THE American system of public education has been tugged at, prodded, and coaxed toward reform for more than a decade now. But most US students will return again this fall to schools that lack the single most basic reform: clear, widely recognized academic standards.
Why the glacial pace in instituting educational standards? Two reasons: The push toward standards frequently hits a buzz saw of philosophical and political differences. And setting standards takes a lot of time and work.
Remember last year's national history standards? Those laboriously prepared documents received a withering response from conservative critics who viewed them as rife with political correctness and multiculturalism. There may have been some taint of that kind, but there were also pages of insights and suggestions about history instruction that might have proven useful to teachers.
Attempts at national standards in other subject areas - notably English - are likely to meet the same barrage of criticism. The standards-setting provisions in the Goals 2000 legislation passed last year by Congress are under heavy fire by Republicans and will probably be repealed. As a national endeavor, centered in Washington, educational standards are virtually dead.
But at the state level standards have plenty of life. A recent report by the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second-largest teachers' union, points out that every state but one (Iowa) is working on standards. But the AFT concludes that only 13 states have standards clear enough to be of real value, and only seven states require attainment of those standards for high school graduation.
The AFT helpfully lays out the prerequisites for meaningful standards: Do they cover the core subjects (math, science, English, social studies)? Are they clear and specific? Are there tests or other assessments that relate directly to the standards? Do students know they have to meet the standards in order to pass or graduate? Do the standards measure up to what's being demanded of students in other advanced countries?
State education planners would buy all or most of these criteria. But even some of the states most committed to standards have found that follow-through can be difficult. California has had a form of standards called curriculum frameworks for a number of years, but it hit the shoals this year when it tried to implement classroom tests tied to its standards. Many parents found the essay questions, which sometimes drew on excerpts from popular literature, objectionable. Others saw the questions as squishy, more concerned with students' attitudes than with their fund of knowledge.
Another effort, the New Standards Project, which has backing from 17 states and a number of large urban school districts, has tried to avoid that kind of problem by testing its ideas on focus groups made up of parents from various economic and political backgrounds. What should emerge later this year, according to project director Marc Tucker, is a set of standards with wide public acceptance and assured approval in a number of states.
The project's standards will try to avoid another pitfall - fuzziness about implementation - by providing examples of student work that meet the standards along with statements declaring what students should know.
Some critics argue that fuzziness arises when general skills like ''critical thinking'' or ''problem solving'' are made standards in themselves. Mr. Tucker responds, persuasively, that such skills have to be assessed, but not in the abstract. An ''applied knowledge'' section of his group's standards will attempt to link knowledge of subject matter and the kinds of skills needed in most career settings.
So there's hope for standards. But the frictions they generate have to be lessened. Without standards, public education is adrift, with little means of gauging direction and progress. Most Americans recognize this situation should no longer be tolerated.
Most Americans recognize the absence of standards should not be tolerated.