The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 2

The Development and Implementation
of Education Standards in the United States
(Part 1 of 4)

By: Roberta Nerison-Low and Mark Ashwill

When you get on an airplane, you want a pilot who has been held to the highest standards of flight training. When you need an operation, you want a surgeon who has been held to the highest standards of medical education. And when you root for American athletes in the Olympics, you know they won't win the gold unless they have trained to meet the highest standards of international comparison.

In many areas of our life, we expect—and demand—high standards. We know their great value. They help bring out the best in us. When we do not hold all students to high academic standards, the result can be low achievement and the tragedy of children leaving school without ever having been challenged to fulfill their potential.

But a historic change is now taking place in American education: the development of voluntary national standards that will clearly identify what all students should know and be able to do to live and work in the 21st century. These standards will be designed to be internationally competitive.

"High Standards for All Students," (U.S. Department of Education brochure 1994)


The federal government does not determine what students should know and be able to do in any subject at any level of schooling. Rather, the implementations of standards for students' performance have been left to state and local authorities. Within the United States, there are 16,000 school districts, each of which is administered and financed by a local community, and 50 state departments of education. In fact, local control has been the defining characteristic of American education since the construction of the first one-room schoolhouse. As a result, the level of standards of schools tends to reflect the socioeconomic status of the communities in which they are located: the wealthier the community, the higher the expectations and the higher the academic standards.

The impetus for the general movement towards higher standards in the area of education can be traced to the increasing importance in the American economy of information as opposed to industry. This movement has created the need for a work force with higher-level skills and knowledge than in the past. The perception that this need is not being met has resulted in persistent and severe criticism of the quality of America's public schools and dismay about international comparisons that consistently rank American students at or near the bottom in academic achievement. Added to these criticisms is the allegation that schools are partly to blame for the steady erosion of the United States' position as the world's preeminent economic superpower. (A Nation at Risk 1983) All of these require, the critics maintain, that academic standards be raised.

One of the driving forces behind the movement for higher standards, as mentioned, is the poor performance of American students on international studies of academic achievement compared to their peers in other industrialized countries. In a 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress, 13-year-olds in the United States ranked near the bottom of the list with an average of 55 percent and 67 percent correct answers on the math and science assessments. Only two countries in the comparisons turned in worse performances, while a wide variety of countries scored significantly better. For example, 13-year-olds in Hungary, Korea, the former Soviet Union, and Switzerland posted average scores ranging from 70-78 percent. Germany and Japan were not represented in this survey, but results of the Second International Math and Science Study put students from both Germany and Japan well ahead of U.S. students in both science and math.

These international comparisons and pressure from the business sector in the United States have focused attention on ways in which public education can be improved. As a result, the discussion of standards for learning and teaching has grown in magnitude in the United States in recent years as policymakers, legislators, educators, parents, and community leaders have all grown increasingly concerned with students' achievement levels.

The word "standards" has been used in many ways during these often-heated public discussions. Sometimes the word "standards" has been used to represent established levels of achievement; in other instances it has been used to refer to commonly shared sets of academic subject content, such as those embodied in state curriculum guidelines.

To understand the influence of standards in the United States we cannot restrict ourselves to a discussion of formalized rules and regulations governing the education system, although national goals and state regulations and guidelines will be discussed in this chapter. These guides to standards have developed significantly in recent years, and school districts have felt their influence. Curriculum guidelines in particular have been used to set standards in many states and have been linked to state-administered achievement tests. However, any discussion of standards in the United States must also include a description of the more informal mechanisms by which schools maintain and promote desired levels of achievement. Achievement levels for schools and for students have traditionally been set by community expectations, and communities continue to influence curriculum and instructional decisions made at the school level. Standards, therefore, are also a result of local decisions, such as those governing the selection of textbooks and those affecting a school's policy on the promotion or retention of students. These mechanisms for establishing standards will also be discussed.


Before conducting the field research on which this chapter is based, we identified four areas of investigation that guided our data collection on the topic of standards. First, we were interested in the influence of standards on student motivation and achievement. Second, we were interested in the development and implementation of academic curricula. Factors influencing implementation such as textbooks, the use of technology, homework, and teacher knowledge and acceptance were all investigated. Another element of the standards research was the investigation of monitoring mechanisms, such as in-class exams and state and national assessment exams. In addition, we were interested in the role of standards in the preparation of students for postsecondary education. And, last, we were interested in the attitudes of parents, teachers, administrators, and students about the usefulness and effectiveness of establishing national standards, particularly in mathematics and science.

Research for this chapter was conducted over a 2-month period in Metro City and over a 3- to 4-week period in East and West City. All project schools in each of these locations were included in research for this chapter.

Mark Ashwill conducted all of the interviews and observations in Metro City that pertained to the topic of standards, except for a few interviews that were conducted in Spanish by a bilingual research assistant and a few interviews conducted with African-American students and parents. Mavis Sanders conducted the interviews with African-American respondents, and Carmen Johnson de Maldonado conducted the Spanish interviews.

Gerald LeTendre and Sally Lubeck collected all of the interview and observation data relevant to the topic of standards during their visits to schools in East City. William Foraker and Carmen Johnson de Maldonado collected the interview and observation data on standards in West City schools. All of the information from these secondary sites was later shared with the authors, and these data were included in the analysis and reflected in this paper.

In pursuit of information on standards in the United States, Ashwill and his research colleagues conducted 30 interviews at academic high schools, 10 at vocational high schools, 31 at middle schools, and 28 at elementary schools. Of all the interviews on this topic, approximately 12 were held in East City, 24 in West City, and 63 in Metro City. In addition, approximately 38 classroom and general observations were included in the data analysis. Printed information obtained from schools, career counseling centers, school districts, state departments of education, and the National Center for Education Statistics was also integrated into research findings in this chapter.

Most of the schools we visited were very welcoming and accommodated our visits to the best of their ability. Two schools in Metro City were difficult to visit, although for very different reasons. One elementary school seemed to lack the organizational structure to assist in arranging teacher and student interviews. A middle school also turned out to be somewhat difficult to work in, because the parents closely monitored research requests for the reason that they felt the research might interfere with the education of their children. The principal at this school was very aware of this oversight by the community and placed greater structure on our visits than we would have wished. Despite these difficulties, we were able to collect data and conduct observations at both of these schools. We found the principals and teachers at all of the schools we visited to be very open and willing to share their views and experiences with us.

Interviews with teachers and administrators took place in the schools, as did the majority of the parent and student interviews. Interviews with students were generally arranged either through the principal, assistant principal, or classroom teacher. A few of the interviews with students were conducted as group interviews, and we found most students open to being interviewed. Parent interviews were mostly conducted with mothers who were involved with the school in some way and therefore known to the principal; others were volunteers.

Although we felt we were able to obtain candid information from the individuals with whom we spoke, we realize that the principals' involvement in assigning respondents to us may have reduced our ability to interact with individuals who were disenchanted with or disengaged from school. We believe that it is likely our sample includes primarily students of average or slightly above average ability. Teachers were often selected on the basis of availability on the particular day of our visit. In most cases, interviews were conducted with teachers whose classrooms we observed.

National-Level Initiatives

National Education Goals

At an education summit held in 1989, President Bush and the 50 state governors agreed upon 6 national education goals for the United States to achieve by the year 2000. In 1994, two more goals were added, and Congress codified the National Education Goals.

The goals, created as a framework for improving student achievement, refocus the objectives of education, while leaving specific tactics to state and local governments and to schools. They function, in part, as a general set of standards toward which all Americans should strive.

The National Educational Goals state that by the year 2000:

  1. All children in the United States will start school ready to learn.
  2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  3. U.S. students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matters, including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography; and every school 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 Nation's modern economy.
  4. The Nation's teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all students for the next century.
  5. U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
  6. Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
  7. Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
  8. Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national goals have received public support because they "reflect the maturation of a still-growing political consensus that American schools must establish clear standards of performance to which all students will be held" (U.S. Department of Education [USDE] 1990). In fact, the 1990 and 1991 Gallop Polls found that over 75 percent of Americans surveyed attached "very high" or "high" priority to the 6 goals that had been proposed by the time of the survey (USDE 1990). The goal toward which the general public feels the least amount of progress has been made targets achievement in science and mathematics (USDE 1993). The U.S. Department of Education has laid out three objectives related to this goal:

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which codified the goals, established federal support for voluntary, state-based systemic reform that includes the development and implementation of high academic standards. The legislation calls for state plans to include the development and implementation of content standards in core subjects, student assessments linked through performance standards, and opportunity-to-learn standards or strategies. The legislation also provides funding to states to support systematic state reform based on state-developed plans. (Council of Chief State School Officers 1995)

Also as a part of this legislation, Congress established the Goals Panel as an independent federal agency. The 18-member bipartisan Panel consists of 8 Governors, 4 members of Congress, 4 State Legislators, the Secretary of U.S. Department of Education, and the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. (The National Education Goals Panel 1994)

The Goals Panel is responsible for: monitoring and reporting progress towards the goals; building a national consensus for the reforms necessary to achieve education improvement; reporting on promising or effective actions being taken at the national, state, and local levels to achieve the goals; identifying actions that federal, state, and local governments should take to enhance progress towards achieving the goals and to provide all students with fair opportunity to learn; and collaborating with the newly-created National Education Standards and Improvement Council to review the criteria for voluntary content, performance, and opportunity-to-learn standards. (The National Education Goals 1994)

The national goals have produced a dialogue among legislators, educators, and school board members throughout the United States that is focused on improving education standards for all students in U.S. schools. This dialogue and the directives and funding embodied in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act have led nearly every state to design and implement curriculum frameworks or guidelines, and many have developed or are in the process of developing assessment instruments to monitor the schools' progress towards higher standards.

National Standards

Despite favorable public opinion polls concerning national goals in education, the public has remained divided on the need for formally defined national standards. Proponents of national standards have raised several arguments supporting the need for developing such an explicit national standard (National Council on Education Standards and Testing [NCEST] 1992). These persons argue that formulating national standards will encourage the states to raise their own standards and that by giving students a common set of goals, the quality of our schools may improve, leading to greater equality between advantaged and disadvantaged school districts. Moreover, standards for the nation would allow our diverse population to share expectations and learning opportunities by coordinating efforts and pooling resources and ideas.

On the other hand, many objections have been advanced to national standards (NCEST 1992). Some argue that establishing national standards will detract from many positive local reforms and inhibit the development of initiatives at the state and local levels. Others worry about the effects of such standards, fearing that they will result in minimum standards that will drag down the entire system and ignore our most capable students. Some educators also worry that national standards would lead to a national curriculum, with the federal government imposing standards in a top-down fashion. Still others view them as unnecessary, since they believe that standards without resources and strategies will be of no help to school systems.

Despite the debate, the general consensus has been moving toward establishing some form of national standards for education. For example, data from a national sample of citizens in 1991 revealed that 68 percent of Americans favor developing a voluntary national test that would measure and compare abilities of students by school districts across the country (Gallup 1991).

Voluntary national standards. Thus far, efforts to construct national standards for what should be taught in each of the major subject areas have resulted in voluntary national standards for mathematics, science, and history. Those for other subjects are also under development. Funding for the development of voluntary national standards has come from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Education and an assortment of nongovernmental organizations.

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published curriculum standards outlining the mathematics that should be incorporated into school programs in order that they be considered of the best quality, as well as the instructional conditions needed for students to learn mathematics. These guidelines did not originate with the U.S. Department of Education but rather stemmed from the recommendations of many different experts and experienced teachers of mathematics. Consequently, the guidelines are not promulgated by a governmental agency, and there is no means to ensure uniform acceptance or enforce their implementation across the United States. Instead, adoption and implementation in individual states, districts, and schools is voluntary.

Nevertheless, the adoption of the NCTM standards has been widespread; over 80 percent of the states have modified their mathematics framework so that they are in line with the NCTM standards. Moreover, numerous professional and administrative agencies are using them as a model for their own standards (Shriner, Kim, & Ysseldyke 1993).

The National Science Education Standards were published in 1995. This document sets standards for science teaching, professional development for teachers of science, assessment in science education, content of science, science education programs, and science education systems (National Academy of Sciences 1995). These standards will be used to guide the development of science education in elementary and secondary schools. However, like the mathematics standards, they serve as general guidelines rather than enforced requirements, and their implementation will be dependent on acceptance at the state, district, or school level.

Voluntary history standards were released in the spring of 1996. These standards, released by UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools, encompass voluntary standards for teaching history from kindergarten through 12th grade. A press release announcing the appearance of the national history standards states that they "were created in cooperation with 33 national education organizations and more than 1,000 educators from all regions of the country" (World Wide Web April 3, 1996). As with standards projects in math and science, the goal of the history standards is to serve as a benchmark to guide teachers and school districts in the development of curriculum.

As already mentioned, voluntary national standards in the arts, geography, civics and government, English language arts, and foreign languages are currently in various stages of development.

Teachers' Attitudes Towards National Standards

Teachers' attitudes towards voluntary standards such as the NCTM standards were generally positive. Many teachers who were interviewed for this study said that they worked to incorporate NCTM standards into their curriculum or knew that the textbooks they were using incorporated NCTM standards. This was true of teachers at all levels—elementary, middle school, and high school. However, there were noticeable differences in teacher responses between schools of different achievement levels. In schools where the majority of the student population struggled to meet state-assessed achievement standards, the role of NCTM standards was often a subject for debate. In the case of Parks Elementary School, parents who were actively involved in-school management were pushing teachers to incorporate NCTM standards in their curriculum. However, teachers resented the parent council pushing for change, seeing it as a vote of no confidence in their current teaching practices. An internal document at Parks Elementary School spoke of the need for more communication in order for NCTM standards to be successfully adopted: "Design Team members are the emissaries for the initiative—they need to work not only on promoting discussion about the objectives, but also promoting enthusiasm for the process so we can overcome the resistance that naturally comes from change."

At South Central, the high school with the lower-achieving students, teachers said that standards of any kind were barely relevant, since they were faced with teaching students who came into their school seriously below grade level. Much of the instruction at South Central was remedial in nature. Rather than debating the merits of national standards, teachers and administrators were more concerned with finding ways to "catch" students in the hopes of educating them, meeting the minimal state standards, and ensuring students' figurative and literal survival through the 12th grade and graduation. An exception to the resentment expressed toward national standards at these two low-achieving schools in Metro City was found among the principals and teachers at Metropolitan School. Teachers interviewed at Metropolitan, also a low-achieving school, generally supported the notion of national standards in math and science. One teacher remembered that when she had begun teaching 25 years earlier, she was not given any standards with which to work. She contrasted that experience with her current situation, which offers more assistance in the form of guides to help organize teachers and schools, the state assessment test, a curriculum based on state goals, and textbooks which adhere to those goals.

A principal at Midtown Elementary school had mixed feelings about the reality of national standards: "I support national standards as a way of getting away from discrimination or allowing educators to make excuses because `my kid's this or that'. Standards would spell out what children have to learn. But what would happen to kids who don't make it? Keep failing them until they meet the standards? Who will pay for the extra programs to help these kids? Funding from the federal government is a joke; state aid is shrinking."

Although teachers at Rockefeller Elementary do not use textbooks extensively, their math curriculum is based on NCTM standards. In fact, one teacher we spoke with served as a member of the math study group, which redrafted the K-8 math curriculum over the summer. She said that the motivation to redraft the math curriculum came from "dissatisfaction with state standards and Rockefeller's own past standards and the desire to align the curriculum with current national standards in math." The consensus view was that, if the school was meeting the NCTM standards, then state standards would also be met.

Similarly at Central Middle School, a teacher we spoke with had worked with another Central colleague to rewrite the math curriculum in order to update it with NCTM standards and to put "more meat into it." She reported that there is now a lot of emphasis on problem solving, algebra, and practical problems related to real-life situations, and estimating. She characterized the old way of teaching math as boring, saying the kids found it "a snooze couple of years" and that the "kids are eating up" the new curriculum.

Members of the math department at Hamilton High School also stated that they used the NCTM standards to guide their courses. Both the department (teachers) and the school administration agreed on the need to incorporate these standards into the curriculum. One of their first goals was to have more statistics taught in math courses. A summer project resulted in 200 pages of ideas about how statistics could be used in different courses.

Parents' Attitudes Towards National Standards

Generally, parents were supportive of national standards for education, although some also voiced some wariness. One parent, in particular, said that national standards may "reduce it all to the lowest common denominator." However, other parents suggested that standards could be used as a mechanism for accountability. Several parents spoke of the potential equalizing effect of national standards. One said, "they would bring the lower schools up and make sure that everyone is at the same place." She mentioned the child of a friend who had moved. Her fourth-grade son was bored at his new school because he had already covered the curriculum at his previous school. Another parent spoke of national standards in this way:

They have to be there, especially for the inner city. Lakeside's schools would be fine, we would push them anyway. Not everyone is highly motivated to perhaps take that difficult child and bring him to a certain level. Those situations need national standards. They have to be sure that they're met. We need standards so that children are not cheated because of their environment. (Parent, Rockefeller Elementary)

As evidenced by the above statements, positive support for national standards among parents was fairly uniform from the lowest to the highest-achieving schools. Parents of the school council at the lowest achieving elementary school were the driving force behind the integration of NCTM standards into the school's math curriculum. Parents of students enrolled in high-achieving schools were also actively involved at the elementary level and were well aware that their school's curriculum and instruction were in line with the highest standards.


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