Just about everyone agrees raising the standards of American schools is a good idea. But educators don't have a firm fix on what that means.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the emphasis was on making sure no one got through high school without mastering fundamental reading and math skills. Maryland's Project Basic, for example, established "functional" tests in writing and citizenship as well as math and reading. About three-quarters of the states also adopted minimum competency tests. And there were signs of improvement, notably a closing of the gap in achievement between black and white students.
This effort, though, did nothing to improve the performance of the best students -- or even of average students: The Maryland functional tests are pitched at about 8th-grade level, and most students pass them early in high school.
Attention soon turned to making the United States more competitive in the world marketplace by having all students master more difficult material. In 1983, a major report on education, "A Nation at Risk," recommended strengthening high school graduation requirements, and 47 states (including Maryland) increased the number of courses required for high school graduation or cut back on elective courses to require more math and science.
This reform, too, was soon criticized for not doing the job. While students were taking more courses, many were simply taking more easy courses. Three years of "consumer math" isn't much better than two years. In response, some states, including Maryland, are now specifying not just that students must take math courses, but that these include algebra and geometry.
Like other education reforms, raising standards requires a mix of top-down and bottom-up efforts. Last month, the Clinton administration moved in the right direction from the top, proposing a council to develop voluntary national standards -- "geared to the best in the world" -- of what students need to know and be able to do in each subject area.
The council would also devise tests and "opportunity-to-learn standards" covering such areas as instructional materials and teacher preparation.
Several national groups, meanwhile, are updating the curriculum content in math and science classes -- the most concerted effort in this area since the post-Sputnik panic.
Both the proposed national standards and the curriculum development efforts hold considerable promise. So does the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, with more rigorous content goals and tougher tests.
Yet ultimately, a true change in standards doesn't occur at the level of a national council or a state board of education; it has to occur in the classroom. The change that matters is students, parents and teachers realizing that kids can do more -- and not letting other diversions, such as sports, jobs or leisure activities, get in the way.
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