Originally published in educational Horizons Spring 1997. 109-111.

Establishing Nationally Recognized Educational Standards
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki


An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage,

concludes that it will make a better soup.--H.L. Mencken (1920)

edited 3/20/12
Test yourself on the following multiple-choice question:

Nationally recognized educational standards are:

a. idealistic expressions of hope for a more just society

b. politically naive will-o'-the-wisps

c. a distraction from difficult, unglamorous tasks of consensus building

d. a means of enhancing the recognition of teachers as professionals

Answer? All of the above.

Idealistic Expressions of Hope

Is there an American public educator who in her or his heart does not maintain serious sympathy for the following statement?

The original element of despotism is a monopoly of talent which consigns the multitude to comparative ignorance, and secures the balance of knowledge on the side of the rich and the rulers. If then the healthy existence of a free government be, as the committee believe, rooted in the will of the American people, it follows as a necessary consequence of government based upon that will, that this monopoly should be broken up, and that the means of equal knowledge (the only security for equality) should be rendered, by legal provision, the common property of all classes. (1)
For educators, this 1830 statement of the Committee of Philadelphia Workingmen still resonates today in a society substantially different from what it was 166 years ago. But how much of the public in today's pluralistic United States would agree with it? A 1988 study showed that about 93 percent of Gallup respondents agreed that the quality of public education should be improved. But only 73 percent agreed that this improvement should come from government action. And only 41 percent thought that new taxes should be raised to support government action in the improvement of public schools. (2) Is it unlikely these figures have gone up. Focusing on common standards draws our attention away from this harsh political reality.

Politically Naive Will-o'-the-Wisps

Proposals of common standards are no more than rhetoric until a substantial number of people have accepted them as common down to the level of practical implementation. With more than 15,000 school boards liberally interpreting -- seldom with a liberal interpretation -- the school codes of fifty states, it is difficult to see how nationally recognized, governmentally enforced standards will ever come about. But need such standards be governmentally enforced?

Need a governmental body be involved? Consider the Netherlands, which has nationally recognized standards in mathematics, but no formal national curriculum(3). Because a consensus has been hammered out among various private constituencies -- the Dutch call this process overleg -- standardization has been achieved without governmental involvement. But the Dutch do not require schools to prepare students for examinations on any subject matter that their communities find repugnant. Catholics and Protestants read different history books. There are no requirements for Christian fundamentalists to meet concerning evolutionary theory in biology. Nor need Muslims pay any attention to curriculum that promotes "gender fairness," that is, men and women in roles different from what Muslims consider traditional(4). Consensus on a few issues is bought by conceding diversity in the curriculum to a point beyond which many organized groups in the United States would be comfortable with. The Dutch have instituted, in effect, a national system of school vouchers, with few strings attached.

A Distraction from Difficult, Unglamorous Consensus Building

Our history shows that it is not difficult to seduce Americans into a crusade, even a difficult and bitter one, so long as the majority can hope to live to see the conquest of the Promised Land. But to be merely a bit player in a struggle that may last for generations? That is surely asking too much. We cannot see where we, as a nation, will be next year. Our model for planning is the whimsicality of the stock market. Take a paper and pencil, and, if you have been a teacher for ten years, you will be able to list a number of initiatives, reforms, and innovations that have gone the way of all flesh.

I started teaching when the New Math was about to save America from Sputnik and other devilish Communist contrivances. Ancient that I am, I saw teaching machines rise and fall, language labs degenerate into expensive toys. SRA reading materials brought their own micro-millennium. Whole Language hangs on, but OBE has lost its vigor. 4-MAT has become 4-gotten. Special Education has become inclusion, which is practically what it was before it became Special Education.

Do you remember Needs Assessment? Has Site-Based Management or Quality Circles transformed the world? Who wanted these innovations? Apparently, not the public who supports the schools. Who bothered to convince people other than educators that the millennium was at hand? No one. (Who made off with the vast sums of money spent on such programs? That is an interesting story for another occasion.)

A Means of Enhancing the Recognition of Teachers as Professionals

Standards and professional training can, in theory, at least, be directly linked. Any set of standards -- rather than none -- makes it easier to develop teacher-training programs. Standards set goals; training programs attempt to devise the means for helping future teachers bring their students up to those standards. In practice, this is harder than it sounds, but at least the theoretical connection is clear. Special training defines professional expertise.

Let's consider mathematics. Suppose we -- hocus pocus -- establish National Mathematics Standards; and, consequently, the methods that reasonably ensure their achievement -- usually tested in a setting with minimal disturbance. Then, we introduce them into real life, i.e., the schools where student achievement in mathematics is most problematic. Barring the effects of disparities in school funding, domestic upheaval, poverty, disease, social disorder, crime, school violence, drug usage, student lack of interest, and parental complacency, these national standards in mathematics will bring students to almost genius levels of math competence. They might transform our entire culture.

We might end up listening to rap music about analytic and algebraic topologies of locally Euclidean metricizations of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds(5)". TV shows -- "Geraldo," "Richard Bey," "Oprah" -- will feature panel discussions on Gödels's Proof, or at least, on Fermat's Last Theorem. Surely then, parents, school boards, and the general public will accord teachers (of mathematics, at least) the right to make those decisions about curriculum and methodology that mark the prerogatives of true professionals.

A lovely dream. Will anyone work now to make it any more substantial in, say, seventy years? Is that too long to wait? Can we be patient enough to forgo our personal hopes of victory and prepare such a bequest for our great-grandchildren's teachers? These are perhaps the most important questions.


1. Report of the Committee of Philadelphia Workingmen, 1830, cited in Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 4th Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 21.

2. Private correspondence of Gary K. Clabaugh and Edward G. Rozycki with Margaret Petrella of the Gallup Organization for the Times Mirror Corporation; field dates of study: 5/13/88-5/22/88.

3. Lauren B. Resnick, Katherine J. Nolan, and Daniel P. Resnick, "Benchmarking Educational Standards," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17 (1995): 438-461.

4. Karen Seashore Lewis and Bert Versloot, High Standards and Cultural Diversity: Cautionary Tales of Comparative Research?A Comment on "Benchmarking Educational Standards," 253-261 and Lauren B. Resnick, Katherine J. Nolan, and Daniel P. Resnick, "Caution Heeded? A Response to 'High Standards and Cultural Diversity,'" Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18 (1996): 262-264.

5. Tom Lehrer, "Lobachevsky," Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 28.