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National Standards and the Moment


Dear Deborah,

When Gov. Roy Romer spoke of national standards at our recent debate, I believe he was suggesting the development of national standards and testing on a voluntary basis, starting with about 15 governors working together to derive a common program. He did not say whether he would want “stakes” attached to national testing. In my own version of national standards and testing, I would like to see a system that had zero stakes (like NAEP), one where the federal government or some national entity administered tests, released information to the states, and then left the follow-up (the stakes, the consequences, the reforms and sanctions) to the states and local districts.

In this country, we don’t have much “trust” when it comes to national education policy. The right is afraid that the left will take control and mandate left-wing ideas, and the left is afraid that the right will take control and mandate right-wing ideas. Thus, there is a very strong lack of trust that anyone who is in control will even attempt to be fair, nonpartisan, and devoted above all to the well-being of children, schools, and the nation. In this absence of trust, it becomes very difficult even to imagine a successful regime of national standards and national tests.

Yet there are many people—and I think that the various national polling organizations, like Gallup—who regularly find that the American public wants national standards, certainly in reading, mathematics, and science. The fiasco with voluntary national history standards in 1994-95 left a sour taste for many of those involved at the time. It is hard to summarize in brief what happened, but basically the people at the UCLA National History Center (funded primarily by Lynne Cheney and the National Endowment for the Humanities) wrote standards that contained some pretty strong partisan language. Even though the sponsors thought the standards had been pretty thoroughly reviewed, they nonetheless included many statements that revealed political partiality. In the fall of 1994, Mrs. Cheney was first to blast the standards (in The Wall Street Journal) for their lack of objectivity, and the very subject of national standards became too hot for anyone to handle.

Nonetheless, the subject comes back again and again because it is hard for many sensible people to understand why there should be 50 different state standards in mathematics, biology, chemistry, even American history. Isn’t mathematics the same in Oregon as in Virginia? Why should every state have its own version of chemistry? It is somewhat odd that we expect our students to participate in international assessments when state standards are so disparate.

Of course, the issues become less certain and more subjective when we turn to American history or world history, yet the questions—if not the answers—have a certain undeniable similarity. We do want all American students to be prepared to discuss the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the world wars. We do hope that they can reflect on issues involved in the development of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We want them to be knowledgeable about the urbanization of the United States, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the suffrage movement, etc.

On numerous occasions, I have had the opportunity to review state standards. In many states, the standards in every subject are vague; it really wouldn’t matter to anyone if they disappeared overnight because the real standards are those contained in the mass-market textbooks. When I have put together state standards and state tests, I have been depressed by the frequent mismatch. The state standards will say something like, “Students will be prepared to discuss…evaluate…analyze…explain,” but the state tests usually are offered in a standardized, multiple-choice format where students have no opportunity to discuss, evaluate, analyze, or explain anything!

I have often wondered how other nations managed to do what we find impossible to do: To develop meaningful and coherent national standards; to avoid politicization while doing so; and to use those standards to promote greater equity and excellence across their population.

I would rather see serious efforts to improve academic standards and education testing than the current mania for measurement. I see that Chancellor Michelle Rhee plans to fire a bunch of teachers in the District of Columbia based on test scores of their students; I hope she has lots of great teachers waiting in the wings. I see that Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City has announced a plan to measure everyone who teaches math and English Language Arts in grades 4 through 8.

It begins to appear that major urban education systems could be run by accountants, whoever knows how to do the numbers, administer the tests, slice and dice the results. No educators needed.



I wonder if your point about the real national standards being created by the big textbook companies is becoming less true as state standards are becoming both more familiar and more important. When I taught (in DC no less) the recently adopted standards were totally out of whack with the textbooks we had. My principal encouraged her teachers to focus not on the textbooks, but on the standards. For better or for worse, that's what I did, to the point where I stopped using reading textbook in favor of a reader's workshop model. I wonder if my experience was unique or part of a growing trend.

The national standards debate is irrelevant. The world has already set content specific standards in math and science (see Singapore and/or Finland). We activly choose to ignore them, or make up reasons why they don't apply to us, at our peril. We don't need to develop math standards for k-12 they already exist in English (see Singapore). We are too politically corrupt in education to benchmark the existing world standards and start there, because the textbook makers would loose out,not to mention all those curriculum developers. Why is it we are wise enough not to go to New Orleans to study how to build levees (we go to Holland)? We seem to reinvent the wheel for math and science standards instead of benchmarking what is actually working in the real world outside of our borders? Where's Bill Gates and/or Sergei Bren when you really need them?


As you know from the experience of the last fifteen years, standards will only make a difference if there are tests that accurately measure what the standards expect. What's happened is that tests have effectively become de-coupled from standards; the goal is to get high test scores, without reference to what the test scores signify. And that's led to test-prep, an overemphasis on test content, and other more nefarious outcomes. If the object is for students to learn a body of knowledge and skills, then the tests and standards need to be re-coupled.


You wrote, "I have often wondered how other nations managed to do what we find impossible to do: To develop meaningful and coherent national standards; to avoid politicization while doing so; and to use those standards to promote greater equity and excellence across their population."

We are a multicultural nation. E Pluribus Unum - out of many, one. Look at how contentious a presidential campaign can be with only two candidates. Then factor in immigrants from around the globe for the past four centuries coming here to live, work, vote, etc. There are so many more variables thrown into our national voice than in places like Singapore or Finland which are relatively homogeneous societies, both of which have populations smaller than half our states.

Math and English/language arts should be relatively apolitical but history and science could be a very contentious. History and science from whose perspective would be the question.

Do we examine the settling of this country from the perspective of the English, Spanish, French, Scandinavians or Native Americans? How about all of them? As well, the reality of four million of our original inhabitants forced to come here as slaves and their ancestors, many of whom lived as second class citizens even after slavery was abolished, clearly cannot be ignored.

Do we accept evolution, intelligent design, or creationism as gospel in our science curriculum? How about all of them? What about separation of church and state in our schools?

I still believe if the Secretary of Education called a "voluntary" meeting of the heads of all fifty state DOEs to discuss the possibility of creating national standards and assessments it would be well attended. It would clearly create enormous interest and would also garner unprecedented scrutiny from our fourth establishment, the media.


Standards mean very little because their translation into the classroom is non-existant/meager at best.

It is not better standards that we need but better classroom instruction.

Even those states that have great standards have tremendous difficulty in translating their ideals into the classroom. How would national standards be any different?

It is not "national standards" that we need but a better school system that is designed to continually improve teaching, curricula (standards, too!) and the tests that are given to students.

The best school systems around the world would *never* have succeeded if they had set bars and then just expected everyone to jump. Why are we not learning from their experience?

Quality learning necessitates improvements in all aspects of schooling: teaching, curricula and testing. A 3-legged stool is not held up by one leg alone.

Standards only only part of one leg. They can never substitute for the entire stool.

On history standards, you can accomplish standardization by focusing on chronology, names, and events. While this compromise would be unsatisfactory to some, you can objectively test students on who, what, where, and when without imposing a perspective. I know, of course, that ~some~ perspective bleeds into the simplest historical statements, but it can be minimalized. In sum, we can have national standards in history if we're willing to leave philosophy (i.e. perspective) to higher education.

...Just an idea.

Tim Lacy
Chicago, IL


If one of the legs on a three-legged stool is missing or breaks, the stool falls flat on the floor.

"Their (standards) translation into the classroom is non-existent/meager at best." Wow! I hope not. Standards based reform was initiated to map out a course of action, a plan for schools, previously absent prior to the development of state standards.

Yes, we do need a better school system but we could never have one without a plan, a direction for students and teachers to follow.


The state standards are the worst of status quo. They purport to aim for a "high bar" and yet in practice are mostly ill-conceived, poorly written and incoherent.

Yes, schools and teachers need a good plan. But there is little within any of the standards that support the quality improvements that are necessary for our schools.

For schools to improve there needs to be system wide initiatives to improve teaching, curricula and the tests that we give to students. Just stating at the 20,000 foot level some lofty goals fails to provide a positive plan towards improvement.

Goals matter. But the details on how to reach those goals matter substantially more.

The devil is always in the details. And the details in an improvement plan for our schools is greatly lacking. So how are standards supposed to improve classroom instruction? Just telling the teachers that they need to get there in no ways enables their path.

Standards are a canard that distract from the quality inititives that actually could improve our schools. Standards allows us all to "feel" as if we are improving without actually doing so.

School systems that improve do so in substantially different ways than setting "standards" and then insisting that teachers/schools just work harder to meet those goals.

Our schools need content. They need quality curricula. Our teachers need to learn to teach better. The assessments that we give our children need to be aligned with what children are expected to learn in the classroom. How will "standards" by themselves do anything change these critical elements of education that actually affect student learning?

Tim Lacy's comments prompted a few thoughts. Is he suggesting that there is a place for lower order thinking in education? Names and dates, by themselves, are a part of history, to be sure, but don't we want to promote higher order thinking skills? And is there not general agreement that the only way to develop higher order thinking skills is to have students engage in higher order thinking skills? We might admit that it would indeed be easier to develop standards if we think in terms of names, dates, places, and events. We could presumably be more objective, but would it be worthwhile? Would anyone seriously argue that there is a place for lower order thinking skills in education?

Well I would, and have. I would argue that lower level thinking should be given careful consideration by teachers, because high level thinking absolutely requires a lot of low level thinking as a necessary condition, not sufficient, but necessary, absolutely necessary.

And I would argue that there is definitely a place for lower level thinking skills in assessment. It is not just a matter of being convenient and objective, we should assess lower level thinking in the interests of completeness and accuracy. Higher order thinking in students is important, but I think it is a big mistake to think that we should therefore totally reject lower order thinking, in either instruction or assessment. I think it is a mistake to think that a test in any subject should give only high level prompts. Indeed, I would argue that to reject all lower level prompts is to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to get a complete and accurate picture of a student's knowledge and understanding of a subject.

I don't know if Tim Lacy would agree with me on these things or not. I have developed these ideas a little at http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap15.htm.

Dear Brian,

After reading your post and thinking again about my own, I guess I was indirectly arguing on behalf of E.D. Hirsch, Joseph Kett, etc. for some form of cultural literacy. Their arguments in relation to the humanities parallel yours on lower-level thinking. You have to be sharp with the building blocks before you can do more (e.g. understand perspective, subjectivity, intersubjectivity). Save the last for senior year h.s. teaching and college, and take care of the building blocks for standards folks.

- Tim

Tim, I am a fan of E. D. Hirsch and the ideas he advocates. I like your wording, "You have to be sharp with the building blocks before you can do more".

I see my link doesn't work. It's that period at the end. This link should work http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap15.htm

Michelle Rhee is not proposing to fire teachers based on their test scores. What she is proposing is much more chilling. She wants to give principals the power to fire teachers for no reason at all regardless of how high their students test scores are. And she has initiated her plan by supporting the firing of a teacher whose students had the highest biology AP test scores in the DC school system. I once hoped that national standards and testing would serve to protect high performing teachers, but this has proved to be an illusion.

I am fully in favor of the building blocks, but would like to add a few thoughts to what Tim, Brian, and others have said.

You can't avoid charges of bias by sticking to names and dates. Which names and dates? Someone will say you're excluding worthy ones and including overhyped ones. No matter what your selection, someone will find bias in it.

Nor does a good foundation have to exclude thought-provoking questions. The Core Knowledge Sequence is full of information and interesting ways of thinking about it. The historical topics (ancient to modern) are presented in narrative form, with lots of information about language, art, folklore, music, and architecture. The literature curriculum is likewise excellent and inspiring.

We can avoid dogma and extreme biases. But we should be unafraid of a little bias. It comes with the territory of vivid material. Would we rather have skills and strategies only? I hope not.

So let us go ahead and have a moderately biased curriculum so that our students can eventually move beyond it. We don't have to present it as the final say. We don't have to say, "This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We can acknowledge its incompleteness and imperfection. But for crying out loud, let's teach the kids something vivid, specific, and coherent, something they can remember and take to the next level of understanding.

Diana Senechal


I like the comment, at the end of your post, about accountants. As our school endures the latest wave of education fads (Response to Intervention, Failure is Not an Option, etc.) it often occurs to me that a very talented secretary would be much better suited than I to the brave new conception of teaching delineated in these schemes. The new teacher "develops systems", administers frequent assessments, records and processes data, juggles three different differentiated lessons at once, etc. There's no place for crafting deep, rich, interesting lessons.

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