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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment
A Brief History of National Standards
Judy Jones

Everybody is getting on the standards band wagon. Zoos, museums, text book companies, etc are connecting what they do to standards. Is this just a fad that will pass, or is this an important feature for improving student learning?

I have no doubt that standards are here to stay. Even in 1965, when I was a graduate student working on my Masters in Teaching, we were trying to write objectives first and then design our curriculum and lessons around those objectives. However, we were not working with national standards and governmental influence on education. 1965 turned out to be a significant year in education: it was the year ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) was enacted. And it is ESEA that has morphed into the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation of today. My career has spanned this time and I have seen many reports released that have focused on educational excellence and equity.

In the United States, education is still highly decentralized. This is not true in other countries. Generally, the Federal Government and the National Department of Education have not been involved in determining curriculum or even educational standards. The U.S. Department of Education is more concerned with funding and laws related to privacy and civil rights. There has been tremendous bipartisan political controversy over the role of the federal government in dictating standards, assessment, and accountability.

The first Department of Education was formed in 1867, but one year later was changed to a mere “Office of Education.” In 1979, 111 years later, a new Department of Education was finally established. Many people thought this department was a mistake and would cause meddling in local control of schools. Previous to 1979, the functions of this department were subsumed in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even today the current Department of Education is the smallest cabinet-level department (slightly over 4,000 employees).

As far as educational legislation goes, probably the piece of legislation that has been most far reaching for current educators is the ESEA of 1965. This was part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. Special funding (Title I funds) provided money for schools that were serving high numbers of poor children. The idea was that these monies would allow these schools to expand their programs to meet the “education needs of educationally deprived children.” The monies were also targeted toward special preschool programs for these children. Head Start was one of these programs. Bilingual programs fell under the ESEA, also. The hope was that spending more on educational programs for these children would help move them out of poverty. However, in 1966, the Coleman Report, announced that all of these programs had only a small impact on student Achievement. It was the Coleman Report that initiated the attempts to racially integrate schools through busing and other measures. The argument was that some of the effects of poverty on educational achievement could be mitigated through the integration of schools.

One effect of the ESEA was to increase state involvements in education, since the states were targeted to administer the Title I funds and other federal monies targeted toward education.

In 1968, the ESEA was amended with Title VII. The result was the Bilingual Education Act, designed to provide federal aid for ESL students.

In 1981, Terrell Bell, President Ronald Regan’s Secretary of Education, gathered a group of experts (NCEE – National Commission on Excellence in Education) to assess the quality of education in the United States. From that gathering came a 1983 report, A Nation at Risk. Part of this report warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” that was permeating education. This group recommended the establishment of a common core curriculum. They recommended that all high school students should take four years of English and three years of math, science, and social studies, among other things. At that time only about 20% of American high school students met those standards. Rather startling, when you look at the high schools of today. However, the Reagan administration was very loath to take on a controlling role in education and little was done to address the suggestions in this report.

“A Nation at Risk” defined excellence:

“We define ‘excellence’ to mean several related things. At the level of the individual learner, it means performing on the boundary of individual ability in ways that test and push back personal limits, in school and in the workplace. Excellence characterizes a school or college that sets high expectations and goals for all learners, then tries in every way possible to help students reach them. Excellence characterizes a society that has adopted these policies, for it will then be prepared through the education and skill of its people to respond to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Our Nation's people and its schools and colleges must be committed to achieving excellence in all these senses.”

There is some irony that this report was released in 1983 and 21 years later we are still trying to achieve this excellence. It is also ironic that the integrating of schools led to tracking students (sometimes a very racially identifiable practice), a practice that research has shown to slow down disadvantaged students rather than encouraging them to perform at the edge of their “personal boundaries.”

A “Nation at Risk” made recommendations in five areas: content, standards and expectations, time, teaching, and learning and fiscal support. In the standards section the following recommendation was made:

“We recommend that schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.”

In spite of the challenge of “A National at Risk”, in 1985, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, released a scathing report on the condition of American education. This report stressed that corporations were spending huge amounts of money each year just to remediate their employee’s educational deficits. The Committee for Economic Development independently issued a similar report, warning of the need for the U.S. to be able to compete in the world market.

These reports led to states beginning to strengthen their educational systems. In various states, business leaders put pressure on their legislators to tighten up graduation standards. And by the beginning of the 90’s, almost half of high school graduates were meeting the standards that were suggested by “A Nation at Risk.”

In September 1989, President George H. W. Bush gathered governors from across the country for the first National Education Summit held in Charlottesville, Virginia. This panel came up with six broad objectives designed to have students achieve “competency over challenging subject matter” in various disciplines. The grades 4, 8, and 12 were targeted as ones where students would be asked to “demonstrate competency.” The charge was clear:

“every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy.”

One of the goals of the summit was that American students would be first in the world in math and science by the year 2000. (As a science teacher I can tell you first hand that we are not there yet!)

In 1990, the President convened the National Education Goals Panel to oversee progress on these broad objectives. The plan was called “American 2000.” However, the National Education Goals Panel was dissolved pursuant to Congressional mandate.

In the 90’s federal money being used to pay for the drafting of national curriculum standards in a variety of subjects. Currently national standards exist in the following subjects: math, science, social studies, technology, language arts, fine arts, and physical education and health. However, it is up to the states to adopt or incorporate these standards as guides to curriculum development. In North Carolina, for example, the National Science Standards, AAAS Benchworks in Science, and other documents were used to establish the state goals and objectives. Some states follow a similar pattern and others do not use the National Science Standards at all. This is typical for the other content standards.

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. This act established the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) whose duty it was to oversee the state standards. In the purpose for the legislation, the word “voluntary” is used several times. There was a lot of partisan bickering over the role of the federal government in mandating standards and the Council never really functioned. The document is a classic in terms of partisan issues being included. Everything from guns to contraceptives to grants for midnight league basketball training (no joke!) can be found in this document. In this climate, the first standards to be released were greatly criticized. The history standards, for example, were accused of being much too weak on basic history and much more focused on a “politically correct” agenda. Political bipartisanship was alive and well!

At the urging of Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the CEO of IBM in 1995, the second National Education Summit was held in 1996. The summit was attended primarily by governors and business leaders, with the federal government basically being bypassed. The onus was on the shoulders of the states and the state leaders to make sure that educational standards were strong and enforced in each state. The influence of business was strong. I remember many meetings during this period where business leaders spoke about what skills they needed in their workforce and what schools should be doing to help create this expertise. After the summit, a group of governors and CEOs started Achieve Inc., a group whose role was to help states establish and implement standards. Other groups were dedicated to helping schools create accountability plans.

In 1999, President Clinton clearly delineated the federal role – the government would establish broad guidelines but the states were responsible for the specific standards and objectives, the testing, and the accountability. However, political disagreements reduced the governmental involvement. In the end, the work has been left up to the states. In 1997, 31 states had adopted standards in various subjects and today all 50 states have some form of standards.

In 2001, by the time the third National Education Summit met, the focus was not so much on establishing standards but more on accountability issues – TESTING!

And that brings us to President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” sometimes called ESEA 2002, enacted in 2002,. The goal was to keep standard setting in the states but have the federal government monitor state progress toward state-determined goals. There is also the threat of sanctions, if goals are not met. Title I funds will be allocated to the poorest districts and are tied to measurable advancement toward goals. The laudable purpose is, of course, that all students be ultimately successful.

As I look over this history of education and standards setting, I am saddened by how slowly we have moved toward the original goal of providing all students in the United States with a challenging curriculum and finding ways to ensure that they all achieve excellence. Although there are parts of No Child Left Behind that I am not fond of, I do think that we are being challenged (forced) more than ever before to examine populations of students who have not been traditionally successful. We cannot just sweep these children under the proverbial “rug” and blame their lack of success on other aspects of their environments. We are challenged and charged with educating them.

Teaching to standards seems natural to me now. I am convinced that we can only reach the goal of excellence in education for all children if we have a curriculum based on standards, rather than just teaching what strikes our fancies! However, we have a lot of work left to do on how we assess student progress towards those goals and objectives.

As a high school biology teacher who began my career in 1966, my learning curve is higher than ever before. In the months to come I will share some of what I have learned.

This website gives the full National at Risk report.

Lots of information about No Child Left Behind.

This is the site for the dissolved National Education Goals Panel.

A complete version of Goals 2000.

The organization established to report on the Education Summits.

Great website for standards based science activities.

Visit this site for a listing of all state and national standards.

Please share you comments with me  via e-mail.


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