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 4 of 4)

Home Environment, Parental Involvement, and Parental Expectations of the Schools

Children who attended the schools we visited lived in neighborhoods that differed significantly on several dimensions, such as condition of housing, level of income, frequency of mobility, construction of "family unit," level of education of primary caretakers, and safety. In addition, differences in the level of involvement of parents and their expectations of the schools emerged from some of the interviews. This section describes the similarities and the differences among the parents we interviewed and the schools we visited.

Home Environment and Parental Involvement in Schooling

The mothers and fathers we interviewed represented some of the most involved and concerned parents in each of the schools. Although we did not interview parents who were unwilling to take the time to meet with us, we gained insight into the lives of parents who had less time or little interest in the activities of the schools.

One of the mothers we interviewed at Parks Elementary was among the 10 to 15 engaged parents who sit on the local school council and other school committees. Other parents participated directly in-school activities as classroom and security aides. Mrs. P., who has a high school education and was a housewife, admitted that the academics at Parks were "not the best in the world." She said she believed that every child can learn, "the school just needs different teaching tools and techniques." An example of the difficulties faced at this school is the fact that many of the parents of students at Parks Elementary do not speak English. The principal said that it was not unusual for students in these families to miss school so that they could accompany their parents to an appointment and function as the interpreter. However, the teachers at Parks also noted that most of the children of immigrants lived in the most stable home situations and their parents held high expectations for their education and encouraged them to complete their homework.

The principal at Midtown Elementary School placed parents into three categories: (a) those for whom school was a baby-sitting service, (b) those who showed an active interest in the work and life of the school, and (c) those who wanted their children to do well and who wanted a safe environment, but were not involved. The principal went on to give examples of students who were not well cared for at home and said "We demand a lot more--that the kid is fed, has supplies, gets to school on time, has a good night's sleep, and has had his assignments checked." He estimated that for a quarter of the students at Midtown these basic needs have not always been met.

Two mothers interviewed at Midtown, both housewives with a high school education, expressed the hope that their children would someday attend college. While both parents said that they wanted the best education for their children, they said that what was most important was for them to be happy and to do their best.

Parents at Rockefeller expected a lot from the school, but also provided a great deal of support by volunteering their time to coordinate science fairs, lead book groups, assist in classrooms, and help in many other school activities. The parents at Rockefeller stressed how vital it was for parents to be involved in their children's education. The family math workshop, taught at the school by a parent volunteer, was just one example of the level of involvement of parents in the community and the level of volunteer resources that the school was able to draw upon to assist children in their learning. Sixty parents had recently received training at the family math workshop.

One particular story was indicative of the value that parents in the community expressed towards a good school environment for their children. A mother, who herself had a master's degree in Business Administration, said that she and her husband had looked all over the metropolitan area for a progressive school system which took account of individual styles of learning, a favorable student/faculty ratio, and a willingness to deal with different levels of ability within the classroom. They had considered private schools in their search and had eventually chosen to relocate to the neighborhood of Rockefeller Elementary School, because it most effectively represented what they were seeking in a school.

Parental Expectations

A teacher at King Junior High best expressed the belief of many of the parents and teachers with whom we spoke regarding factors in the academic achievement of students.

Parents, parents, parents. If there is somebody at home saying "School is important," "Do your homework," or, "Let me help you," you are going to be successful.

The director of counseling at Hamilton High had this to say:

I think there is a high correlation between impressive academic achievement and parental involvement. Where parents are involved, kids are performing better.

While there was an overall consensus that parental support and encouragement were important factors contributing to success in school, we found that parents varied in their expectations of the school and of their children. Academic success was sometimes defined differently, depending on the level of competition at the various schools and the parents' expectations for their children's future academic and career opportunities.

A fifth-grade teacher at Central Middle School explained that parents in the local elementary school that sent students to their middle school were sometimes upset if their child was not placed into a special math program that offered long term opportunities for higher-level math courses. He said that they believed "if my third-grader is not chosen, then he can never take algebra in the eighth grade, which means that he will never be able to take calculus in high school, and he will never get into Harvard." He went on to say that it "broke his heart because the children were only eight years old when all of this was taking place."

Another teacher at Central reported her experience:

I see parents who are very successful in their own right with a high educational level, income, and success. They want the competitive edge for their children, so that they can go to Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

A parent from the same community noted that "most people are jumping through hoops to make sure their children get A's." Her hopes for her own daughter was that she fulfills her own goals and get good grades. Her expectations for the school was that it would teach students to be confident of their ability to think and analyze and that it would enable them to develop several academic strengths.

The level of competition found at the high-achieving middle schools carried over into the local high schools. Both types of school were often located in the same general neighborhoods and therefore were influenced by the same pressures from parents. However, since the high schools were much larger institutions, they also had more diverse student populations in terms of level of achievement. As a result, the high schools offered courses at multiple levels of difficulty. Honors and advanced-placement tracks were the preferred or recommended tracks for those expecting to go on to college, but general-level courses did not preclude a student from taking the college entrance exams.

While parents often were not actively involved in volunteer activities at the high school level, parents of both Hamilton and Springdale High students were well aware of the opportunities which these schools offered. Parents also spoke of the responsiveness of the schools to their requests for changes in the level of courses for their students. However, in an indication of the increasing independence of students at this level, most parents said they believed it was up to the students to take advantage of all that the school had to offer.

In contrast to students at Hamilton and Springdale, students at Uptown High School and South Central, according to the students and parents we spoke with, often had very little in the way of parental support. In fact, one mother of a student at South Central said she told her child, "The world don't owe you anything. Your parents don't owe you nothing. You owe them."

The principal at South Central had hired someone to call parents and invite them to meetings of the local school council and other school events. He attributed the lack of involvement to the "intimidation factor" among parents whose own experiences with school "had left a bad taste in their mouths; people talked down to them, so they have a bad image of schools."

Among the South Central parents who were actively involved in the life of the school, one father reported that since he started doing volunteer work as a security guard in the school, his son had earned straight A's. One of the mothers at South Central said that she expects the school "to teach the kids and let them know that education is very important." Both parents agreed that the school should offer courses at different levels, so that the "advanced students could go up and not be slowed down by the slow students."

The student counselor at Uptown High School had this to say about the role of the family:

The family is very important. They come here and say--you take care of him. We don't know how to handle him anymore. Somewhere along the line parents just give up. By the time the students get to high school, they have given up too. The streets are a big draw.

Teachers at South Central often spoke of the differences in parental support along cultural and ethnic lines and attributed some of these differences to a higher percentage of two-parent homes among some ethnic groups. Having two parents at home, they say, positively affected student motivation towards school. An English teacher at South Central added:

Students now get less family support. We have a lot of latchkey kids. There are often no parents at home when the kids get home from school and sometimes, instead of supporting students so that they can make better grades, the parents resort to violence.

Despite these critical comments by teachers and counselors at the two lowest-achieving high schools, we did speak to several parents who were interested in their adolescents and in what was happening at their adolescents' schools. However, their comments also revealed that their expectations about what the school would provide their students and their expectations about postgraduation opportunities differed from those expressed by parents at the higher-achieving suburban schools.

A mother who had emigrated from Vietnam and had a daughter enrolled at Uptown High agreed to speak with us. Both she and her husband graduated from high school in Vietnam. She said she comes to school frequently to meet teachers and checks her daughter's report cards. Both parents wanted their daughter to attend college. When her daughter told her that she wanted to be a doctor, Mrs. N. said that she suggested, because of their low income, that her daughter study nursing in college.

Unlike most of the parents we spoke with in the higher-achieving suburban schools, a father we spoke to at South Central did not see college in his son's future. He said he wants his son to become a certified auto mechanic after graduation. He also expressed satisfaction with the training his son was receiving in the automotive program at South Central, and likened it to on-the-job training. He had told his son, "cars will be here for the rest of your life. You can work on two cars a day and pay the rent."

In summary, there emerged from our interviews with parents, teachers, students, and administrators a clear indication of the strong influence that parental support for schooling can have on students' levels of achievement. In addition, the different expectations of students and parents regarding the viability of opportunities for university study often influenced student motivation.

The Transition Beyond High School

The transition to life beyond high school begins in a student's middle school years, if not before. We found that generally the middle schools with the highest scores on state standardized tests had developed more extensive course offerings, which were differentiated by level of ability, than schools with lower overall levels of academic achievement. Early enrollment in the highest level courses led to increased opportunities for advanced-level courses in high school. In addition, most teachers, parents, and students said they believed that enrollment in honors and advanced-placement courses gave students better preparation for college entrance exams than did regular courses. However, college was never excluded as an option for any student. At one of the high schools we visited, the lowest of the three levels of academic courses (below honors and advanced-placement levels) were called "college prep" courses. And, a counselor with whom we spoke at Uptown High School said that even enrollment in a metal-work vocational program offered at Uptown would not prevent a student from further study at college.

Examinations for High School Completion and College Entrance

In the last decade, many states have mandated that students graduating from high school must pass a minimum competency test. In fact, one of the states in which the Case Study sites were located required these tests. Although many people believe that the standards set by these tests are too low, they represent an attempt by states to assure employers that high school graduates will be able to read and write and do basic mathematical functions.

These tests operate as a standard for all students, but particularly for those who will be directly entering the world of work.

Students who plan to pursue a college education must typically take one of two college entrance exams: the ACT (American College Test) or the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Exam scores from the ACT and SAT can significantly affect a student's chance of admission to top public and private universities.

Both the ACT and the SAT are commercially prepared exams that are offered throughout the United States. Many students take both exams to comply with the admission requirements of various colleges to which they are applying. They generally take the ACT and SAT during the 11th or 12th grade in high school. The PSAT, a practice test for the SAT, is taken by some 11th-graders. The cost of these tests is usually borne by the students or their parents.

According to literature obtained from The American College Testing Program (Web Site June 21, 1996), "The American College Testing (ACT) Assessment is designed to measure educational development in the areas of English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences. The ACT Assessment is taken by college-bound high school students and the test results are used to predict how well students might perform in college." The cost of the test ($19 to $22) is borne by the students or their parents. Test scores are automatically forwarded to the colleges and universities to whom students indicate they will be applying.

The SAT is a seven-section, 3-hour exam. Three of the sections are verbal, three are math, and one is an experimental section used by the test-makers for research purposes only and is not counted toward the final score. Students receive two scores on the SAT, one math and one verbal. Each subject is scored on a scale of 200-800, with a national average of approximately 500. The basic registration fee for the SAT in 1996 was $21.50, although students who choose to take additional subject tests also pay fees for these extra assessments. (Web Site June 21, 1996)

Both Springdale and Hamilton High Schools offered after-school classes to help students prepare for the upcoming SAT exam. The classes offered at Springdale were prepared by a test preparation firm, and students who chose to take the classes were required to pay a $100 fee. Students who did not have the opportunity to enroll in preparation programs could purchase books that contained practice questions and suggestions about how to do well on the tests.

Qualification for Post-High School Academic Choices

The most prestigious universities and colleges in the United States maintain their standards by admitting only those applicants who have achieved very high scores on the ACT and the SAT. ACT and SAT scores are also very important criteria for most other colleges and universities as well. Almost all will publish in their school bulletins the specific minimums ACT and SAT scores they require to qualify for admission.

Despite the rigorous admission standards of many colleges and universities in the United States, there is also an element of self-selection to the admission process. Students generally choose to apply to colleges that are at a level appropriate for their abilities rather than risk rejection by applying to schools with more stringent requirements. As a result, most prospective students are admitted to at least one of the schools, to which they apply, reducing somewhat the typical student's level of concern about being admitted to college. Generally, the admissions requirements for 2-year colleges are substantially more relaxed than those of 4-year institutions. Two-year institutions often serve as a stepping stone to the more competitive and comprehensive 4-year institutions. In addition to the many public and private 4-year colleges and universities, and the liberal arts and technical programs offered at 2-year community colleges and junior colleges, there are a variety of private and public vocational training institutes which offer programs which vary in length from 6 to 24 months. Students may choose to attend one of these programs following high school if they are interested in a particular vocation. The basic admission requirement to most of these institutes is receipt of a high school diploma.

Student and Parent Perceptions of College

The students attending middle- and high-achieving high schools that we interviewed were generally well informed about academic and nonacademic requirements for admission to colleges and universities. This was especially true of those students enrolled in schools with counseling offices focused on college entrance. Most of these schools had high school counselors who maintained a resource room of materials related to college entrance, including information about college entrance requirements, test preparation for the ACT and SAT, and a selection of college and university catalogs. Counselors also often helped students by administering skills and interest inventory tests.

Another important source of information and encouragement regarding college enrollment was the home environment. Particularly at those high schools and middle schools with large segments of high-achieving students, parents themselves had earned college or professional degrees and had high expectations that their children would also attend college. These parents often gave us the academic history of all of their children, including those who had finished high school and gone off to some prestigious college or university.

While parents of students from middle- and low-achieving high schools also frequently aspired to send their children to college, they were likely to mention the financial cost involved and were supportive of vocational training programs. In addition, some parents at these schools indicated they knew little about the process of college admission or the courses students should take in high school to best prepare themselves for college. A few indicated that they thought there was too much emphasis on college as a necessity. A parent of a student at King Junior High said: "To me schools in America are aimed toward college. If I were to change anything as a policymaker, I'd have a lot more emphasis on the trades."

Several students, whom we interviewed at Uptown High School, where parents were unlikely to be able to afford college tuition, had plans for attending local colleges after graduation. All were relying on scholarships and were aware of the necessity of earning good grades in high school to achieve this goal. This perception was particularly common among immigrant students at both Uptown and West High, the majority of whom were Asians or Hispanics with strong family support for higher education. These students saw higher education as the way to improve their economic situation and assist their families.

At South Central a student whom we interviewed spoke longingly of his dream of attending a southern university renowned for its athletic achievements on either a scholarship or financial aid, although it was unclear whether either of these would be available to him. He had no personal financial resources to support studies at a university.

Through our interviews, we found that most high schools offered courses and services that were geared toward preparing students for admission to college or university studies, although the level of preparation a student received often varied. Differences in preparation sometimes began as early as the middle school years, when students in some schools had access to higher-level courses. High school students interested in college generally tried to prepare themselves by taking honors or advanced-placement-level courses, but students who were enrolled in general-level and vocational courses were also often interested in college as an option following high school.

All of the high schools we visited had counseling offices to assist students with academic decisions following high school. In most cases, the counseling offices, particularly in the middle- and high-achieving schools, were geared towards preparing students for entrance to college. Students at the middle- and high-achieving schools also had more parental support and more financial resources, making enrollment in a college or university a viable option. However, high-achieving students at even the lowest-achieving high schools aspired to college and intended to pursue this goal if they could obtain a scholarship.


Standards of education in the United States emanate from a variety of sources external to the schools as well as from internal policies and regulations that are more specific to individual schools.

External Influences

Schools in the United States are not governed by a set of mandatory national education standards or regulations. However, a set of six national goals known as Goals 2000, were created in 1989 as a framework for improving student achievement, and two more goals were added to the list in 1994. While these goals have helped to raise public awareness of the parts of education that need attention, action plans for meeting the goals have been left up to state and local initiatives.

States began playing a larger role in the development of comprehensive standards during the last decade. Prior to this, standards were primarily left up to the schools and school districts. However, many states have now developed academic goals, curriculum guidelines, and minimum competency requirements that they distribute to schools within their state. While states have generally developed these goals, guidelines, and requirements independently of one another, they have all been influenced by the national dialogue surrounding the movement for education reform. In addition, the development of voluntary national standards by nongovernmental organizations, such as The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, has helped to shape curriculum guidelines at both the state and the school levels. Voluntary national standards have been developed in mathematics, science, and history and are currently being developed in other subject areas as well.

We found that teachers' and parents' attitudes towards voluntary standards, such as the NCTM standards, were generally positive. In addition, we found that there was a high awareness of NCTM standards among teachers and an effort on the part of most schools to adjust the curriculum to meet NCTM standards.

Teachers' reactions to state standards were more variable. There seemed to be a higher degree of acceptance of state standards at the secondary sites than in the schools at the primary site. At the primary site very divergent attitudes were expressed regarding the state standards. Although many elementary and middle school teachers were using textbooks that incorporated curriculum areas tied to state standards, most teachers and principals spoke critically of the state assessment test.

We found that initiatives to raise standards that were developed at the school or school district level varied greatly in scope. However, parents and teachers generally said they were supportive of these initiatives, because they had been developed in response to a real need. Many teachers also spoke of the relationship of local initiatives to district or state goals or guidelines.

Internal Influences

We found that achievement standards could vary by school and by course level, but the grading practices of the teachers were generally in accordance with policies of the school administration. In some schools, teachers were given a great deal of autonomy in presenting the curriculum and in developing in-class tests. However, many teachers participated in teams or departments which worked together to develop standards for student achievement for each course.

Students' grades for courses were typically determined by the results of both quizzes and exams. However, we found that many teachers had incorporated performance-based tests into their grading. In some cases, the inclusion of performance-based tests was a matter of school or even state policy.

Within middle schools and high schools, certain academic subjects, such as math, science, and language arts, were often offered at two or more levels of difficulty. At middle schools, students were placed into higher-level courses based on standardized test scores, previous course grades, and teachers' recommendations. In most cases, high school students could chose courses at a particular level, according to their own interests, previous course enrollments, and academic goals. Standards for achievement were highest in the advanced-placement courses, followed by honors courses, and then regular courses.

At the schools we visited, students at middle- and high-achieving high schools often had a greater selection of academic courses to choose from than students at low-achieving schools, including a wider variety of honors and advanced-placement courses. In addition, students at middle- and high-achieving schools had more support for their education from their parents. This combination of greater academic opportunity and support contributed to higher achievement scores and increased opportunities for college enrollment.

Thus, while there have been significant developments in curricula and assessment standards at the state level that have affected school districts and schools in the United States, academic standards that influence the operation of schools and the achievement of students also originate from within individual schools.


[The Development and Implementation of Education Standards in the United States (Part 3 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [Individual Differences and the United States Education System (Part 1 of 4)]