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National Standards: A Plan for Consensus

by Chester E. Finn Jr. 1989

An argument is presented for a common core of basics for all students. In addition, national standards are considered within the contexts of a pluralistic society and societal goals. Costs and benefits of adopting national standards are examined in light of the experiences of other countries with centralized educational policies. (Source: ERIC)

I think it is extraordinary even to be having this discussion in the United States in 1988, especially the part of the discussion that takes it for granted that setting national standards is a reasonable proposition, and that we are mainly discussing the kinds of standards we should have and how to get them. Not long ago, this would have been deemed a radical, vaguely traitorous idea and anybody—certainly anybody who most of the time is a Republican—would have been expected to denounce it as un-American and to issue a ringing endorsement of local control. Well, a lot has changed. I think there are at least six reasons why this is a legitimate and important idea in 1988.

First, local control is already sorely eroded, as the states have taken charge of education reform in the United States these last ten years. The states are now the senior partner in school financing and they are the primary source of education ‘norms, regulations, and procedures. While this has effected some bad as well as some good, it is a fact, and needs to be recognized. I might note, incidentally, that this is a historic shift, the more remarkable for the fact that local control, as far as I can make out, did not even put up much of a fight as the states took charge. There are exceptions, of course, but today local control, by and large, has substantially disappeared from American elementary/secondary education.

Second, it is the nation that we were told is at risk, not just Oklahoma or Oregon. If we are concerned about economic productivity and competitiveness and human capital, then these are issues for the United States as a whole, not just for bits and pieces of the nation. A nationwide problem warrants a nationwide solution.

Third, we are getting better at distinguishing between national and federal in the field of education. We no longer assume that because something is getting nationwide attention, it needs to be the wholly owned property of the federal government in Washington. I offer you, as just one of many possible examples, the efforts the National Governors’ Association has been making with practically no federal involvement on behalf of education reform across the entire country. This is a national problem, and a nationwide effort, but it is not federally directed, and we understand that it need not be federal.

Fourth, we are receiving increasingly reliable, though also increasingly gloomy, data on the nation’s educational performance. Thus, we are much more able to think about the nation as whole in terms of educational outcomes and to assess whether we think these are satisfactory. It becomes more possible to talk about American education as a totality.

Fifth, we are an ever more mobile society. It is important to be able to shift from the fourth grade in Hartford to the fifth grade in San Diego. It is important to be able to graduate from a high school in Denver and go to a college in Chicago. People have to be able to move around and to make these shifts in their education. A certain amount of standardization is therefore inevitable.

Sixth, there already is a lot of nationwide uniformity in what students learn. Part of it is created by the instrumentalities of formal education, by textbooks and commercial tests and the many professional associations and journals in the field. Part of it is created by the informal mechanisms of cultural standardization: television, music that youngsters listen to, movies they see, fast food chains, national newspapers, magazines, and incredibly rapid electronic communications. We have an increasingly homogeneous informal curriculum across the country that all of our young people are exposed to, and bits and pieces of a uniform formal curriculum as well.

So it is not that big a step, actually, to consider national educational standards, but what do we mean by them? What I mean is a sort of nationwide consensus regarding what an adequately educated young American, a high school graduate if you prefer, will know and be able to do on entry into adulthood. For me, this means a nationwide minimum, a core of knowledge and skills that everybody needs to have. I say everyone but I mean practically everyone, mindful that some people have disabilities of various kinds that would make acquisition of this minimum exceedingly difficult and perhaps impossible. These should not be just basic skills, not just the sixth-grade reading and writing and math skills that a lot of states have embedded in their so-called high school proficiency tests. Those are too rudimentary; they do not go nearly far enough. If you want a sense of where I would place these levels, these standards for the country, a fair approximation can be found on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scales in reading, writing, and math.

In reading I am talking about what NAEP calls Level 300, for which their term is “adept,” and it is defined this way: “Readers with adept reading comprehension skills and strategies can understand complicated literary and informational passages, including material about topics they study at school. They can also analyze and integrate less familiar material and provide reactions to and explanations of the text as a whole.“1 In writing I am talking about what NAEP calls “adequate,” defined as “including the information and ideas critical to accomplishing the underlying task and considered likely to be effective in achieving the desired purpose.“2 In other words, the ability to write well enough to convey successfully that which you are trying to communicate. In math I am talking again about NAEP’s Level 300, defined this way:

Learners at this level are developing an understanding of number systems, they can compute with decimals, simple fractions, and commonly encountered percents. They can identify geometric figures, measure lengths and angles, calculate areas of rectangles. These students are also able to interpret simple inequalities, evaluate formulas, and solve simple linear equations. They can find averages, make decisions on information drawn from graphs, and use logical reasoning to solve problems. They are developing the skills to operate with signed numbers, exponents, and square roots.3

These are not the highest NAEP levels. In reading and math, I. have been talking about the fourth of five levels. In writing, I have been talking about the third of four levels. Real progress in these subjects and the ability to do well in college means performing at the top levels. These are not the levels I am suggesting today, but I would not fight very hard against anybody who wants to suggest that it is the top levels that we ought to make our nationwide standards. For the moment, I am settling for the level just below. How many young Americans today are achieving those levels? If you look at NAEP data for eleventh graders, in reading, 39 percent are at or above the level that I am talking about as a standard; 61 percent obviously are somewhere below that level. In math, 51 percent, or about half, were at or above this level. Writing is harder because National Assessment looks at several kinds of writing, but if we confine ourselves to the genre called “persuasive writing,” we find that 24 to 27 percent, about one in four of the in-school eleventh graders in 1984, were writing at this level or better, while about three out of four were not.

When we turn to evidence about knowledge as opposed to skills, we find much the same pattern. Some of you are familiar with the 1986 National Assessment of History and Literature, the results of which Diane Ravitch and I covered in our book What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Oh& Know?4 This is an assessment of factual knowledge of U.S. history and Western literature. The average score on the history part was 55 percent correct; on the literature part, 52 percent correct. A third of the students could not identify Cain and Abel. Forty percent did not know that Shakespeare wrote sonnets as well as plays. Only half could identify John F. Kennedy as the man who said “Ask not what your country can do for you.” About half did not know what the term “Achilles’ heel” refers to. Only a third are familiar with the essential themes of the novels 1984 and Lord of the Flies. One third could not find France on a map of Europe. A third did not know that Watergate occurred after 1950. Half did not know that World War I ocurred between 1900 and 1950 and only one in three could place the Civil War in the correct half century on a timeline. These were knowledge levels of in-school eleventh graders in 1986—four-fifths of them were studying American history that year in school.

There is an endless debate about whether it is really important to know these kinds of things. It is certainly not sufficient to know these bare facts, but I will defer in this debate to E. D. Hirsch and the important concept of cultural literacy. We are talking here not about high culture, but about the ability to understand the nightly news, the ability, when they say Managua or the Persian Gulf or Pakistan, to have some faint notion where that is and what goes on there and who lives there and why it is an issue and what is the backdrop of its being an issue today. We also mean the ability to vote intelligently by having some vague notion of the background of the issues that are facing the nation, the state, or the locality; and the ability also to raise children who will be literate and knowledgeable about the rudiments of participation in American society.

This is the national standard that I want for the United States. It is a basic minimum level of skills and knowledge for all young Americans. It is even more important for poor and disadvantaged and minority kids than for the white middle class, not only because poor and disadvantaged and minority kids do worse today on these various assessments than do children of the white middle class, but also—especially—because they are the ones for whom entry into the nation’s socioeconomic mainstream is the most consequential and the most problematic. They are the ones for whom formal education makes the biggest difference. This national standard, then, must include at minimum reading, writing, and math, science and literature, history, geography, and civics, and I would not tight you if you want to include art and music and computers and foreign languages.

This national standard needs to be expressed in terms of outcomes, the actual skills and knowledge to be acquired, not just intentions, exposure, time spent studying, or courses taken. We all know that time spent sitting in a classroom labeled mathematics does not reliably translate into knowledge of mathematics. Yet I am also mindful of the first great finding of educational research, namely, if you never study something you are not too likely to learn it; and the second great finding, which is that you are apt to learn something in rough proportion to the amount of time you spend studying it. There is also a third great finding of educational research, this one a bit more controversial, which is that for most youngsters, the level of skills and knowledge actually acquired will relate to the standards and expectations and obligations laid on them by the significant adults in their lives. So while standards should be expressed in terms of outcomes, they also will naturally influence the curriculum and the course-taking patterns, and here the evidence is pretty discouraging.

Recall what the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983 recommended as the new “basics” for high school, which was four years of English, three years each of math, social studies, and science, half a year of computers, and two years of foreign language. Then look at the high school graduating class of 1987 and ask yourself, How many of the graduates actually met these standards? The answer is that 13 percent actually took that package of courses or better, while 87 percent took something less than that. If you lop off foreign language and computers and confine yourself to four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies, 30 percent of the graduates took this reduced package and 70 percent took something less. The distribution is not equal across society either. About 30 percent of the white students, about 22 percent of the black and Hispanic students, and about 54 percent of the Asian students took that lesser package. If you care about the distribution of educational opportunity in this society, it seems to me you have got to care about the fact that an awful lot of young people are not even being exposed to the things that we hope they will learn. If we are not prepared to go through with the exposure, we are plainly not going to achieve the standards.

Does this mean I am arguing for a national core curriculum as part of this exposure pattern? In effect, yes, I am, though I will warn you against allowing a set number of years of particular subjects to substitute for standards of attainment or outcome. Some people will attain mastery faster whatever the standard is, and some more slowly. Not everyone learns in the same way, not everyone learns at the same speed, and identical levels of effort and resources are not going to serve all children equally well.

How can we get to explicit statements of these outcome standards? Not by turning the job over to the federal government. I do not think Congress ought to be writing the nation’s curriculum. However, federal leadership could be immensely helpful in catalyzing the consensus-seeking process. President Bush recently said that he was soon going to convene the nation’s governors to discuss education reform. This could be the occasion to inaugurate the quest for national standards at exactly the place where I think it ought to be inaugurated, at the level of the governors of the fifty states. It should be a consensus-seeking process. I do not think it is going to be all that hard. There will be some blood on the floor; it will take at least a few days, more likely a few months; the door will probably have to be locked for a while and people not allowed to exit until they reach some kind of an agreement.

But I am confident that such an agreement can be hammered out and I suggest to you that it is only educators who do not think it can be done. Ordinary citizens and voters and elected officials all know it can be done and want it to be done. It is when you talk to education professionals that you get hemming and hawing, equivocation and argument, even despair at the thought that any such consensus can be reached. Consensus would be harder if we were talking about the totality of the curriculum. Texas is going to continue to want people to study Texas history and that is never going to be popular in Connecticut. Fine. The core curriculum need not be the entire curriculum; the core curriculum is some large fraction of the entire curriculum. In my own estimate, and incidentally also in Bill Bennett’s curriculum for James Madison High School, it is about three-quarters of the totality.5 I would not fight you if you say it should be 57 percent or 83 percent. These are discussions worth having; these are debates worth having. I believe the consensus is there to be reached.

In conclusion, there are some cautions to bear in mind. First, to repeat, we are not just talking about factual knowledge; we are also talking about the ability to use the information, to think and analyze and reason. We are not just switching over to skills and ignoring knowledge, either. Knowledge is to skills as bricks are to mortar. You need them both if you want the wall to stand up. Absent one, you just have a pile of loose bricks; absent the other, you have a pile of inutile mortar. We must be talking about both skills and knowledge. I also want to suggest that we are not talking about a static curriculum. It will change; it will evolve; it should. Once developed, it ought to be revisited. The nation changes, events change, people change, culture changes. The curriculum will change, too. I also want to point out that standards of the sort I envision are not entirely amenable to traditional testing, certainly not of the multiple-choice, machine-readable variety. A proper assessment of attainment of these standards is going to require a larger and more ambitious investment in assessment efforts than we have typically been able or willing to make. Finally, I want to note that this academic curriculum is not all that school is about. Schools do other things besides imparting cognitive skills and knowledge to children. The hidden curriculum of values, character, attitudes, and habits is just as important. Outside the core curriculum, schools should vary and be different from each other in ways that are unique to individual schools. Diversity and choice in education are compatible with consensual standards and a core curriculum.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 3-9
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 419, Date Accessed: 10/24/2017 3:28:24 AM

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