A year ago, President Clinton signed into law his administration's ambitious Goals 2000: Educate America Act. "Today will be remembered as the day the United States got serious about education," the Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley said within hours of its passage.
The high-minded ideals of Goals 2000 seem universal. Who could dispute the importance of sending children to school "ready to learn" or the need for schools "free of drugs and violence," -- two of the eight National Education Goals.
But support for Goals 2000 erodes with the looming prospect of national curriculum standards -- standards designed to provide a way to meet the goal that "all students will leave grades 4, 8 and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter."
Last fall, suggestions for the "challenging subject matter" were released by various education experts and agencies for math, arts, geography, history and civics. Standards in science, economics, foreign languages, English and reading are in various stages of development.
Development of the standards was initially pushed by the Bush administration -- which provided federal funds for the development panels -- and embraced by the Clinton administration.
But the release of proposed standards, paired with the GOP sweep last fall, turned what had seemed like a consensus into a heated debate, within the education community and among politicians in Washington.
The history standards, in particular, were criticized for going too far to satisfy "political correctness." Lynne V. Cheney, who provided funds for standards development (she chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and Bush administrations), complained, "The things that we have done that are successes, the triumphs, the progress that we have made have not been given sufficient emphasis, so that students learning history would have a very warped view of our past."
"The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism -- mentioned 19 times -- are far more important than George Washington -- mentioned twice -- or Thomas Edison -- mentioned not at all," she wrote, in an opinion column published in The Evening Sun.
In January, the U.S. Senate condemned the history standards in a 99-1 vote. And new Republican committee chairmen in both houses vowed to pass bills to kill the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, a board that was to review state and national standards and to which no members have yet been named. The review role will probably be assumed by the National Education Goals Panel, whose members are mostly state officials.
Bruce Manno, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said that national curriculum standards -- which he calls "outcome-based education" -- are a good idea gone wrong.
"Parents want to know what the schools expect their children to know and do, how well their children are learning what they're taught," he said. "So it seems common sense that outcome-based education should meet with little resistance and even become quite popular."
The problem, he said, is that some of the "outcomes" are hard to measure because they concern attitudes and values rather than academic achievement.
Mr. Manno is concerned that national curriculum standards will remove control from families and political leaders and give it to Education Department specialists, minimizing state and local control over schools.
The U.S. Department of Education has lately been busy deflecting criticism regarding national curriculum standards, and the key word in all of the Goals 2000 literature has become "voluntary." Department of Education reports and officials are careful to emphasize that curriculum standards are models and should supplement, rather than supplant, state and community efforts to improve education.
Maryland is among the 44 states participating in the Goals 2000 program. More than 770,000 students in Maryland's 1,200 public schools have been measured against state-developed standards similar to those being developed for Goals 2000.
"Overall, students in Maryland have made performance gains each year. They're not huge leaps, but we are moving forward in meaningful ways," said Margaret Trader, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Goals 2000 program.
She said Maryland "welcomes the program, as long as it's not mandated" by the federal government.
"The guidelines offer an effective means to measure state education efforts against what is important nationally. Students graduating from Maryland schools will not stay in Maryland," she said. "What needs to be emphasized in schools today is the global economy."
Without national curriculum standards, Ms. Trader said, "this would be very difficult work."