Standards are Within Our Reach
I don't agree with your judgment—and the judgment of some (but not all) of our readers—about whether it is feasible to craft useful standards. It is difficult, but not impossible. I'll explain why I think this is so.
First, I served on a committee charged with developing history standards for the state of California in the mid-1980s. The committee included historians; knowledgeable teachers and administrators from elementary schools, junior high schools, and high schools; geographers; child-development specialists; and people from various disciplinary organizations. We wrangled, we discussed, we debated. We talked about concepts and details. We parsed every word of every draft. Eventually we ended up with excellent standards for teaching history (including geography, economics, civics, and government) from kindergarden to twelfth grade. The standards were reviewed by over 1,000 teachers, and improved as a result. There were public hearings. Eventually the standards were endorsed by the state Board of Education in 1988. Since then, they have been updated in light of changing events (e.g., the collapse of the Soviet Union), and they have been re-endorsed by the state Board of Education. I believe they have helped to strengthen and enrich history education across the state, expanding world history from one required year to three required years and adding age-appropriate study of history in the elementary grades, among other things. I consider it a minor miracle that those standards are still in use, 20 years later, when California has thrown out and revised its standards in every other subject.
Second, to those who say that consensus is impossible, I would point to the brilliant and still unappreciated work of the College Board from 1901 to the 1940s. For nearly half a century, the College Board examinations in many subjects were written and graded by teachers and professors in collaboration. Each year, groups of teachers and professors met to agree on the standards and to write a syllabus. Each year, many thousands of students "sat" for the examinations, and these examinations were graded by teachers and professors. Working together, and working for a non-governmental private organization, these scholars established high standards for the nation that have never again been equaled. If you are wondering why this wonderful arrangement has disappeared, the answer is that the College Board decided to scrap the system and replace it with the "scientific" multiple-choice tests that were the wonder of the psychometric world. So fast, so easy, so effortless, so easy to grade by machine instead of fallible human judgment! (I wrote about this turn of events in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education called "The Fall of the Standard-Bearers." I judged it a mini-tragedy that this wonderful system based on the hard work and judgment of practitioners was replaced by the content-free, curriculum-free SAT.
Third, to those who say that issues like evolution make it impossible to have meaningful standards, I say "Nonsense!" Political scientists have long known that the smaller the political unit, the more likely it is to produce and reproduce local biases. This is why the federal government—not localities or states—was responsible for establishing and enforcing standards for civil rights laws, because it was the political agency most removed from local prejudices. In my seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board, I never heard anyone speak a word on behalf of creationism. Yet we know that creationism is alive and well on local school boards and state school boards. The very nature of the federal government guarantees that deliberations about national standards would be open, transparent, subject to verification by scientific authority, and unlikely to cave in to political pressures from small intense organizations.
It continues to amaze me that so many people, including you, think that national standards are an impossibility or are dangerous when so many other nations have managed to develop them. As I have written on more than one occasion, I would not want "stakes" attached to them by Congress or the federal government. I think that the federal government's role is to set standards and to produce good information. It should be left to state and local school boards to decide how to act on that information.