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Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Curriculum Development/Standards Movement

< Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education‎ | Curriculum Development
What is the standards movement?


The Need for ReformEdit

Changing Global ConditionsEdit

Traditionally, federal and state governments delegated their authority over public education to local school districts that ultimately placed it in the hands of text book publishers and teachers (Wixson et. al. 70). However, after the Publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 the concern for public education came into the national spotlight. This document warned that our previous leadership in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation was being surpassed by international competitors and that “knowledge, learning information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce …” It also further suggested that the federal government should exert more control over education. This pushed business leaders, politicians, and educators alike into motion for educational reform. We are now forced not only to live up to our own national standards but we must also now live up to world standards set by competing countries. Electronic media, international trade agreements, and the increasing capability of third world countries to produce goods have forced the United States to rethink and redefine education (Rhoads et. al, 1).

Equality in EducationEdit

Equality in the educational arena has also been another major force in the push for change. Traditionally school funding was provided largely from local property taxes, thus students living in economically disadvantaged localities had substantially fewer resources and ultimately an inadequate education as evidenced by what had been called the “achievement gap”. The National Assessment of Educational Progress noted a substantial gap between minority and white students in the 1970’s, only to resurge in the 1990’s. After years of legal battles during the 70’s and 80’s the responsibility of funding began to rely more heavily on the state (McClure 3-4).

The Standards MovementEdit

Throughout the course of the 1980s, several reform efforts were implemented and as pointed out by Massell, imposed requirements with out specifying what exactly the content should consist of and proved to “‘lack the substantive grist necessary for meaningful school-based change’” (cited in Wixson et. al., 71). Also, with such a large buffet of curricula being served to American children these new policies, each individually designed for different sets of standards and objectives only added to the lack of coherence in our educational system. As a way to address these issues a more coherent and systematic policy began to emerge in the 1990’s. In an attempt to remedy the basic skills orientation that had plagued American schools for decades the new focus was on the ability to reason, problem solve, apply knowledge and increase competency in written and oral communication skills (Wixson et. al, 71-72). The new systematic reform effort saw teaching as the most direct route to changes in student learning, it was a means to provide top-down support for bottom-up instructional improvement in schools across the nation. To achieve this end the Consortium for Policy Research in Education recommended that this type of reform must include three integral components: (a) establishing challenging academic standards; (b)aligning policies such as testing, professional development and accountability; and (c) restructuring the governance system to delegate overtly to schools the responsibility for developing instructional approaches to meet the standards that the state will hold them accountable for (Wixson et. al., 71). This was the beginning of an effort by our Federal Goverment to align policy with results by implementing standards and annual assessments and then holding individual schools accountable for the results. NCEST or The National Council on Education Standards and Testing stated that, "'high national standards tied to assessments can create high expectations for all students and help to better target resources'" (cited in Wixson, et. al., 73).

Today the continuing Standards Movement still is a ways off, in 1996 Tommy Thompson, the Governor of Wisconsin, said that, "We might get national standards eventually. But the only way it's going to happen is bottom up, through coalitions of states “ (Frontline). Most school districts in the country today subscribe to a state standard which is a step in the right direction. Although some criticize the corporate America is having too much of an influence on curriculum development (Frontline). Refreshing upon the changes happening lately speaking at a convention October 2001, Lou Gerstner said, "Let's not forget where things stood when we convened the 1996 Education Summit. It was a bad time for public education reform, bordering on fatalistic. And the debate over standards -- standards as the centerpiece of public school reform -- was being conducted with the decorum of a street fight." So education reform is taking a definite step in the right direction. Louis Gerstner, Chairman of IBM said it best, "The work of putting standards in place was difficult and often painful,victory isn't 45 or 50 well-crafted documents that spell out what a high school diploma ought to stand for. The goal here -- our No. 1 national priority according to the American people -- is delivering radically improved student performance” (Frontline).

Goals 2000: Educate America ActEdit

The result was The Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 which “gave federal grants to state departments to develop state curriculum standards” and became the “basic building blocks” of the systematic reform (McClure 4). At the same time the Federal Government was also funding the private development of national standards, the idea was that both state and federal standards could be forged together and that once this was established all other areas of education could be redirected accordingly (Wixson, 74). Simultaneously, the reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed, which required states to develop and implement standards for all children in order to continue receiving Tile I funds. The Goals 2000 also established a new federal agency, The National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC). This agency was designated to certify national content, performance, and opportunity-to-learn standards (Wixson, 75). The Federal Governemnt was moving toward a set of national standards by having NESIC approve or certify individual state standards and simultaneously funding the private development of standards, hoping to align them.

No ConsensusEdit

The effort to develop acceptable national standards served to be more challenging than anyone had anticipated. Educational experts and professionals alike had differing opinions about what the content standards should be and how they should be addressed. Such controversial disciplines as History and English Language Arts served to be the biggest barrier to consensus. Lynne Cheney charged that the national standards presented “‘the United States and its white, male-dominated power structure as an oppressive society that victimizes minorities and women’” (Diegmueller, cited in Rhoads,, 6). Another controversial subject was English Language Arts, where again experts could not agree about what the standards should be and how the subject matter of reading, writing, speaking, and literature should be addressed. Other barriers included differing beliefs about the very nature and purpose of education. Some believed standards would be explicitly stated and reflected the belief that “essential skills and knowledge could be objectively identified, transmitted directly through teaching, and discretely tested”. Others believed that it was not so cut and dry, that essential skills and knowledge must be obtained through a more contextual and constructive environment and progress would be difficult to adequately assess through standardized tests (Wixson, et. al.). Never the less the failure of these efforts resulted in a demise of the national standards movement and refocused the movement on standards being set by individual states. Also with this decline came the dissolution of NESIC replaced in 1998 by ACHIEVE, a nongovernmental agency designed to guide states on the creation and implementation of standards and assessments (Wixson, et. al. 78).

No Child Left BehindEdit

In 2002 president George Bush signed into law the most controversial and possibly the most detrimental bill thus far in the standards movement, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It is another reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and requires states to develop minimum standards, give annual assessments and also demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). AYP is based off of initial proficiency as determined by standardized assessments specifically in math and language arts and is expected to increase every year until 100% of students are proficient (Gunning, 10). In the Article How to Fix No Child Left Behind we are told that schools must do this or face a loss of federal funds which account for 9 % of dollars spent in education. Also NCLB takes the Federal government “where it has never gone before: telling the states how to measure school success, specifying interventions for failure, mandating qualifications for teachers and even telling the nation how to teach reading” (Wallis and Steptoe, 2-3).


High Stakes TestsEdit

This has brought us into the current state of education, which by most reviews is not any better than where we started. The attempt was to redirect our schools from the basic skills orientation towards a more cognitive and constructive based curriculum, secure a quality education for all students, and bring us up to par on an international scale. However, with the implementation of NCLB many educators have found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle which forces them to abandon creativity and higher order thinking in order to better prepare students for their annual assessment. One of the key aspects of NCLB and the standards movement was to align content and assessment, and a major bi-product of this movement is high stakes tests. High stakes test are exactly that, a test that determines some sort of outcome such as a school receiving needed funding or determining graduation eligibility. Annual Assessments or high-stakes tests in theory seem like a great idea. One would think that it would give educators and schools some incentive to raise student achievement in order to meet AYP and receive federal funds. However, in reality this is not the case. Schools all across the nation are participating in what may be called dumbing down the test. According to the article How to Fix No Child Left Behind an analysis conducted by the non-profit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that the quality of education standards which are detailed by grade and subject declined in 30 different states between 2000 and 2006 (Wallis and Steptoe, 6). So instead of raising the standards the states maneuver around this by simply lowering their standards to make it appear as if they are improving.

Back to BasicsEdit

The standards movement was also an attempt to get away from the basic skills curriculum, however, with only minimum standards being required and so much emphasis on the test the quality of American education is again being reduced, this time to drill like memorization skills. The teacher, whose job security lies virtually in whether or not their students meet AYP, tend to focus rather heavily on the test, former Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota says, “High-stakes testing is channeling teaching to the kind of rote memorization drill that isn’t education” (Jehelen 4). Indeed this is not education. It has been said that memorization or to recall facts is the lowest level of thinking (Bloom, cited in Berube, 1). In addition to the fact that teachers place a heavy emphasis on teaching the test, NCLB only mandates that students be tested on math and reading, which again narrows the curriculum. According to the article How to Fix No Child Left Behind we learn that in a study conducted in over 300 hundred school districts, 71% of local administrators admitted that they had cut short other areas in order to place more focus on math and reading and essentially the test.

No EqualityEdit

The movement was also supposed to secure equal standards and opportunities for all children including minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and even struggling and disabled students. In the early 90's NCEST reported that the intent of national standards was to raise the ceiling for students who are above average and to lift the floor for those who experience the least success (Wixson et. al., 73). However, this too like most of the other aims of the standards movement has served to be a major disappointment. Vella Trader an elementary school teacher from Battle Creek, Michigan said that she had a student who was struggling and had attempted to enroll the child in Reading Recovery, however, the child was denied. The rationale given by the school was that only those students who are close to passing the state test would be helped. It was better to have a few students fail miserably than many fail by a small margin ( 2007). Another example of a similar practice is occurring in Philadelphia, P.A., where students from each grade level who are nither at the bottom or the top of their class are being singled out for intensive review. These students aren't in desperate need of help, but their passing test scores will put the school over the top for AYP. The underachieving students who may also be making progress are not recognized under NCLB because it does not show on the annual assessment. (Wallis and Steptoe, 1, How to Fix No Child Left Behind). Instead of focusing energy and resources on those students who need it the most, it is the students who will impact the test results who recieve the extra help. NCLB does not seem to be enhancing equality in education at all, it actaully seems to be having the opposite effect. Our focus in education is shifting from learning to passing the test.


Certainly there are few areas of American life as important to our society, to our people, and to our families as our schools and colleges

—Ronald Reagan

In the past 40 years we have come full circle as we have tried to redefine and change the way in which we teach children in order to keep up with the changing demands of the global village. We not only lag behind our counterparts in academic ability but we are lagging behind in what Wallis and Steptoe call “21st century skills”. They say we are aiming too low, competency in math and reading are the meager minimum and that scientific and technical skills are also absolutely necessary but insufficient in the U.S. (2 How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th century). We must solve the problems with in our educational system or the U.S. is bound to be “left behind” in the global economy because we are shaping a whole generation of children who don’t have the necessary skills to compete. Education is the foundation of our nation’s prosperity and it should be first on the agenda of every politician and American Citizen.

Multiple Choice QuestionsEdit

Click to reveal the answer.

Suppose you are a teacher at Bushfield Elementary School and you had a child who was in desperate need of some help; however this child was denied because only students who were close to passing the mandated standardized test would be helped. This would be a result of...
A. The education revolution.
B. Adequate yearly progress.
C. The Education Reform of 1987.
D. 21st century skills .

B. Adequate yearly progress.

You are approached by your principle who informs you that your class’s science period will

have to be cut in half to add 15 minutes to both reading and math periods. This would be a result of...

A. A new and improved curriculum designed by the school.
B. No Child Left Behind.
C. A change caused by new research which explicitly implies these are the subjects of the future.
D. The Science department has had a decrease in funding.

B. No Child Left Behind.

You begin a new job at Mt.Vernon High School and you curriculum guides consist of basic skills and no opportunities for creative thinking, you are living in...
A. The 19th century.
B. The 20th century.
C. The 21st century.
D. B or C.

D. B or C.

Most school districts use what type of standards:
A. State
B. National
C. Principals
D. Local

A. State

Tommy Thompson said in 1996 that standards movement would start:
A. in Canada.
B. in Russia.
C. in Hawaii.
D. from the bottom up.

D. from the bottom up.

Louis Gerstner pointed out that developing a standard isn't describing a high school diploma, it's:
A. Describing a GED program.
B. About standardized tests.
C. About improving student performance.
D. About developing computers.

C. About improving student performance.

Essay QuestionEdit

Click to reveal sample responses.

In what ways would you change our current educational practices in order to better prepare our future leaders to keep up with the changing face of the globe?

There are many changes that need to be made in our educational system. First we must establish a national set of standards with out such an emphasis on assessment. We need to focus on the skills that children will use in the real world such as problem solving, the ability to reason, independent thinking and hands on experience with the most recent technology. We need to implement serious change in order to help fix the damage already done. In addition to focusing on math and reading I would also expand on the content standards to include science, technological and global skills. These could include learning at least two foreign languages and being familiar and sensitive to other cultures. I would also expose children to the highest quality technology available and engage them in problem solving using these technologies. I would also change the role of assessment in our country. It seems as if there is so much emphasis now on the tests we are getting away from what is really important, which is the quality of the education we are providing. I would not be concerned about who is wrong or right about what should be taught. I would be concerned with learning. If national assessments were absolutely necessary I would expand them to include other examples of progress such as portfolios and my assessments would be more holistic. I would also give teachers a big raise. Teachers go to college not for fun, but to have a rewarding career, job security, and most importantly to get paid. Education is just like any other business where incentive makes you work harder. It really is too bad that our government chooses to spend billions of dollars on the so called “war on terror” when it is needed so bad internally to fix education and healthcare. What will happen when we are unable to make the grade internationally and our standard of living goes down and with that the financial ability to defend ourselves? Then we will really be vulnerable. —Sandy Cavey

The first thing that I want to address is that although as a society we maybe behind on our current educational practices we must remember that children need to be children. I am all for educational and technological advances but not to the degree that we stop nurturing our children. In some aspects of education, we have moved to quickly that we have failed to recognize that all children have a different learning style and labeled as having a disability because their style was not recognized. In order for children to keep up, the parents need to be aware of the changes so they can support and fight for the best educational curriculum and practices.

One of the changes that I would make is making preschool available to every child no matter where they lived. Whether the child comes from a wealthy, middle-class, or low-income family, they can start preschool. Children not exposed to basic preschool practices are viewed disabled. A child not exposed to these practices by a certain age will not have a hard time for the rest of their lives. Children soak up information like a sponge especially if presented to them in a fun and interesting way. The second thing is to stop teaching students to memorize test. If you want to test students on prior knowledge, that is fine. I think that there should be an essay or “what do you think” type questions on these standardized test to show if students have strong critical thinking skills. The last thing, (and there are many) is the real-time remediation. Before any child leaves a grade, they should make sure that they understand what they learned and understand their mistakes. If a child or adult does not understand why they made a mistake, they will repeat it. If we want to see a change in our educational curriculum, we need support from parents, money, and for our teachers to make sure that all students are finishing at the same level. I think that these could just be the beginning steps before we advance to the next level for a global curriculum. —A. Lancaster