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For The Record: National Standards and Public Debate

by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann - 1995

Discusses the difference national standards could make in the education of American children and of the public at large, noting that any educational improvements will be determined by the quality of the ensuing debate. The paper examines the debate over national standards in history education and makes suggestions for future debate. (Source: ERIC)

Establishing standards of various kinds—local, state, and national stan­dards, standards for school curricula, for student performance, for teacher competence, and even, as "opportunity-to-learn" standards, for school dis­trict accountability—has recently topped many agenda for education reform. As Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and several of his col­leagues in the U.S. Department of Education suggest in this issue of the Teachers College Record, establishing a framework for national standards has been central to the Clinton administration's education policy. Some of the most important education laws passed by the 103rd Congress, not only Goals 2000, but also the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, featured provisions that were intended to strengthen state and local efforts to develop standards. In addition, many of the professional organizations the Bush administration initially set to work defining subject-matter stan­dards have now completed their assignments and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certified its first group of eighty-one teachers in early January 1995. In light of the current popularity of stan­dard setting as a reform strategy in education, it seems reasonable to ask to what end this strategy is likely to lead. Put otherwise, what difference are national standards likely to make in the education of the children of this nation? What difference are they likely to make in the education of the public at large?

Given the political uncertainties resulting from the Republican victories in last November's elections, such questions are enormously difficult to answer. Establishing national curriculum standards seemed for a time to be a priority shared by Republicans and Democrats. Of late, however, more and more Republicans are reported to be in disagreement with standard setting. To a considerable degree, this is a result of Republican dissent from the approach the Democrats have favored. Republicans are especially dismayed by creation of the National Education Standards and Improve­ment Council (NESIC), a federal panel charged with certifying that cur­riculum and student-performance standards are "world class."1However, as the 104th Congress begins its sessions, the full range of issues in contention is not yet clear, nor are prospects for standard setting at the state and local levels, which could proceed irrespective of federal policy.

Despite these and other unclarities, one thing is certain. Whether stan­dard setting at any level of government can foster improvements in the education of the nation's children will depend on the quality of debate standard setting engenders. More specifically, it will depend on whether such debate can help to educate the public about education and, beyond that, assist in mobilizing greater public interest, appreciation, and concrete support. Despite the claims of critics and proponents, standards alone will not bring the end of education as we know it, nor will they offer a much longed-for panacea.

That standard setting is likely to contribute further heat to the so-called culture wars has been amply demonstrated by the recent, well-publicized debates about curriculum standards for American and world history. The history standards, especially the U.S. history standards, became controver­sial when they were attacked, prior to their official release, in an op-ed piece Lynne V. Cheney, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, published in the Wall Street Journal. "Imagine an out­line for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first presi­dent. Or in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Orga­nization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gather­ing of the U.S. Congress is not," Cheney complained. She was upset, she explained, because "the authors [of the standards] tend to save their unqualified admiration for people, places, and events that are politically correct" and because they called attention to "multiple perspectives" on the past. Her chagrin was heightened, she confessed, because she had pre­viously believed the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, which was responsible for formulating the standards, was home to a reli­able, competent group of people. That was why, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she had awarded the National Center $525,000 (which was supplemented by Department of Education funds amounting to $865,000) for the U.S. and world history standards projects.2

Initially puzzled over what had gone wrong, Cheney had learned that the National Council for History Standards, a large umbrella group charged with overseeing the National Center's work, had been captured by revision­ists and "various political groups, such as the African-American organiza­tions and Native American groups," who together "unleashed the forces of political correctness." The sad result, in her view, was that "much that is significant in our past will begin to disappear from our schools." Even though the National Center had argued that the standards document should be "viewed as a work in progress" that should continue to be debated and modified, Cheney feared that the NESIC panel created by Goals 2000 would certify the standards as written, thereby ensuring that they would become "official knowledge."3

In response, Cheney called for an all-out fight to prevent NESIC certifi­cation. This would be "a formidable task," she warned, since it would involve going "up against an academic establishment that revels in the kind of politicized history that characterizes much of the National Standards." Still, she was convinced the fight would be worthwhile. "We are a better people than the National Standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it," Cheney concluded. Approximately six weeks later, Education Week reported that she had organized an alternative standards review group, the Committee to Review National Standards, based at the American Enter­prise Institute in Washington, B.C.4

Many people answered Cheney's attack, among them representatives of both the National Center and the National Council. Gary B. Nash, a UCLA historian who co-directed the standards project, argued that Cheney's charges were "unfounded." According to Nash, " 'It's not that white males are slighted. . . . They are there, but their names are supplemented by a lot of people who are left out of history books.' "5 Echoing Nash's argument, Carol Gluck, a Columbia University historian who served on the National Council, insisted that "counting white males is not the point. The point is that both American society and the world have changed in the past few decades, and these standards are responsive to those changes."6

Gluck raised another important consideration. She asserted that debate about standards, continuing debate, was itself vital. Insisting that such debate is "itself an American value," she argued that it was inseparable from "the expansiveness that manages, through social conflict, to enlarge our definition of America, acknowledge the bad with the good and recog­nize parts of the past that earlier versions of American history ignored." Although Gluck confessed to finding the standards "sprawling, messy, both too little and too much," she maintained that that was the inevitable out­come of a cumbersome, widely participatory consensus process that had involved comment and debate among more than 6,000 teachers, adminis­trators, scholars, parents, and business leaders and thirty-five organizations ranging from the American Historical Association to the Missouri Synod of Lutheran Churches. "Unless Americans want a ministry of education to dictate 'official knowledge,' we had better welcome the continuing debate," she concluded, "and, more important, get on with the real job of improving the schools."7

As framed by Cheney's, Nash's, and Gluck's published statements, the history standards debate may have clarified some of the issues that separate conservative and progressive conceptions of standard setting. They demon­strated, for example, that if conservatives regard curriculum standards as a means for ensuring that school knowledge will accord with traditional canons of history, patriotism, nationalism, literacy, and objectivity, progres­sives see them as a means for continuously aligning school knowledge with the changing realities of a rapidly changing world. Progressives believe that standard setting can and should serve as a conversation through which conceptions of history, patriotism, nationalism, literacy, and objectivity are revised in light of the insights to be derived from new ideas, new immi­grants, new experience, and new problems. They think politics is inevitable in meaningful democratic debates and in no way antithetical to always changing, always multiple, always perspective-driven conceptions of the "truth." By contrast, conservatives believe that criteria of significance are relatively unchanging over time and "truth" and "objectivity" are relatively fixed regardless of context and perspective. They are most concerned with the product to result from standard setting, in the instance of the history standards debate, the version of history that is presented; progressives are equally if not more concerned with process, the way a broadly participatory structure for standard setting can allow new groups and new ideas to gain legitimacy.

Although the history standards debate could have illuminated much beside such differences between right and left, at least as framed by Cheney, Nash, and Gluck, it did not do so. Noticeably absent was any refer­ence to the possible relevance of recent educational scholarship. This may have been understandable since none of the three is a scholar of educa­tion, but the oversight was still unfortunate. It implied that educational problems and policies can be evaluated merely in terms of politics without reference to systematically tested knowledge about education and its vari­ous processes. It failed to counteract and may even have further fueled a long-standing national tendency to oversimply education.

It is easy to illustrate some of what was left out of the history standards debate as a result of its exclusively political focus. Leading any list would have to be what has been learned from more than two decades of research having to do with the relevance of cognitive science to developmental psy­chology, learning theory, and pedagogy. As John T. Bruer has explained in his recent review, the results of this work offer tremendously powerful insights into the ways instruction can be improved.8 They demonstrate, for example, that effective learning requires that students be helped to build on their existing knowledge through the acquisition of explicit strategies for synthesizing that knowledge with new facts, ideas, and concepts. Because most cognitive research is still unfortunately characterized by the technical terminology typically found in relatively new, rapidly developing fields, it is not yet as widely disseminated or applied as it could and should be. Nonetheless, its implications for a subject like history are, in a very gen­eral sense, already clear.

Children know a lot when they go to school. They know a lot of history in the form of stories about their own lives and those of their families and communities. Many children also have conceptions about temporal sequence, causation, and other matters relevant to historical thinking. The knowledge children bring to school must provide the basis for acquiring new knowledge, including new and more sophisticated "metacognitive" strategies for thinking about and deliberatively deploying their own think­ing. Unless established knowledge is used to draw out the meaning of new knowledge, that new knowledge will fade rapidly rather than becoming yet another building block to further learning.9

To take account of this finding, history and social studies curricula must offer diverse points of recognition and entry to all of the children in the nation's richly diverse school population. As Judith Renyl has argued in Going Public: Schooling for a Diverse Democracy, a recent historical brief for multiculturalism in the curriculum, however, this is not currently the case. "While history as a discipline is a matter of learning how to construct inter­pretation, history as a school subject is a matter of learning how to repeat someone else's interpretation," she points out. "Both students and teachers are cut out of the entire historical interpretative process. The myths in the texts . . . for most Americans . . . constitute foundation truths on which their beliefs about America and about themselves as Americans have been built. At key moments in this history, however, children of the poor and children of color are being asked to consent to myths they find untenable."10

Had the history standards debate included consideration of cognitive research, it would have become clear that, to the extent that the new his­tory standards can encourage the development of more constructivist, mul­ticultural history curricula, they will be likely to contribute to the enhance­ment of teaching and learning for all schoolchildren. Whether such evi­dence could have transformed a rather polemical set of charges and countercharges into a more reasoned, perhaps even educative, exchange of views is far from certain. Nevertheless, the point remains that evidence derived from educational scholarship could have significantly illuminated the issues involved. Most important, perhaps, it could have indicated that standard setting along either conservative or progressive lines will not and cannot foster uniformly more effective teaching and learning unless there are many other, even more fundamental changes.

As cognitive scientists would be the first to assert, even an exemplary cur­riculum is not sufficient to improve school instruction, let alone student learning. How teachers teach matters as much as what they teach. This simple fact makes the business of school reform frustratingly complex. Had the history standards debate called on the very ample recent literature that demonstrates the degree to which pedagogical strategies can enhance or impede learning, the debate might have promoted general understanding of the importance and difficulty of teaching; and, dreaming on, it might have provoked consideration of the kinds of changes that are needed to ensure that really good and maybe even excellent teaching becomes more commonly the norm than it is today.11

To facilitate better teaching, different schools in different communities must work out different, situation-specific ways to allow teachers the time, the material resources, and the human supports they need to teach well. Beyond that, teacher education would have to be fundamentally reformed to ensure that, along with deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, teachers themselves develop metacognitive strategies for reflecting on their work. In order to fulfill the complex, largely noninstructional social roles thrust upon them as colleagues, parent educators, and interpreters of rapidly changing professional knowledge, teachers would also require immersion in the skills and disciplines of the liberal arts perhaps prior to, but certainly in tandem with, professional training. An education including all this could not be fit into existing models of teacher education, which tend to involve little more than relatively short programs of pre-service education, supplemented by specialized short-course, in-service training. They would necessitate sustained and challenging programs of recurrent education throughout teachers' careers.

Needless to say much else would also be required to enhance the quality of teaching generally available in our schools. But a full accounting is not called for here, the point simply being that a more research-driven debate about the history standards might have fostered greater awareness of the complex, multifaceted character of educational problems and the necessity for equally multifaceted reform strategies. Although she did not develop the point, Carol Gluck indicated such awareness. Recall that in closing her defense of the history standards she urged that we "get on with the real job of improving the schools."12 Such awareness is far too rare.

Despite frequent public talk about education, there is frighteningly little understanding of what education involves. That teaching is a complex art, one that can be improved through education, is not generally under­stood.13 Even though the slogan "you get what you pay for" is taken as self-evident in most areas of American life, the possibility that there are posi­tive correlations between educational investments and outcomes has been challenged repeatedly.14 This doubtless stems from historic traditions, the American commitment to universal public education having been impor­tantly conditioned on economies achieved through low teachers' salaries and a factory model of school organization. Whatever the causes, it is not well understood that good education cannot be had on the cheap.

Failing to comprehend what education involves, the American public repeatedly falls victim to reforms that promise too much, too easily, too quickly. The disenchantment that results leads to charges of malfeasance, mismanagement, and incompetence, and, given the logic involved, to an entirely natural presumption that replacing school administrators, education professors, and other members of the so-called education establishment with—take your pick—business people, politicians, or retired military per­sonnel will finally set things to rights. Thinking this way, people are also prone to suggest that teachers be replaced, assisted, or restrained by technol­ogy or teacher-proof curricula. The impatience with and disdain for educa­tors and educational expertise that result from this cycle diminish prospects for educational innovation based on tested, well-criticized knowledge.

What can be done to break the cycle? To begin, people involved in edu­cational scholarship can seek opportunities to educate the public about both the practice and the study of education. It is very, very easy to spoof education research—no easier, I might add, than it is to spoof military research or medical research, but very, very easy nevertheless. There are myriad examples of education research that seem and sometimes are grandiose and silly, especially in the formality of the methods involved, or that are irrelevant to problems of policy and practice, or that are flawed in some other (usually "spoofable") way. That makes it woefully easy to believe that educational scholarship is a larger part of the problem than of the solution. Although their efforts will be dismissed by some as self-serv­ing, those in the best position to counter this perception are scholars who study education and who understand what educational scholarship has shown and may yield.

If cycles of unrealistic hope followed by disenchantment and disdain are to give way to steady public commitment to education, people who under­stand education must counter lay skeptism through patient explanation of the historic problems and distinctive challenges of educational scholar­ship. Demonstrations and careful explanations of the difference good research can actually make in the formulation of sensible policies and the improvement of educational practices are more likely to persuade than are abstract, ad hominum arguments. Proponents of education scholarship have not provided those, but must now begin to do so.

Not surprisingly, more and more people concerned with public policy are calling for just this kind of sharing or public explication of expertise. Stanley N. Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, has urged such action on the professoriate generally. Katz is worried about proposals that would lessen the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities and therefore jeopardize the academic freedom, institutional diversity, student access, and breadth of service that have been such impor­tant features of American higher education. Chief among the proposals that worry him are suggestions that colleges and universities be defined as part of the same educational "system" as elementary and secondary schools and that "outcome standards" be developed as a basis for future decisions about funding and accreditation. If these ideas are to be countered, Katz believes scholar-teachers will have to find ways to lead the public in consid­ering what institutions of higher education should do and should do better without sacrificing their core values and essential institutional characters. In Katz's view, only scholar-teachers understand higher education well enough to do this well.15

Writing from a different perspective, Sophie Sa, executive director of the Panasonic Foundation, which has been an important supporter of school-based education reform, has also called for the wider distribution of unusual knowledge. According to Sa, it is hard to make all schools good schools because "most people have not seen good schools." Having once believed that "we know what makes for a good school," Sa came to realize that the "we" who hold such knowledge comprise a very small group, mainly consisting, as she put it, of people like herself whose job requires them to study all aspects of what is involved in building and sustaining many differ­ent types of good schools.16 As she told her fellow New York grantmakers, Sa therefore became convinced that those who do know about good schools must find ways to share their knowledge with more people.

Sa's point is not fundamentally different from Katz's and it is essentially similar to my own. People with special knowledge must make their knowl­edge available to people outside their particular, specialized worlds if they believe their knowledge is worthwhile and can be of value in understand­ing public problems and formulating public policies. One must quickly add, of course, that doing this is tremendously difficult. The barriers pre­venting effective communication across the micro-communities of our soci­ety are prodigious. Indeed, along with encouraging people involved in educational scholarship to seek ways to educate the public about education research, urging greater general attention to problems of public communi­cation and public education in the broad sense must be included on any list of remedies for substantively impoverished public debate.

Even though we have computers, FAXs, and interactive television, the political technology available in the United States today is primitive. Early twentieth-century progressives recognized that democracy would increas­ingly depend on finding ways to transform, popularize, and widely diffuse expert knowledge, while working insistently also to provide more and bet­ter education to ever larger segments of the community. But their insights have not been followed with thinking and experimentation sufficient even to make a dent in this very difficult, very important problem of politics and education. As was the case early in this century, we still lack the knowledge and the organizing structures necessary to allow informed and widely par­ticipatory conversation and decision-making about public problems. In consequence, research-driven debates about public issues tend to reach very narrow, already-expert audiences, and wider discussions tend to be primarily propelled by political, often partisan, differences or by displays of personality.

Whether future discussions and debates about standards and standard setting can transcend this bifurcation is no more certain than are the out­comes that would result if there really were informed, thoughtful public deliberations about education. One would have to give in to even more Panglossian optimism than I can muster to believe that improved public debate would necessarily result in wide understanding of the difficulties involved in education, let alone evoke sustained public support for slow, steady, incremental progress. That notwithstanding, seeking ways to infuse more tested knowledge about education into discussions of reform and policy is worth a try. Doing so might at least help expose the stakes involved, both the political stakes arising from genuinely different values and priorities and the educational stakes associated with sometimes con­flicting, sometimes ambiguous knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about all that is involved in educating.

If there are many general, long-range arguments for trying to develop more substantive debates, there is one that is immediate and specific. The senior ranks of the Clinton administration's Office of Education include some of the nation's best-informed and most experienced scholars and practitioners of education. Whether or not one agrees with all their posi­tions, and whether or not chance and the vagaries of politics allow them to translate their vision into laws and policies that will be sustained for any length of time, there can be no discounting the educational expertise that has been and will be directed to the effort.

I happen personally to be troubled by some of the Clinton administra­tion's priorities in education. I fear that too determined a focus on ques­tions of human capital may shortchange some of the more social priorities that I believe are essential for American education. One of these is civic education. I also tend to concur with the critics of national standards who are concerned that, regardless of the sponsors' intentions, standards will be used not as statements of aspiration, but as measurement devices. Should that happen, national standards would be likely to support the cul­ture of testing and sorting that has too long predominated in American schooling and to foster unwarranted and unwise centralization, if not at the federal level of government, then in nongovernment national organi­zations or even in state capitals.17

Obviously, concerns such as these are worrisome, but they are less worri­some than the possibility that federal initiatives based on careful study and considered experience will be subjected to debates that are more politi­cally charged than substantively informative. Should that happen, an important opportunity to educate the American public about education would have been lost. And since such education is a necessary prerequisite to the enduring improvement of schooling via any means, that would be tremendously unfortunate. We hope, therefore, that in its own small way this issue of the Teachers College Record can help prevent that. By calling attention to the Clinton administration's education policies, we hope it can help bring them the probing and informative discussions they deserve.

/ am grateful to Peter Cookson for reading and commenting on this essay and, more generally, for help in planning this issue of TCR.


1 Karen Diegmueller, "Backlash Puts Standards Work in Harm's Way," Education Week, January 11, 1995, pp. 1, 12—13. See also J. Myron Atkins, "Developing World-Class Educa­tion Standards: Some Conceptual and Political Dilemmas," in The Future of Education: Per­spectives on National Standards in America, ed. Nina Cobb (New York: College Entrance Exam­ination Board, 1994), pp. 82 and 81, for an apt discussion of some of the political difficul­ties to be anticipated by the standard-setting movement.

2    Lynne V. Cheney, "The End of History," Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994.

3    Ibid.

4    Ibid.; and "Cheney to Start Review Panel," Education Week, December 7, 1994, p. 9.

5 Quoted in Karen Diegmueller, "Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History," Education Week, November 2, 1994, p. 10.

6 Carol Gluck, "History According to Whom: Let the Debate Continue," New York Times, November 19, 1994, p. 23.

7    Ibid.

8 John T. Bruer, Schools for Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1993).

9 Ibid., pp. 197-205. For more on this, see "The Teaching and Learning of History," a special issue of Educational Psychologist, vol. 29, Spring 1994.

10 Judith Renyi, Going Public: Schooling for a Diverse Democracy (New York: The New Press, 1993), p. 41.

11 A good introduction to this literature is M. C. Wittrock, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1986). See also Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle, Inside-Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).

12    Gluck, "History According to Whom."

13 Lee S. Shulman, "Teaching Alone, Learning Together: Needed Agendas for the New Reforms," in Schooling for Tomorrow: Directing Reforms to Issues That Count," ed. T. J. Sergiovanni and J. H. Moore (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1988), pp. 167-87, makes this case exceptionally well.

14 Larry V. Hedges, Richard D. Laine, and Rob Greenwald, "Does Money Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Studies of the Effects of Differential School Inputs on Student Outcomes," Educational Researcher 23 (April 1994): 5-14; Erick A. Hanushek, "Money Might Matter Somewhere: A Response to Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald," Educational Researcher23 (May 1994): 5—8; idem et al., Making Schools Work: Improving Performance and Controlling Costs (Washington: Brookings, 1994); and for earlier twentieth century challenges see Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

15 Stanley N. Katz, "The Scholar-Teacher, The University and Society" (Address deliv­ered at the Rutgers Conference on the Politics of Research, New Brunswick, October 21, 1994).

16 Sophie Sa, "We Know What Good Schools Look Like, Don't We?" NYRagtimes (The Newsletter of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers), Fall 1993, p. 5.

17 Many of the articles in The Future of Education, ed. Cobb, are illuminating on these points.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 369-379
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:01:50 PM

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