked up where his predecessor left off, and Goals 2000, his expanded version of Bush's agenda, became law in 1994. The bill was nothing if not ambitious, intoning at the start of its 100-plus pages, "By the year 2000 . . . the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent, . . . every adult American will be literate, . . . every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well," and on and on.

Prominent in this grab bag of hopes and dreams was a plan for national standards to be designed by government-funded experts and overseen by a new federal agency. States that voluntarily reorganized their curricula to adhere to the standards could receive federal grants. The structure started to crumble in 1994, however, when Lynne Cheney--who as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities had approved the grant for Goals 2000 history standards--perused the final 271-page history standards and was apoplectic at what she read. She took to the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal to denounce a document "in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not."

Goals 2000 bogged down in the controversy, further debilitated by its own complexity, including legislative add-ons that had nothing to do with education--Section 1018 of the bill called for classroom distribution of condoms; Section 309 concerned health care and social services--and by proposed national English standards that were written, according to the New York Times, "in a tongue barely recognizable as English."

Ancient history. But the problem that doomed national standards in the mid-1990s still exists: Who determines what is included in the standards and what is left out?

Secretary Duncan has lately lauded the work of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which are at work jointly creating voluntary national standards in math and English (with the cooperation so far of 47 states). Furthermore, Duncan announced in June that his department will spend up to $350 million (part of the $5 billion it received in stimulus funds) to help states create tests to accompany the NGA-CCSSO standards. "This is the beginning of a new day for education in our country," he said.