Examining National Standards

by Melanie Rhoads, Ron Sieber, Susan Slayton
UNC-CH Graduate Students


A plethora of reform movements in the last two decades has served to reinforce the public's perception that public education is failing. From local school efforts to state-wide initiatives, many reformers have sought to cure the numerous ills that plague America's public education system. A recurring theme among many reform efforts is a need for federal intervention. However, Supreme Court rulings, such as Brown versus the Board of Education and San Antonio School District versus Rodriguez, find no cons titutional mandates for federal control of education; therefore, education is a responsibility of the individual states (Yudof, et.al., 1992). The federal government, nevertheless, entered the reform movement by creating national goals and financing efforts designe d to establish national standards.

Instituting such standards implies that students will learn the same content, regardless of where they reside. "Starting school reform by first deciding what every child should learn strikes most people as only common sense," noted one author (Gagnon, 1 995, p. 66). National, state, and local educational governing agencies are currently forging ahead with plans for establishing higher academic criteria. Unfortunately, however, there is little agreement among the three levels of government on what consti tutes quality standards. Educators, administrators, and policy-makers, as well as the general public, are finding it difficult to reach consensus on anything involving this effort.

The future of national standards is, at best, uncertain. There will obviously continue to be much discord as states and local districts decide whether to incorporate national standards into their curricula. It is worthwhile to note the opinion of policy analysts Fuhrman and Elmore (1994) in regard to content standards: "The first, most basic political reality is that curriculum decisions will be made in state and national arenas, rather than exclusively in local and school-level arenas" (cited in Orril l, p. 9). This situation is a departure from the trend toward increased local control.

Although many analysts feel that the call for national standards is dead, it is obvious that this issue is still likely to continue to cause controversy at the national, state, and local levels as various players attempt to balance the need for uniformit y with the need for broad interpretation of the national standards. In late March the nation's governors and top business leaders met in Palisades, New York, to discuss the current status of the academic standards movement. Many viewed this meeting as a follow-up to the 1989 summit held by President Bush in Charlottesville, Virginia (Diegmueller, 1996). Even though it remains to be seen what will become of national standards, it is obvious that this movement has serious implications for educational sta keholders.


The call for nationwide standards that has led to the recent furor began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. The general feeling among policymakers was that some kind of "national intervention was needed" (Kirst and Guthrie cited in Cobb, 1995, p. 159). As a result, former President Bush held an education summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in a statement of national education goals. In 1990 President Bush proposed world-class content standards and a set of achieve ment tests in five core subjects (Kirst and Guthrie cited in Cobb, 1995). One goal called for course content that was academically challenging and "comparable to that in the best schools here and overseas, and--for equity--that all students be offered suc h content and be expected to master it" (Gagnon, 1995, p. 63). As a result of this goal, numerous professional agencies began working on curriculum standards for various core subjects.

In 1992 The National Council on Education Standards and Testing was established to review the issue (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). A report by this council noted the following:

The general logic around the standards-based reform movement is that educators must agree on what students should master and mastery should be at a higher level than is currently expected. Furthermore, the council recommended that states establish school delivery standards "so that students have the necessary resources available to provide them with the 'opportunity to learn'" (Diegmuller, 1995, p. 5).

It is important to note that the national education standards have not been the property of one political party. "Not surprisingly, the goals have been as enthusiastically embraced by the new administration as by its predecessor" (Cross cited in Cobb, 19 95, p. 43). In fact, President Clinton signed into law in 1994 the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which "places the national goals into law, supports the certification of voluntary national education standards and national skill standards, and encourage s the states through grant aid to develop their own standards for education" (Jennings, 1995, p. 768).

Prior to the involvement of federal agencies and policymakers, work on standards was already underway by professional agencies. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) began discussion of standards for math in 1989 and published those stan dards in 1992. Many states and teacher associations had already begun work on standards and curriculum frameworks before national politicians jumped on the standards bandwagon in 1989 (Jennings, 1995).

The U.S. Department of Education commissioned four national projects in arts, civics, geography, and history to establish standards for each discipline. Other areas including math, social studies, physical education, and health were self-financed. For t he most part, the results have been dismal. In March, 1994, the Education Department refused to continue funding the English/language arts project because it hadn't made "sufficient progress" (Diegmuller, 1995, p. 7). Professional agencies committed thei r own funds to complete their project.

The release of national history standards, however, received the most attention. Released in November of 1994, the furor it created ranged from cries of elitism by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Pitsch, 1995) to the Senate denouncing the history standards in a 99-1 vote (Diegmueller and Viadero,1995). The controversy continued a year later with the release of the results on the U.S history exam by the National Ass essment of Educational Progress. The scores indicated that students have little knowledge and understanding of American history (Diegmueller and Viadero, 1995).

In December of 1995 the National Academy of Sciences released the final version of the national science standards (Sommerfeld, 1995) and in November of 1995 the Foreign-Language Standards were unveiled (Diegmueller, 1995). The majority of the other disciplines have since released their standards. The action now goes to the state level where state and local administrators and educators decide first, if they want to incorporate these voluntary national standards into their o wn programs of study and secondly, how they will go about doing so.


Although there are many issues that drive the national standards movement and give it a life of its own, one must first consider the turf war it represents. There is a tug-of-war on at least three different levels:

  1. world standards versus national standards for the level of quality that American children receive in public education;
  2. federal versus states' control over setting the standard of educational design; and
  3. professional (educators) versus private (citizens) demands as to who knows best what the children need to know and when.

Whether one accepts it or not, world standards of excellence are imposed upon the United States by competing countries in a global arena made possible by electronic media. Trade agreements that unify continents and side-step traditional boundaries, as we ll as increased productivity in third world countries, have produced global trade pressures, thus forcing a redefinition of what is considered a basic education and adequate preparation for the world of work in America. There are economic ramifications of an undereducated population, and world economic pressures do indeed have an effect upon the anxiety level of business people and educators of today's youth. These ramifications have translated into pressures for serious reform of public education.

The Charlottesville summit in 1989 produced six educational goals and a mind set that national standards might be an idea whose time had come. Two issues prompted this thought. One was the need for equity in educational opportunity, whether considering m ajority and minority populations, rich and poor districts, or urban and rural locales. Another is the transience of American families who often relocate due to careers. Parents with school-age children need assurance of educational quality and equity for their children no matter where they live. Equity and excellence, often considered by education professionals as contradictory forces, thus work together in bringing a concern for bettering public education. However, for all its noble ideals, the national standards movement in 1989 implied centralized governmental control. In political arenas, when one side gains power, another loses, and this implication means that the states would potentially lose control of an important domain.

Thus, the March 26-27, 1996, educational summit attended by President Bill Clinton, forty governors, and forty-nine corporate chief executives (Lawton, 1996), signaled a shift in sentiment to that of states' control. President Clinton implicitly acceded to these wishes by not pushing the need for federal control (Riechman, 1996). Why such a shift? The conflict over the national standards in various subject matters, such as history and English/language arts, has certainly left a negative impression of na tional standards on politicians at the state level, and the movement back to state control reflects this concern.

With the empowerment of communities through school-reform efforts such as site-based management, stakeholders continue to debate the issue of control at the building level. Teachers have traditionally been considered the experts in regard to curriculum and teaching strategies. The perception that public education is greatly in need of reform, however, has made everyone an expert on what children need, implying that the public knows more about education than teachers. Everyone from CEOs of large corpora tions to parents are vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Demanding a higher standard of curricular excellence and calling for more academic rigor in American schools is a way of insuring survival of the culture in a competitive world economy. Clearly, parents, politicians, and business leaders exert influen ce here; however, teaching professionals are better used to dealing with diverse populations and balancing differing needs. Any successful reform effort must include a cooperative effort among all parties.


When national standards was still in its conceptual stage, the idea had few critics. When standards became reality, however, questions and controversy abounded. As stated previously, federal grants were awarded for core academic areas to establish their own national content standards which would promote academic excellence and equity. By April, 1996, there were 14 documents, four of which were not financed by the federal government (math, social studies, physical education, and health).

Each of these documents has its own format and definitions. Some cover content standards only while some include performance standards, describe resources students needed to meet the standards, and have assessment recommendations. Others even include te aching activities. Several documents speak to teachers as their audience, and others are strictly technical documents to be used as planning frameworks (Diegmueller, 1995). There are no widely accepted definitions of "content standards" and "curriculum fr ameworks," nor is there common criteria for what a good standard looks like (Olson, 1995). These inconsistencies need to be addressed in order to combat the immense confusion and miscommunication over standards at the national, state, and local levels.

One group that is trying to align high academic content standards with performance standards and subsequently create a national examination system is the New Standards project. New Standards is a group of researchers and policy specialists from the Univ ersity of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit research and policy group based in Rochester, NY. The project now involves six districts and 17 states. Their focus is on producing end-of-grade performance standards and assessments for English/language arts, mathematics, science, and applied learning (performance of tasks for which students need to achieve understanding of other subject matter) that students would have to meet in order to be promoted from 4th, 8th, a nd 10th grades. These standards were designed to address the "how good is good enough" questions which pervade the standards debate.

The New Standards project delineates performance standards for the three disciplines, as well as applied learning standards for each grade level from elementary through high school. Student work samples are included to illustrate specific performance ta sks. These samples include commentary explaining how the student satisfied or did not satisfy the standard. International benchmarks for academic achievement and other standards documents are referred to throughout each grade level volume (Diegmueller, 1 995).

In response to questions of alignment of New Standards' performance standards with those of national content standards efforts, Elizabeth Stage, co-director of science standards for the group, replied, "We've made a concerted effort to make sure that we are not creating another set of standards" (Diegmeuller, 1995, p.6). Indeed, the math standards do seem to coincide with those set forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Draft documents went out to educators, scholars, policyma kers, parents, the business community, and other interested parties at the end of 1995 for review. Project leaders plan to submit revised documents to the New Standards governing board for approval at its meeting in June, 1996.

The New Standards project is not the only organization which applauds the efforts of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Most state leaders also reserve their highest praise for these curriculum standards. The NCTM standards are widely recog nized as the consensus document for national standards preparation efforts. They clarify a new way of teaching and thinking about math which emphasizes problem solving (Olson, 1995). Many states readily identify their state standards as being modeled aft er the national ones, much the same as the New Standards project has.

Contrary to the accolades received by the NCTM, however, is the publicity received for the US History standards document. The board which was responsible for developing these standards was highly criticized by Lynne Cheney, chairwoman for the National En dowment for the Humanities, who initially had lobbied for history standards, funded the project, and selected its leaders and many of its board members. According to her, the history standards portrayed "the United States and its white, male-dominated po wer structure as an oppressive society that victimizes minorities and women" (Diegmueller, 1995). This document was condemned for placating advocates of multicultural education at the expense of downplaying or even ignoring historical figures such as Geo rge Washington and Robert E. Lee. Newspaper, radio, and television coverage heightened attacks on these standards.

Robert Dole, in a speech designed to appeal to the Republican party's conservative wing, harshly denounced the history standards. In a Labor Day speech last year he asserted, "The purpose of the national history standards seems not to be to teach our ch ildren certain facts about our history, but to denigrate America's story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures. This is wrong, and it threatens us surely as any foreign power ever has.... After years of that, would you love America?" (Pitsch, 1 995) Secretary of Education, Richard Riley also jumped on this political bandwagon saying, "They portray American history in a bad light, and that is a mistake.... Those aren't our standards. We had nothing to do with them" (Pitsch, 1995). The use of fe deral monies and election year dramas have helped turn national standards into federal ones which will be manipulated by partisan politics.

A relatively new twist to the standards debate has come from Christine Todd Whitman, Governor of New Jersey. She plans to equip classrooms with technology and use new uniform academic standards to ease inequities among schools. Leaders in some other stat es agree with her approach. Whitman, in her State of the State address in January, commented, "Educational equity will only come when we commit ourselves to educational quality for all students. At the heart of our efforts are core curriculum standards" (Harp, 1996, p. 25). In order to close the equity gap between New Jersey's rich and poor schools, Governor Whitman is proposing a funding formula that will estimate the amount of money that each district needs to meet the standards that New Jersey is dra fting for its schools and students. In this way, districts wealthy enough to meet the standards on their own may receive no money from the state, while those districts in most need of funding will get it. In effect, the creation of standards has been cons trued as justification for unequally distributing government money in the name of equity.

Most obviously the national standards movement is simply providing some form of support for states as they develop their own academic standards. Since interpretations of The United States Constitution assign the responsibility for education to t he individual states, the national movement really has nowhere else to go. If national content standards survive, it will be because states find them useful. If states ignore the national models, they will become irrelevant. Forty-six states have applied for federal grants under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act that require them to develop content standards and a related system of assessments (Olson, 1995). The national movement toward developing content standards sparked the enormous efforts on the pa rt of states over the past five to six years to set their own standards. Based on the interviews of Olson, et. al. some states have engaged in extensive consensus-building to set standards. The focus tends to be on what students should know rather than w hat teachers should teach (Olson, 1995).

While there are some similarities between state standards documents, there are still many inconsistencies which need to be reconciled. States call their standards everything from "content standards" to "curriculum frameworks" to "essential learnings." S ome of these documents are very succinct, while others require volumes of information. In some states the standards are tied to graduation requirements, professional development opportunities, and statewide tests. Other states do not address whether or no t the standards will be mandatory or voluntary, how they will be implemented, or how they will be used to measure student performance (Olson, 1995).

The question of where the national standards movement is heading is a complex one. Whether states will work together to attain some degree of conformity or simply forge ahead with each state producing its own standards remains unclear. At this point it a ppears to be headed in 50 differing directions.


We are a nation of school districts that have grown from one-room schoolhouse mentalities to world-class concerns. That national standards will be viewed as a top-down type of reform by some states who will bridle at any thought of centralized control is inevitable; a recent example of this quiet rebellion is the national conference in Palisades, NY, where several states were not represented. Will the states and local districts align their standards with a national standard willingly?

The Department of Education awarded 46 states grants to develop state curricular standards. At the same time, funding was provided for core content areas to develop national standards. This kind of funding inevitably creates conflict situations, and imp lies that the Department doesn't itself know which camp it wants to control standards. This lack of clarity has contributed greatly to the confusion surrounding national standards.

Given that most of the subject areas have certified a national standards document, and that school systems nationwide are embracing elements of the science and mathematics curricula, there may be hope that the rest of the subject standards will be used. The NCTM standards for Mathematics, as well as the AAAS Science document , clearly stated the need for subject matter that was less dependent on rote-learning of facts and more dependent on constructivist thinking. In addition, it called for a movement aw ay from teaching in isolation to teaching in contexts, applications, and learning strands.

Some of these methodological processes apply to other subjects as well. Inconsistency in content expectations among the subjects had delayed and even subverted the process in English and history. It would have been helpful to have initially set a standar d for the content and scope of the standards themselves; future standards-setting initiatives, such as the New Standards Project, should keep this in mind.

With the current bent of politicians in both parties to downsize government, will there remain a Department of Education to oversee this implementation? If not, will it devolve to a cabinet-level head to guide the nation on this path? Under the gaze of the world, abandoning education as a top-level issue would be too politically costly for the U.S. government.

Some further implications for this issue include the following:

  1. Will there be a way to balance the current push for site-based management with the conformity of national standards?

  2. As a national standard is implemented, will state standards converge readily? How much variability or convergence do we have in our standards now?

  3. Standards evolve as society evolves. How amenable to change are the standards themselves?


In consideration of the reigning confusion and inconsistencies inherent to this national standards movement, we propose the following recommendations to educators.

  1. Do not regard the standards as a measure of final results imposed on teachers by the administration, politicians, and business leaders. Rather, the focus should continue to be on a commitment to the improvement of students' education, not just comp liance with standards.

  2. Support efforts for cohesive, coherent, succinct documents that connect standards from the various disciplines to one another. Interdisciplinary, integrated standards are necessary in order to be useful in the classroom.

  3. In order to lend some consistency to the standards, educators should support efforts to align the state's standards with the nationally developed ones and vice versa.

  4. Support one distinct format into which all national standards documents must fit.

  5. Be aware of political manipulation of national standards. Michael Apple, in his article entitled, "The Politics of Official Knowledge: Does a National Curriculum Make Sense?", asserts that a "largely rightist coalition has put such proposals on the educational agendas" (Apple, 1993, p. 230).

  6. Make sure that the standards for students reasonably reflect the capabilities of students at that age.

  7. Get involved in developing performance and assessment standards for your state. Determine your own perspective on the concept of national exams, and be prepared to fight for your position.

  8. Lobby for what you know is in the best interest of students, not what politicians and special-interest groups say is in the best interests of students

  9. Pay close attention to the actions and interactions of the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization that is pushing for convergence of national and state standards. Its State Collaboration on Assessment and Student Standards effort is helping states share information. They want to assist states in determining how they can use standards, then support the professional growth and capability of teachers as they start to work with the standards (O'Neil, 1995).

  10. Fight for accountability measures which require more than standardized test scores to verify achievement of standards.

  11. Contact your governor to voice your ideas and concerns. S/he will meet with other governors to discuss educational standards at the National Governors' Association Conference in Puerto Rico in the summer of 1996. One decision that will be made at thi s conference will be whether or not to create an "independent, privately financed, non-governmental entity to serve as a national clearinghouse or 'war room' for guidance and information to states on standards, assessment, and related issues" (Lawton, 199 6, p. 14).


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