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Standards Movement in American Education

Governors Take the Initiative, Standards-Driven Reform Models, The Rise of the Standards Movement

The origins of the standards movement in American education are largely economic. For much of the twentieth century, most jobs in the United States could be done by people with an eighth-grade level of literacy. Only a minority of people needed more than that, and fewer still needed the kinds of knowledge and skill associated with the work of professionals and managers.

Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, everything changed. American business was assaulted by firms, mainly from Asia, that were making enormous inroads into American markets for goods and services at home and abroad. American business leaders discovered that many of these firms were paying 1/10 to 1/100 of the wages that they had to pay for people with a seventh-or eighth-grade level of literacy in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of jobs requiring relatively low literacy levels began moving offshore, never to return. The only way that firms could afford to continue to pay the prevailing wages in industrialized countries was if the people to whom those wages were paid could do the kind of highly skilled work that only highly educated people could do. In this new situation, eighth-grade levels of literacy would become a ticket to a life of economic struggle in the developed world.

Governors Take the Initiative

State governors became very concerned about the jobs that were being lost to low-wage countries, and business leaders began to realize that skilled and educated people were vital to their future. All through the 1980s and 1990s, pressure grew to do something about this situation. The governors took the initiative. In a very unusual departure from prior practice, they devoted the 1986 meeting of the National Governors Association in Hilton Head, South Carolina, solely to education, declaring to professional educators, in effect, "We will give up regulating inputs and give you more flexibility and control over resources, in return for your commitment to be held more accountable for results."

Standards-Driven Reform Models

The business model of standards-driven reform. The governors thus established the language of the new management revolution in business. The general approach that emerged was, roughly speaking: get your goals clear; communicate them clearly to everyone in the organization; create accurate measures of progress toward those goals; push decisions as to how to reach those goals as far down toward the people who make the product or render the service as you can; slice out most of the middle management in between; give the people on the front line the tools and training they need to do the job; and when all this is done, reward those who produce measured gains toward the stated goals and provide consequences for those who do not.

This model would have a powerful influence on the standards movement in education. Two other models came from analyses of the systems used in other nations that appeared to have more success than the United States in producing consistently high levels of achievement among the mass of their students: the accountability model and the ministry model. The accountability model came in two variants. The distinctions between them were subtle and terribly important.

The educators' accountability model. One emerging point of view held that American achievement could be greatly improved by adopting clear academic standards, and then mandating tests that closely matched these standards. Based on the European and Asian experience, the advocates of this view maintained that the annual release of school-by-school performance data would by itself create irresistible pressure on the schools to find effective curriculum materials, implement effective instructional strategies, and do the other things needed to raise student performance. The educators who came to this view typically advocated standards and assessments that would support a thinking curriculum that went far beyond the requirements of basic literacy to emphasize autonomous, thoughtful, informed, and reasoned behavior.

The political accountability model. This formulation resonated with many people in positions of political leadership, who were persuaded that the main challenge was to find a set of incentives to make professional educators do what they should have been doing all along. Many were furious that, all through the 1980s, large investments in elementary and secondary education had produced very little achievement gain for students. For many of these people, the content of the standards and assessments was much less important than the ability to use standards to call educators to account. In this model, all that was really important was to have standards, assessments, and a system of rewards and consequences that would provide strong incentives to the educators to raise dramatically the performance of public educators. Unlike those who embraced the educators accountability model, the people who held this view cared little about the specific character of either the standards or the assessments.

The ministry of education model. Some people who examined countries with highly successful education systems came to a different conclusion about the sources of their effectiveness. This perspective was put forth in a report of the National Center on Education and the Economy titled America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! (1990) and the report of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) affirmed their view.

The researchers for the America's Choice study noted that high-performing countries had a common set of structural elements including: high and explicit standards that are the same for all students, as least through the age of fourteen; national examinations set to the standards; curriculum frameworks that specify the topics to be studied at each grade in the core subjects in the curriculum; and instruction and curriculum materials matched to the standards. The TIMSS researchers observed that, in contrast to the most successful nations, the curriculum they found in the United States was "a mile wide and an inch deep," a function of the fact that the states, and the nation as a whole, lacked formal curriculum frameworks specifying what topics are to be studied at each grade level in the core subjects of the curriculum.

The result has been that textbook publishers, given the need to sell their products to an unorganized market, cram many different topics into their texts, treating each one very superficially and leaving out much of the conceptual material that is needed for students to understand the subject. By this analysis, the fact that no level of government in the United States plays the role typically played by ministries of education in other countries in assuring the alignment of the whole instructional system to standards makes it impossible to have a truly standards-based system of education. In this conception of the standards movement, what lies at the core is a highly aligned instructional system, each component of which will support the development of the kind of high-level skills and knowledge needed in the high-wage economies.

The Rise of the Standards Movement

In the three years following the governors' meeting at Hilton Head, events moved rapidly. By 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) had published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. In the same year, the chairman of the National Governors Association asked Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Governor Carroll Campbell of South Carolina to co-chair a task force on educational goals. That fall, President George Bush asked the governors to join him in Charlottesville, Virginia in a meeting devoted solely to a discussion of educational goals.

When, in the following year, the White House announced a set of education goals for the nation, the governors responded once again with a call to establish a National Education Goals Panel, made up of governors and very senior representatives from the administration, to monitor the nation's progress toward the goals.

The Politics of Standards

The story of the 1990s is the story of the ascendancy of the political accountability wing of the standards movement. As the decade began, the conversation about goals became a conversation about standards, and many people started looking for some way to establish a national entity to become the focal point for creating some sort of national system of standards and assessments. Republican and Democratic presidents took turns at various formulations of ways in which the federal government could take the lead, if not in setting national standards and requiring national exams, then at least in creating some mechanism by which the federal government could fund the development by the states of standards and exams, and then monitor and review the quality of what they produced. They wanted to assure the public that some sort of system of standards was being established that would enable the United States to compete in world commerce, and to graduate students with an education comparable to that offered by any nation in the world. As of 2001, however, all initiatives to create national exams or tests, to reference state tests to national tests, and to review state standards and tests at the national level had failed.

Political conservatives fear that entrusting these functions to the federal government could lead to the imposition of a national curriculum. Liberals, on the other hand, fear that the inevitable consequence of a system of national standards will be to deny graduation and other forms of opportunity to poor and minority students who could not meet the standards because of the inequitable distribution of resources in the American education system.

What the electorate was prepared to entrust to the federal government, during the first Bush administration, was the granting of funds to teachers' subject-matter associations to develop their own standards, following the example of the NCTM. Later, during the Clinton administration, there was a move to require the states to hold low-income students receiving federal funds to standards no lower than the standards to which all other students were held, which was tantamount to requiring all states to develop their own state standards.

The Pivotal Role of the States

The most intense pressure to do something to use standards to raise educational achievement was falling, in any case, not on federal officials, but on top state officials. Many of these officials joined the New Standards Consortium, a gathering of twenty-two states, half a dozen cities, a university, and a not-for-profit organization, in an effort to develop standards and assessments of the kind and quality that many of the state leaders knew would be required. The New Standards Consortium did, in fact, produce performance standards and reference examinations that were later used as a quality benchmark by many states, and the ideas that emerged from it proved influential, but it did not become the nucleus of a national system of standards and examinations, as some of its originators had hoped.

Instead, each state went its own way. In the mid-1990s, as the state commissioners of education, sometimes in league with their governors, were leading the effort to establish state standards, they found themselves in a war zone. Despite the strong pressure from the business community, officials of general government, and the public at large to do something about establishing state standards, these state officials found themselves under heavy attack from conservative groups and liberal educators, for reasons such as those cited above. The only way they could survive these assaults was to appoint broad-based groups from within each state to create that state's standards. Even a hint that the standards had come from outside the state would have doomed them. In some states, the battle over the standards quickly became very heated, adding the phrases math wars and reading wars to the educators' vocabulary. These state-developed standards were rarely benchmarked to any standards outside the state. Some were tightly focused on narrow skills, most were very vague, and few provided the kind of guidance that would be required to construct a curriculum.

None of these standards included examples of the kind of student work that would meet the standard, the hallmark of the performance standards that had been created by the New Standards Consortium. This omission was important because it is virtually impossible to construct an instructional program to get students to the standard if neither the student nor the teacher know what sort of student work will meet the standard.

The state standards drew, in varying degrees, on the standards that had been developed by the teacher's disciplinary associations. But some of these standards had also drawn heavy fire. The social studies standards were assaulted on the grounds that they virtually ignored figures like George Washington and Robert E. Lee and gave much more space to women and minorities, whose role in the life of the nation was arguably less pivotal. Federal government support was withdrawn from the standards project of the English teachers because of its alleged failure to place sufficient weight on the conventions of English grammar, spelling, and other skills.

As the 1990s progressed, all but one of the states developed their own unique statewide standards, and most either bought off-the-shelf tests for statewide use or, in the majority of cases, worked with commercial testing companies to produce custom tests, frequently of much the same design as the most popular off-the-shelf tests. In the main, the tests satisfied the needs of the accountability wing of the standards movement for an instrument that could be used to hold teachers accountable, but fell far short of the kind of assessment tool that would provide incentives to create a thinking curriculum in the schools.

The Accountability Model Prevails

Professional educators experienced this both as a greatly increased burden of testing and, even more importantly, as the sharpest edge of a burgeoning accountability movement. State after state was using the tests mandated at three or more grade levels as the basis for publishing scores comparing schools within the states. As the twentieth century came to a close, the accountability movement came to dominate the standards movement in most states. As state after state devised different methods to construct league tables showing how schools compared to one another and to the state standards on the state tests, school districts everywhere began to find themselves under enormous pressure to improve student performance, as measured by the tests. This pressure was, of course, passed down to the schools.

The Backlash

The pressure to improve performance produced predictable results. Teachers, either of their own volition or with the active encouragement of their principals, prepared their students for the tests by teaching them how to answer the general form of the questions they would get. A few, leaving nothing to chance, opened the tests before they were to be administered, and told their students the answers, and a few corrected wrong answers given by the students on the test after they took it.

Many of the state tests were narrowly focused on facts and skills, rather than on a real understanding of the subject or an ability to apply complex knowledge and skills to problems unlike those the students had practiced on. Because of this, teachers who focused almost wholly on test preparation ended up greatly narrowing the curriculum. Researchers found that this actually depressed the achievement of many students who would have achieved at higher levels if there had been no accountability system. This in turn produced a revolt among middle-class and upper-middle-class parents and the teachers of their children. The teachers felt that the new tests and the accountability system that went with them were destroying good teaching, and the parents felt that the accountability movement was responsible for "dumbing down" a rich curriculum and making it less, rather than more, likely that their children would be able to get into the selective colleges they would otherwise be destined for.

Though test makers claimed that their tests were closely aligned with the state standards, and makers of instructional materials claimed that their products were closely aligned with the tests and the standards of particular states, independent analysts repeatedly found otherwise. The instructional power that researchers associated with the highly aligned systems in other countries was therefore only rarely being exploited in the actual implementation of the system in the United States.

The Future of the Standards Movement

The political accountability model, as mentioned previously, includes only three elements of the more complex business, ministry of education, and educational accountability models: the standards, the measures, and the accountability system (meaning the rewards for those who produced improved student performance and consequences for those who did not). Missing from this model, but part of the other models, was: (1) high standards that incorporate a "thinking curriculum," (2) assessments that teachers would like to teach to, (3) granting the school principals and others who will bear the burden of accountability the authority they need to do the job, (4) creating clear curriculum frameworks that would make it possible to build fully aligned instructional systems, and (5) making the heavy investments in the tools and training the school people would need to do the job.

The economic forces that have pushed American education toward explicit standards, the benchmarking of those standards against the standards in other countries, and the construction of league tables of school performance against common measures are unlikely to grow weaker in the foreseeable future. But the growing backlash among professional educators and suburban parents against the accountability version of the movement seems likely to grow, absent more thoughtful standards, tests that teachers feel comfortable teaching to, instructional materials closely aligned to standards that really support a thinking curriculum, and inclusion in the model of the missing elements of the business and ministry models of standards-driven education reform.

There are straws in the wind suggesting that this might happen. The national movement toward comprehensive school reform is beginning to produce organizations with the drive and resources to provide the training and technical assistance that schools need to bring students from many different backgrounds to high standards. Achieve (the organization founded by the governors and the business community to advance the cause of the standards movement in the United States) and the Southern Regional Education Board are working to assemble coalitions of states committed to the use of common examinations. Various organizations are working to develop instructional materials closely aligned to these frameworks that could become the basis for a thoughtful curriculum that good teachers will be pleased to teach. But there are other elements of the business and ministry models that are not much in evidence yet in the United States. The jury, therefore, is still out.


KENDALL, JOHN, and MARZANO, ROBERT. 2000. "Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K–12 Education." In Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, 3rd edition. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

KOHN, ALFIE. 2000. The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

MEIER, DEBORAH, ed. 2000. Will Standards Save Public Education? Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

NATIONAL CENTER ON EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY. 1990. America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! Rochester, NY: NCEE.

RAVITCH, DIANE, ed. 1995. Debating the Future of American Education: Do We Need National Standards and Assessments? Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

TUCKER, MARC S., and CODDING, JUDY. Standards for Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


ACHIEVE. 2000. "High Standards: Giving All Students a Fair Chance, 2000." <www.achieve.org>.

EDUCATION COMMISSION OF THE STATES. "Standards: What States Are Doing." <www.ecs.org>.

NATIONAL GOALS PANEL. "The Road to Charlottesville: The 1989 Education Summit." <www.negp.gov>.


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