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An International Perspective on National Standards


by Harold J. Noah - 1989

The author speaks on the nature of the curriculum and appropriate standards in education from an economistís point of view, and considers the issue of national standards from an international perspective.

I will start with a short quiz. Does anybody know who said:


In modern times people’s views about education differ. There is no general agreement about what the young should learn, either in relation to moral virtue or to success in life. Nor is it clear whether education should be more concerned with training the intellect or the character. Contemporary events have made the problem more difficult, and there is no certainty whether education should be primarily vocational, moral, or cultural. People have recommended all three.1


Who said that? Although it sounds exceedingly contemporary and relevant to our symposium today, it was said by Aristotle over two thousand years ago. These basic questions about the nature of the curriculum and appropriate standards in education have been with us for a very long time. I have been asked to speak on the topic from an economist’s point of view, as well as to consider the issue of national standards from an international perspective.


My basic position is straightforward. I believe that we in America need to steer away from our present antipathy toward nationally recognized standards in education. I believe we have gone overboard in the direction of local and state autonomy. In consequence, we have permitted de facto national standards to be set by private agencies such as textbook publishers and the Educational Testing Service. It is important, however, as we move toward the establishment of nationally recognized standards, to avoid the rigidities that have been associated with them in many other countries.


Economists, as you know, are accustomed to view the world through cost-benefit lenses. Every social arrangement embodies a particular set of choices among costs and benefits and the issue of national standards in education is no exception. In what follows, I will point to three categories of costs that are increased by our not having national standards in the United States. Then I will point to some of the problems other nations have had in devising national standards and operating with them.


The first cost of not having national standards is the cost of noncomparability. Life becomes more complicated and therefore more expensive when each state and local school district issues its own high school diploma based on state or even local criteria. In the monetary world, we do have a common national standard. It is called the dollar. Its existence helps us to carry on our daily life and business affairs with much greater dispatch and at lower cost than if we were saddled with fifty different currencies. In education, however, we are in just that position. We have myriad different educational standards. College admissions officers and employers develop some rules of thumb to guide them and over time they accumulate experience about the worth of some high school diplomas compared with others, but it remains exceedingly difficult to make equivalency assessments. It is a hit-and-miss procedure, affording no great degree of reliability. Decisions to admit or to hire, based on the evidence of high school diplomas or high school grade averages, will say yes to many who should have been told no. Worse still, decisions will say no to many who should have received a yes answer.


Second, there are costs of information. National standards help to lower the costs of acquiring valid and reliable information about the characteristics of candidates needed to make judgments. Without high-quality information about the further educability and trainability of applicants, admissions officers and employers resort to ad hoc screening devices. The costs of acquiring and administering ad hoc tests, and interpreting the results, are far from negligible. They could be markedly reduced, given national standards of scholastic achievement.


Third, there are the costs of private substitutes. Because the regular educational system does not provide credentials based on a recognized national standard, a system of private substitutes was developed. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) were invented precisely in order to fill the gap left by the educational system. There are a number of costs associated with the use of parallel and privately organized testing. I am not referring to the entrance fees that must be paid either by taxpayers or parents, for I have no evidence that they are exorbitant. Indeed, given what the testing organizations set out to do, they appear to do it in an adequately cost-effective manner. Rather, it is the cost in terms of a loss of confidence in the tests themselves that is worrisome, and especially the many challenges to the tests that are mounted on the ground that they are biased against groups defined by sex, race, residence, culture, and so on. A nationally approved set of standards could be and probably would be subject to similar charges, but at least they could be defended on the important ground that the standards were the creation of an elected government and not of a private, nonelected group.


A further cost is in terms of the type of teaching and learning that substitutes for national standards have promoted. The establishment of a multiple-choice mentality in education was never intended by the testing organizations, but that is the way it has turned out. Any tendency already present in our school system to view education as primarily a progression through a series of highly specific multiple-choice and short-answer questions has been strongly reinforced by the testing organizations’ adherence to the multiple-choice and associated formats. This in turn leads to another cost in terms of lowered public confidence in the tests. The testing organizations have been most reluctant to make public the contents of each test after it is administered. They claim with justification that this would raise expenses significantly by making it much more difficult to reuse test items that already cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to construct and validate. Still, in modern society accountability is a golden word, and in these matters of the private establishment of standards, accountability means public accountability. Without it, costs in terms of distrust, dispute, and litigation are certain to increase.


Nevertheless, even though the absence of national standards involves us in heavy costs, we must realize that their adoption is far from being without problems. To identify some of these problems, we can turn to the experience of three or four major countries that actually have national standards. We shall see that the call to national standards in education should be answered with caution.


What should be the substance of educational standards? Sometimes this is put as the classic curriculum question: What knowledge is of most worth? This is never an easy question to answer. In countries such as France, Japan, and the Soviet Union, for example, it has been somewhat easier to answer than in the United States. In a way, these countries have advantages that we do not. The French, for example, have a very clear sense of their French culture. The Japanese have an even stronger sense of their culture, plus an ethnically homogeneous population. The people of the Soviet Union have an exceptionally powerful state apparatus to help implement a comprehensive political ideology.


Yet the French continue to debate and criticize what they teach in their schools and what they include in their examinations. At times the debate gets so heated that it spills over onto the streets in demonstrations. The Japanese have just been through a period of soul-searching concerning their school curriculum. The former prime minister, Mr. Nakasone, is in the vanguard of those who assert that the schools need radical change if Japan is to maintain its position in the world. The current prime minister, Mr. Takashita, on the other hand seems to be quite certain that the current curriculum serves Japan well. He has adopted the Japanese equivalent of the attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In the Soviet Union, glasnost has revealed, among other things, the deep divisions within the country about the nature of communism, the events of the Leninist and Stalinist past, and the meaning of these things for education.


If these countries have serious disputes and unsettled fundamental questions about the curriculum, what chance is there that this country, with its cross-cutting social, economic, political, and ethnic divisions, can reach a national consensus on the substance of the curriculum-which is, after all, the basis for educational standards? Moreover, in setting standards, we have to decide whether there should be one set for all students finishing high school, or an array of standards for different desirable outcomes, reflecting different types and levels of student ability. Two different answers to this question are exemplified by practices in Japan and Sweden.


Japan is at one end of the spectrum, with very narrowly drawn standards focused on academic achievement that most students are expected to reach and set at levels that we tend to regard as rather high. This approach has undoubtedly contributed to Japan’s ability to secure unusually good achievement in math and science. Even in Japan, however, it has proved impossible to establish a single high standard for all children and some differentiation continues to exist. Sweden, like Japan, sets its standards centrally and runs a unified curriculum for all students during the initial nine years of compulsory education. It has taken an opposite tack to Japan on examination and selection, as well as in the degree to which it is ready to recognize variation in the talents and interests of young people. Sweden, with no final end-of-school examinations, has established a centrally monitored system of continuous assessment of students’ performance on a very broad basis. It has also developed a host of differentiated programs of study for the senior high schools.


Thus Japan and Sweden exemplify a linked pair of questions for our own policy considerations. At what point might a unified standard become a most unwelcome and uncomfortable straitjacket? And at what point do differentiated standards become no standards at all?


We may note, too, that standards that begin their life as uniform and high-level maxima tend over time to become differentiated and in part, at least, lowered. Germany’s Abitur and France’s baccalaureat have exhibited these trends during the past fifteen years. The bac, which as late as 1950 had only four variants, now has no fewer than thirty-eight. One has to be very well informed indeed to understand exactly what a brand new holder of the baccalaureate has been studying, let alone what standards she or he has attained.


In England, long-standing tradition has excluded the government from setting school curriculum and establishing standards. Curricula have been in the hands of local educational authorities and even school principals. During the postwar years, an array of parallel standards and examinations grew up alongside the ordinary and Advanced Level General Certificate of Education to meet the needs of students who are not in the academic tracks of the secondary school system. Last year, the Thatcher government announced that the differentiation of curricula, standards, and examinations had gone too far. This year, the government is in the process of establishing a national curriculum, instituting procedures for continuous assessment of student achievement in that curriculum, and sweeping together the variety of school-leaving examinations under the wider umbrella of a new exam, the General Certificate of Secondary Education. Nevertheless, under the new Thatcher dispensation, while national standards will be established for seven-, eleven-, and fourteen-year-olds, differentiated standards will remain for those sixteen years of age and above. Indeed, they will be extended. Thus, although the British government has announced that it wants to break with past practice in which only a minority of children left school with a marketable credential in hand, differentiation of credentials by level of achievement will continue to be a characteristic of the British system of making and implementing standards.


Let us return to the United States. Many American observers have charged the schools here with being too conservative, teaching outdated material and obsolete skills. Yet foreigners looking at U.S. schools and comparing them with their own tend to see something quite different. Instead of inertia, they see an extraordinary readiness in American education to establish new goals, to try out new materials and procedures, and even to adapt new ideas imported from abroad—at least as compared with what they see in their own countries. If such flexibility does exist here, it is highly likely that one reason is the very absence of the national standards that are the norm abroad. Compare our situation with that in France, the Soviet Union, or Japan. There the national standards established by the ministries of education and enshrined in the centrally administered end-of-school examinations lock teachers and students into curricula and methods that are very difficult to change. However skillfully a nation chooses the standards it wishes to enforce today, it is quite difficult to prevent those standards from becoming solid obstacles to the changes that may be needed tomorrow.


The conclusion I draw from all this is that simply to say we need standards does not even begin to solve the tough issues that lie in wait. Indeed, if the political disputes surrounding the bac in France or the arguments engendered by the introduction of a national curriculum and continuous assessment in England, or even the charges leveled at the Regents Examinations in New York State, are anything to go by, the imposition of standards can engender as many problems as it helps remedy. In particular, it is not easy to get agreement on what the aims of education should be—what was Aristotle’s point twenty-three centuries ago and it is still true. It is not easy to decide what kinds of standards to adopt, and it is not easy to keep standards intact once you have them—but to paraphrase a favorite question of the rabbis, Where is it written that it should be easy?


In any event, my sense is that national standards are no panacea. Long-lasting improvement in education will come only from securing and retaining knowledgeable, skilled, and caring teachers in the nation’s classrooms—teachers who are supported and whose work is respected by parents and society at large. National standards may be useful in helping teachers lead youngsters to learn, but here as in other countries, they are neither the necessary nor a sufficient condition for generating the quality schooling that students deserve.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 17-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 398, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:58:05 PM

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