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Beyond Standards: The Rest of the Agenda

by Thomas Sobol - 1997

Across the country, schools are involved in setting new high standards of curriculum content and student performance. The standards-based education reform movement has been championed by big business, by the nationís governors, by the president and the Congress, and by many in the field of education. This article argues that new high standards are necessary and desirable, but that alone they are not enough. Throughout our history the schools have sought to make students wise and just, as well as competent. If these traditional aspirations are to be realized, we must move beyond standards to support teachers, provide the necessary resources, deal straight with the problems of race, nurture community, and ennoble the purpose of education.

Across the country, schools are involved in setting new high standards of curriculum content and student performance. The standards-based education reform movement has been championed by big business, by the nations governors, by the president and the Congress, and by many in the field of education. This article argues that new high standards are necessary and desirable, but that alone they are not enough. Throughout our history the schools have sought to make students wise and just, as well as competent. If these traditional aspirations are to be realized, we must move beyond standards to support teachers, provide the necessary resources, deal straight with the problems of race, nurture community, and ennoble the purpose of education.

These are the times of high standards. We have discovered what is wrong with our schools: Our standards are too low. We know how to make things right: Raise the standards. Across America schools are pursuing new high standards of academic performance. The governors and business leaders met about high standards at the Palisades last spring; the president and the Congress are supporting high standards through the Goals 2000 legislation; state after state and several national organizations are developing new curriculum frameworks and assessment programs that embody the new high standards all students are to achieve. People say we need these new standards to remain competitive in a global economy. They say that we have been too lax. They say that students will rise to meet the expectations of their elders. They say we will reform our schools by focusing on the academic program and demanding more.

I do not believe it.

Or at least, in the words of the contemporary car rental commercial, not exactly.

Let me rush to say that I believe in high standards. Fact is, I have never met anyone who does not. (How many readers of this article are in favor of low standards?) I not only believe in high standards; along with countless others I have worked to introduce them and to help people achieve them. I think that we should be more clear about what we expect our students to come to know and be able to do, and we should set these expectations very high. We need high standards. We should have had them long ago. But by themselves, they are not enough. Not exactly.

What do we see, when we stand back and survey the nations schools? To begin with, we see many fine schools with many successful students and many hard-working, dedicated teachers, often accomplishing great things against great odds. Such schools flourish in our urban centers and in our rural areas as well as in our favored suburbs, and they are both public and private, lay and religious, traditional and break-the-mold. We have much to be proud of.

But despite these oases what we also see, alas, is a vast desert of mediocrity and despair. Too often we see unmotivated youngsters in dingy places toiling at tasks that do not make sense to them under the supervision of teachers who are struggling to get by. We see classes meeting in crumbling buildings with outmoded textbooks and inadequate supplies. We see children carrying knives and boxcutters and sometimes pieces because they want to assert themselves or because they are afraid for their own safety. We see people made separate and tense by race and language, unsure of each other and of their own future role in adult society. We see too many unhappy people of all backgrounds and ages going lonely through the paces, without a sense of community to hold them together now and without a sense of purpose to energize their actions toward tomorrow. And we see that a lot of the youngsters do not meet the standards we have now.

These are not happy sights. They suggest that our education reform efforts cannot be limited to standards. Setting the standards, by the way, proves to be more difficult than most of us imaginedjust ask the people who have written the proposed national curriculum frameworks in English Language Arts and Social Studies. But even when and if we finish this current agenda, the work we need to do will scarcely have begun.

Consider the position we would be in if, beyond our wildest hopes, we were to complete the standards-based reform agenda. Suppose it is the year 2000, or 2005. We have written all the new, high-standards curriculum frameworks. The Senate has acclaimed them in a rousing, unanimous ovation, and even William Bennett and Chester Finn have pronounced them acceptable. Authentic, performance-based, curriculum-embedded assessments of high cognitive quality are in universal use, and results are beginning to improve across the nation. All pedagogy is constructivist; all management is site-based. In short, the millennium has arrived. But you know that? I submit that, unless we do a great deal else between now and thenand no star on the horizon signals that we willtoo often we will still see unmotivated youngsters in dingy places toiling at tasks that do not make sense to them under the supervision of teachers who are struggling to get by. We will still see classes meeting in crumbling buildings with outmoded textbooks and inadequate supplies . . . and so on. And a lot of the children will not meet the standards we have then.

So our reform agenda is unfinished, in at least two senses. We must finish the work we have begun, and we must develop a whole other agenda we have not as a nation thus far taken seriously.

Education reform is never finished. Schools, like government and the family, are always in need of reform, and are usually in a state of getting it. Plato lamented the decline of standards since Socrates day. Aristotle deplored the falling off since Plato. When I entered the profession, nearly a lifetime ago, people like Rudolph Flesch and Hyman Rickover and Arthur Bestor were telling us that Johnny could not read and asking why we could not hold a candle to the Russians. Now, of course, we think of those as the good old days, the Golden Age from which we have declined.

But of course there was no Golden Agejust the memory of our golden youth. All times are the best of times and the worst of times, because the present is always the only time we have. So in one sense it is idle to say that our agenda is not finished. It cannot be finished, ever.

But that does not permit us, if we are to be responsible trustees of the human condition, simply to neglect a great many problems faced by our children and our grandchildren. So let me suggest five other matters to which we must turn our collective attention if we truly wish to reform our schoolsor more broadly, to raise and educate our children better. The first two of these points seem obvious; I mention them because, incredibly, they have not received the attention they deserve in the standards-based reform discussion.


First, we must provide the time and the financial and intellectual resources needed to educate, support, and continuously develop our teaching force, both those in training and those in service. If we have learned anything from the reform efforts of recent decades it is that top-down, formulaic, teacher-proof remedies do not work. Teaching is complex and personal, and the structure of the school system gives classroom teachers, in Richard Elmores felicitous phrase, enormous power of the bottom over the top. (Elmore, 1983, p. 356). If teaching is to be changed, it can be changed only by teachers who have been given the time and opportunity to see and try new techniques and materials, to confer with one another, to make of others work something that is their own. Curiously, industry understands this phenomenon. None of the much-vaunted corporations that have transformed themselves in recent years would have dreamed of doing so without substantial investment in the re-training of their staffs. In education, professional development money has little political appeal and weak staying power in times of financial stringency. Yet you cannot reform the system without reforming the way the systems personnel are educated and supported.


Second, we must provide the resources needed if all children are to receive the education that is their birthright in a democratic society. They do not all get them now. Some children get the goodies; some get the short end of the stick. How do you tell young people that these are the standards you must meet in order to succeed in society, and then not give them the curricula and the trained teachers and the instructional supports they need to meet the standards? No argument can justify that situation. True, you cannot solve all problems by throwing money at them. True, much of our problem is to spend the available money more effectively. But you cannot invest in the professional development of teachers without spending money. You cannot provide preschool programs or buy textbooks without spending money. You cannot fix the roofs and the toilets without spending money. And I do not see why some children have to go to school in leaky buildings with broken toilets and no preschool and old textbooks and inadequately prepared teachers. Mine did not. Yours probably do not.


Third, we must deal more straightforwardly and effectively with our problems of race. During my eight years as commissioner of education of New York state, almost every significant issue we addressed was stamped by race. Sometimes the matter was overt, as when we advocated more multicultural education. More often the matter was implicit, as when we dealt with low-performing schools or the downsizing of the Education Department or the passage of our legislative program. In all these situations, the race card was constantly the joker in the deck. For all the progress society has made, we are still often not dealing well with one another across the racial divide. And one reason is that we are often afraid to put the issues on the table.

I empathize with those who would like us to become a truly race-blind society. But I do not think that we can get there by pretending that we are one. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. Race was the secret problem of American society in Alexis DeTocquevilles view in the 1840s. (DeTocqueville, 1990) Race continued to be the original sin of our society in Gunnar Myrdals view in the 1940s. (Myrdal, 1944) The curse of our history is still upon us. So long as so many Americans perceive that their life experience is significantly shaped by race or color or language differences, and in most cases shaped not very happily, it is futile for those of us still in the majority to pretend that these feelings do not exist. We need to face the issues openly and head-on, recognizing that we have differences but are ultimately all in the same boat, and struggling above all for a deeper level of candor and authenticity in our dialogue. If children of color are to meet the new high standards, there must be serious and honest discussion within and between both the majority and minority communities about what it means in our society to be white, or black, or Latino, and about what it means to be so with respect to the pursuit of the standards. Yes, we should all meet the same standards, but the means by which we do so may be varied. Race is not the only consideration, but not to recognize its impact is to be deliberately color-blind.

Nor is it useful to trivialize racial issues by attributing them all to social class. Of course there are important issues of class, but they are sharpened and twisted by the issues of race.

Notice that so far none of these three issues is prominent on the contemporary reform agenda. Nor are the remaining two.


The pursuit of academic competence is of course central to the mission of the school. But an exclusive preoccupation with academic achievement slights other important portions of that mission. From our beginnings the schools have been about character as well as competence, about wisdom as well as knowledge, about democracy as well as individual achievement. Suppose that technology developed to the point where we could guarantee that students right up through high school could learn their subjects at home on a computer as well (or better, and perhaps more cheaply)would we close the schools and have the children stay home all day? I think not, and the reasons transcend custodial care. Schools are places where young people come together to learn, and it turns out that the coming together is as important as the learningor rather, the coming together enables a different kind of learning, the kind that has to do with getting along with others, with learning how to be a member of a group, with personal responsibility, with the development of basic civic values and a sense of identity and a lived awareness that one is part of a society and a human condition vastly larger than ones self. Surely we do not want to neglect those lessons.

As we consider the role of the school in creating and sustaining community, we may need to revisit our attitudes toward government. For too long now it has been fashionable to believe that anything private is likely to be better than anything public. That attitude badly distorts our history and our values as a people. Without question, one of the dynamics that has helped us thrive is free enterprise and the pursuit of private advantage. But we are also a nation in which people put down their own work to help a neighbor raise a barn, a nation used to personal sacrifice in time of war, a nation that set aside a portion of its valuable lands for public land-grant colleges. Throughout our history we have tried to balance personal freedom with concern for the common good.

When I was growing up in the city of Boston, what lifted my life and the lives of my brothers and friends above the level of the streets was public stuffpublic schools, public libraries, public hospitals, public transportation, public parks and playgrounds. The government was not the enemy, it was uswe, the people, had decided to pool our resources to secure certain blessings for the common good. It did not always work the way it was supposed tosome people cheated, a few crooks got in, and so forthbut when that happened, we all understood that the job was to fix the system, not destroy it. For all their failures, Americas public schools have been part of the glue that holds this extraordinarily diverse society together. We should not let the political ideology of the times eclipse the balanced, mainstream American belief that the pursuit of private advantage must be balanced with concern for the public welfare.


I know the word is old-fashioned. Nobility is not a strong commodity in the current marketplace. But perhaps a concept that grand is needed to lift us above the poverty of our current aspirations.

Ask any random group of parents what they want schools to do for their children. Only rarely will you hear 780s on the SATs or early admission into Princeton. What you are more apt to get are statements like I want them to be able to get and hold a good job, I want them to be prepared to be good parents and good citizens, I want them to develop their talents and be confident in themselves, and so on. It is not hard to construct a more spacious mission around these legitimate aspirations. A true education makes people competent, wise, and just.

Competence makes life possible. One must have the skill and knowledge to do the work that the world requires. But competence alone, unguided by wisdom and justice, can be a fearful thing. The Nazis were competent: They made the trains run on time, and they built efficient gas ovens. Surely none of us wants that.

With our knowledge, we need wisdom. Wisdom makes life meaningful. Wisdom lies in knowing human nature, in understanding its capacity and need for love, but also its capacity to inflict pain; in realizing the heroic heights to which it can ascend, but also accepting its frailties and flaws. It lies in knowing that we are not alone, that wherever we came from and wherever we are headed, we are part of the human family and perhaps a good deal more than that, and that the quality of our relationships to each other and to those who will come after is to be cherished and nurtured. It lies in knowing the vastness of time and space in which we pass our brief existence, even if we cannot comprehend the limitlessness of infinity, and understanding that our short lives are in the cosmos nothing but flashes and specks.

And even that is not enough. Knowledge and wisdom that are not lived and shared with others are like flowers that bloom in the desert all unseen. A human life is lived among other humans. To be lived well, both for itself and for others, it must be lived justly. Justice softens lifes unfairness.

Competence makes life possible, wisdom makes life meaningful, justice softens lifes unfairness. I am glad that competence is on our agenda. But alone, it is not enough.

We need to assert a more noble purpose. Again, I know how archaic that language sounds. But in the hundreds and hundreds of conversations I have had with students and teachers in these recent years, what comes through with poignant insistence is a profound absence of meaning, a longing for destination, an aching for community. I believe that one of the reasons for the malaise of our schools is that we have lost track of what we are educating children for. Yes, we want them to read and write; yes, we want them to fill the jobs the economy needs; yes, we want them to know enough science and technology to hold off our global competitors. But what kind of life do we want them to lead? What kind of people do we want them to become? What kind of future do we want to inspire them to create? At present the model of the good life that our society holds up to our young people is pathetically shallow. The good life is one of self-indulgence, narcissism, consumerism: Keep what you have, get what you can. So the natural passion of youth has nowhere to go, other than to an excess of selfishness.

Surely we can do better than that. Young people need much more to be demanded of them. They need to be needed, they need to give, they need opportunities to show love, courage, sacrifice. They need to be part of a cause that is larger than the sum of their individual appetites. They need to believe in something.

As perhaps do we. But that is for another day.

For now let me simply say that you cannot reform the schools solely around high standards. Not exactly. The schools must be reformed in the grace of a vision, a spacious vision of human nature and its possibilities and its place in the space, time, and history that are given us to work with. Pursuing education reform with nothing more in mind than higher standards and better test scores is an absolutely empty exercise.


Elmore, R. (1983). Complexity and control. In L. Shulman and G. Sykes. Handbook of Teaching Policy (pp. 342-369). New York: Longman.

Gunnar, M. (1962). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and modern democracy. New York : Harper & Row. (Orig. pub. 1944)

DeTocqueville, A. (1990). Democracy in America. New York: Vintage Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 4, 1997, p. 629-636
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9600, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 10:57:35 AM

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  • Thomas Sobol
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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