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March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

Overview / What To Do With Those New Standards

      Diane Ravitch, chief architect of national education standards in the Bush administration, remains an advocate of the idea, she told a recent press conference in Washington where her new book was introduced. “Americans...expect strict standards to govern construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels; shoddy work would put lives at risk.... They expect stringent standards to protect their drinking water, the food they eat, and the air they breathe.... Standards are created because they improve the quality of life” (pp. 8–9).
      Ravitch recognizes that education is different from bridges and water. She notes that when George Bush, Bill Clinton, and other political leaders established the first set of national goals for education in 1989 and 1990, “they did not realize that educators were divided about what competency is and how it should be demonstrated, about which subjects should be taught to which students, and about the value of challenging students with higher standards” (p. 136).
      Because Ravitch understood these things only too well, she insisted that standards were needed. She still thinks so, even though she is dissatisfied with some of the standards that have begun to appear. Standards can improve achievement, she believes, “by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected” (p. 25). To those who fear that the standards movement may contribute to inequality, she contends that an “essential purpose of standards is to ensure that students in all schools have access to equally challenging programs and courses of study” (p. 26).
      These arguments are familiar to those who have followed the standards debate over the last four years. Many ASCD members have been skeptical of the idea, concerned that the standards might become a rigid, subject-centered national curriculum, especially if they were the focus of a set of national tests. Educators also worried that the fuss over standards has distracted policymakers' attention from the real issues of funding and equality of opportunity.
      In recent months, the situation has changed in ways not yet completely clear. Although most practicing educators have not even seen the new content standards in history, geography, the arts, science, and other subjects, prominent noneducators have examined them and issued judgments. Spurred by charges of bias and political correctness made by pundits like Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the United States Senate condemned the history standards. And because of opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress, it now appears that the proposed Council (NESIC) which was to certify the standards will not be created. Whether the standards documents will be reviewed by any agency, and how, has not been decided.
      Chester Finn, iconoclastic conservative and former Department of Education official, notes that he was a strong proponent of standards, but pronounces the movement dead. Finn expected crisp declarations of what students are supposed to learn but instead found statements he says are “mushy,” “vague,” or “—al.” “If this were a play,” he cracked at the news conference where Cheney's book was introduced, “I'd put it on the shelf with tragedies.”
      I haven't read all the standards in detail (that would take some time), but from the samples I have scanned, I would describe them as an ambitious conception of what professional educators, most of whom are advocates or specialists in the various school subjects, want students to learn in those subjects. It's the classic curriculum dilemma faced by every principal, central office administrator, and generalist teacher: specialists naturally expect a lot; they love their subject and they know its possibilities. Taken as a whole, however, such statements of aspirations are overwhelming.
      As for vagueness, educators see subtleties about their field that others may not appreciate. For example, most of the new standards try to incorporate attention to the learning process (based on recent cognitive science) that some critics consider irrelevant.
      Now that some of the original sponsors are disappointed in the new standards because they are not what was expected, what does that mean for educators? Apparently, these standards will not soon become a national curriculum or the basis for a set of high-stakes tests. Under the circumstances, educators can breathe a sigh of relief and, with discretion, put them to use in the endless task of improving curriculum and instruction.
      End Notes

      1 D. Ravitch, (1995), National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide. Available by check for $22.95 to Brookings Institution, Dept. 029, Washington, DC 20042-0029, or by credit card by calling 1-800-275-1447.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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