Fad or Reform? The Standards Movement in the United States

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Fad or Reform?
   The Standards Movement in the United States

                                Annegret Harnischfeger

                                Northwestern University


For two decades, concern has risen in the United States over low student achievement and
poor rankings of U.S. students in international educational studies. This led to a national call
for renewal in education. In 1989, the president and the governors of the fifty states defined
six national goals that are to be reached by the year 2000. A nationwide movement to define
content standards with less emphasis on knowledge and more on skill building was initiated
which also requires new performance assessment measures. Issues concerning national goals
and content, as well as performance standards are discussed.

1 Past Fads and Fixes

The United States Constitution assigns responsibility for education to the states.
However, this has not kept the federal government from setting up a
Department of Education and mingling in education affairs by demanding
specific school and instructional organization in exchange for money. The most
important federal impact on elementary and secondary education in the U.S.
was initiated by President Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s. Congress
enacted legislation that still provides substantial federal support for improving
the quality of education for children with special educational needs:
socioeconomically disadvantaged children, language minority students,
physically or mentally disabled children, and children who live in migratory
families. Yet, the hope that increased funding (input) would result in higher
achievements (outcomes) of students was not realized. In the mid-seventies,
achievement test scores were generally declining (Harnischfeger & Wiley,
  States responded to the bad news with mandatory competency testing. By the
early eighties, 37 out of the 50 had such programs; by the end of the decade 47

Annegret Harnischfeger

had adopted testing or assessment programs. In essence, these are outcome-
oriented programs that mainly test knowledge. The federal government
addressed the test score decline with some delay in 1981 by appointing The
National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its report with the gloomy
title "A Nation at Risk" (1983) covered pivotal points for reform: leadership
and fiscal support, including a call for parents to actively take on responsibility
for the education of their children; more time and more effective use of school
time for learning; increased high school graduation requirements in terms of
years for five core subject matter areas (4 years of English; 3 years of
mathematics; 3 years of science; 3 years of social studies; one-half year of
computer science; and for the college-bound, 2 years of foreign language);
higher standards and expectations for elementary, secondary, and higher
education; higher standards for teacher education and professional development,
and an incentive structure for the teaching profession. Following this report,
course taking of high school students in core subject matter areas actually did
   However, the focus on educational outcomes gained momentum fueled by a
federally initiated state level competition: (1) The National Assessment of
Educational progress (NAEP), a federal assessment program which has
reported on achievement nation-wide since the mid-1960s, was extended to
allow state-by-state comparisons. However, few states signed on for that
competition; (2) a federal wall chart displayed each year state-by-state
comparisons of all available test scores. The federal government also began to
pay more attention to international comparative studies, especially the large
scale studies of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational
Achievement (IEA) which has carried out many comparative studies since the
   There was some good news in reading. In the 1990/91 IEA study, American
9-year-olds ranked second and 14-year U.S. students were in the top third of
the IEA distribution (Elley 1992). But in a 1983/84 science study, U.S. students
were from the middle to the bottom of the achievement score distribution
(Postlethwaite & Wiley 1992) and ranked near the end of the distribution in a
1981/82 mathematics study (McKnight et al. 1987). These examples of
international comparisons show that U.S. students have strong points. However,
the poor rankings in mathematics and science, as well as, the lack of
improvement in achievement in domestic testing and assessment programs,
except for a slight increase in scores for the very low achievers, prompted
broad concern for the quality of education. This led President George Bush and
the governors of the fifty states to declare in an education summit meeting in

                                                                   Fad or Reform?

1989 "the time has come, for the first time in United States history, to establish
clear national performance goals, goals that will make us internationally
competitive" (U.S. Department of Education 1990, p. 1).

2 National Goals and Content Standards

In his state of the union address, in January 1990, President Bush unveiled six
national performance goals for education to be reached by the year 2000. In
1992, Congress codified these goals in the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act"
(Public Law 103-227):
   1. All children in America will start school ready to learn.
   2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
   3. American students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having
      demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter, including English,
      mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in
      America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they
      may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and
      productive employment in our modern economy.
   4. U.S. students will be first in the world of science and mathematics
   5. Every adult American will be literate and will possess knowledge and
      skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights
      and responsibilities of citizenship.
   6. Every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer
      a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
   Obviously, these goals did not emanate from a vision of an educated
American with the skills required to compete in a global society, but were
conceived in response to widespread desperation over the state of education.
How otherwise could there be no mention of health, the arts, and foreign
languages? Except for 1 and 6, all goals are defined in terms of outcomes. Goal
1 is to secure appropriate input (school readiness), and Goal 6 is to secure a
basic precondition for effective teaching and learning. In Goal 3 English,
mathematics, science, history, and geography are mentioned. This is a step
back from the core academic areas in "A Nation at Risk" that included foreign
language for college-bound students. After all, six out of ten high school
graduates enrolled in college in 1991 (National Education Goals Panel 1993).
   The goals are very ambitious. Considering the U.S. rankings in international
comparisons, Goal 4 presents the greatest challenge: " By the year 2000, U.S.

Annegret Harnischfeger

students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement."
What does that entail for mathematics and science curricula in the United
States? Does this mean that the U.S. is competing for rank one on an
international gauge? Do the governors and Congress actually believe that this
goal can be realized?
Educate 2000 pointed out that the national goals were not an attempt to mandate
a national curriculum or specific reforms but to inspire educational reform on
all levels. Guided by the National Education Goals Panel, an intergovernmental
and bipartisan group, consisting of eight governors, two federal administration
officials, and four members of Congress, a goal rush was initiated.
   National associations of teachers, national societies, and academies began,
with federal financial support, to develop goals, now termed standards, for the
core subject matter areas for kindergarten-12th grade. This movement was
spearheaded by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics who was first
to publish standards. Its "Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School
Mathematics" (1989) and its "Professional Standards for Teaching
Mathematics" (1991) profoundly influenced the movement. While the
mathematics standards received much praise, others, such as the standards for
social studies and geography, drew little response. Still others were heavily
criticized. For example, the draft science standards were criticized by the
National Science Teacher Association for mainly representing the views of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science and largely ignoring its
own reform efforts. The Department of Education criticized the English-
language arts standards, developed by the National Council of Teachers of
English, the International Reading Association, and the Center for the Study of
Reading for being too process and not sufficiently outcome oriented. The
Department withdrew funding from the English-language arts project. The
history standards, that had been developed with more than 2 million dollars of
federal support, created by far the most public controversy. Even the U.S.
Senate (in a 99:1 vote) disapproved of them for failing to appropriately weigh
the contributions of Western civilization. The standards were so heavily
critiqued for distortion of American history that work on revision has begun.
   National standards have been and are being developed in the arts (dance,
music, theatre, visual arts), foreign languages, geography, health, history,
language arts, mathematics, physical education, science, and social studies.
They are impressive and challenging. For example, the eighteen standards in
geography (beautifully presented on glossy paper with many color photos) are
grouped into six essential elements: The World in Spatial Terms; Places and
Regions; Physical Systems; Human Systems; Environment and Society; The

                                                                     Fad or Reform?

Uses of Geography. The standards under each of these categories are described
in about a page of text and specified in terms of knowledge, understanding, and
what students should be able to do; for kindergarten-4th grade, 5th-8th grade,
and 9th-12th grade. For example, kindergarten-4th graders in "Places and
Regions" are held to the following in Standard 4 (Geography Education
Standards Project 1994, pp. 113f.): "The Physical and Human Characteristics
of Places. By the end of the fourth grade, the student knows and understands:
   1. The physical characteristics of places (e.g., landforms, bodies of water,
      soil, vegetation, and weather and climate)
   2. The human characteristics of places (e.g., population distributions,
      settlement patterns, languages, ethnicity, nationality, and religious beliefs)
   3. How physical and human processes together shape places."
   The fourth grader is therefore able to describe and compare the physical and
human characteristics of places, as well as, different places at a variety of
scales, local to global. The fourth grader is also able to "describe and explain
the physical and human processes that shape the characteristics of places."
   Instructional time requirements are specified for each level. Without doubt,
these are demanding standards. Standards in other subject matters are similar
in structure and challenge. The work completed or still in progress presents a
fundamental rethinking of what students should know and be able to do.
Generally, the heavy emphasis on knowledge has been replaced with skill
building. Students learn to reason, to solve problems, to integrate and evaluate
knowledge, and to communicate.
   Many states have also initiated work on goals and standards in line with the
national goals. However, this process takes more time in the states, because
more diverse constituents and the legislature are involved. Further, standards
have to be developed with a view of all subject matters and performance
assessment which is required in most states. For these reasons, states are
unlikely to settle for extensive wish lists. Actually, the state documents tend to
contain fewer and more broadly defined standards. The standards are imbedded
into curricular frameworks for kindergarten-12th grade, often with suggestions
for teaching approaches added. These frameworks are intended as guides for
curriculum development on the local level.
   California, a leader in the development of curricular frameworks, adopted
curricular frameworks for the core subject matters during the 1980s. The
documents contain standards for student learning but also suggestions for
teaching approaches and evaluation of instructional materials. The recently
revised mathematics framework (California State Board of Education 1992)
draws heavily on the standards for student learning and teaching that were

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