50 states, 50 standards ? Schools: The controversy over Goals 2000 set back the idea of national educational standards. But our students still need them.

July 07, 1996|By Diane Ravitch

IN MARCH 1994 Congress enacted Goals 2000, the culmination of a bipartisan effort to raise academic standards in the nation's schools. The Bush administration began the ambitious process, awarding grants to national groups of teachers and scholars in science, history, English, and other fields to develop national voluntary standards.

The Clinton administration carried it on. Goals 2000, which became the centerpiece of the administration's education agenda, featured a 19-member National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC) charged with certifying the voluntary national standards and approving, as well, all state standards and assessments. All that remained was for the president to appoint the council members.

The appointments were never made. The movement to develop national standards in education fell victim to errors by both its enemies and its friends (sometimes it is hard to tell them apart). Its enemies opposed higher standards, especially at the national level; and its friends overreached, thinking that they could use the legislation to impose their own controversial ideas about standards and tests. Besides, Goals 2000 itself had serious flaws: It restricted the ways states might use test results; it mandated a highly political process for selecting the reform panels in each state; it introduced the questionable concept of "opportunity-to-learn" standards; it required domination of NESIC by professional educators. Each such feature served to protect the status quo.

In the United States, education has always been a state function. Under current law, it is not legal for the Department of Education to supervise or direct any curriculum. While the coalition supporting standards in education never sought federal standards -- that is, standards controlled by the federal government -- it did seek voluntary national standards that would be used by the states and districts, by their own decision, to change what was taught and tested to all students.

During the summer and fall of 1994, conservative candidates for Congress attacked Goals 2000 as a dangerous step toward federal control of education. For Republican leaders determined to reduce the power of the federal government by devolving functions to state governments and restoring local control wherever possible, Goals 2000 was an obvious target. And NESIC, with its power to approve state standards and assessments, was its most objectionable feature.

Two weeks before the 1994 congressional elections, the issue of national standards became hotly controversial when Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Bush administration, attacked the soon-to-be-released national history standards in the Wall Street Journal.

Cheney had approved the original history standards grant, but she assailed the history standards as written, finding them too negative in their treatment of the United States, the West and white males, and too uncritical in their embrace of multiculturalism and other themes of interest to the political left. Other critics, including historians, agreed that the standards were politically biased.

The National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles, which had prepared the standards in collaboration with hundreds of scholars, teachers, and organizations, staunchly defended them, pointing to the consensus process itself as evidence that the standards had broad acceptability. (Ironically, Cheney herself had created and sustained the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA; its products, statements, and appointments were closely reviewed by Cheney and her staff.) But the storm over the history standards became a hurricane as news magazines, editorialists, columnists, and commentators on radio and television weighed in to praise or condemn them. The history standards became a favorite punching bag for right-wing commentators, but they also were criticized by moderates, including Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. More tellingly, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said on behalf of the Clinton administration, "The president does not believe, and I do not believe, that the UCLA standards should form the basis for a history curriculum in our schools." In January 1995 the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to censure the standards.

The debacle fo the history standards doomed NESIC. Some believe it doomed the national standards movement itself. And it is true that what had already been an uphill battle has, for the time being at least, taken on Sisyphean proportions.

Although the nonpartisan Council for Basic Education subsequently reworked the history standards, and although the revised standards were generally well received when they were published this past April, the damage was done. Eighteen months of verbal battle had made the history standards a symbol of the impossibility of forging national standards that might win broad public support.

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