The Battle Over Curriculum Standards

Parents, school boards, states, and the federal government all vie for a say in the matter

For many students heading back to school this fall, the biggest concern is adjusting to a new class. Their parents, though, face more daunting questions: What will their children learn in school? And who will determine the curriculum?

In an age of multiculturalism, book banning, and condom distribution in schools, few subjects are more explosive at school-board meetings and in state legislatures.

The issues cross the spectrum. Various proposals have cropped up throughout the South to teach creationism, evoking memories of the famous conviction of John Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolutionary theory in a Tennessee public school. California is struggling with new math standards that many say disregard basic skills. And sex education has provided a steady current of controversy virtually everywhere.

The suggestion that students should share a national curriculum has been no less controversial. Though initiated by President Bush, Goals 2000, which established voluntary national standards, became a favorite target for conservatives concerned about federal control.

Increasingly, international events are spurring the debate about what American students should learn. The 1958 Russian launching of Sputnik caused a stampede toward science education. A deluge of well-made imports from Japan in the 1980s as well as the 1983 report, "Nation at Risk," sent educators scrambling for ways to address other weaknesses in the system. But even such spikes of interest rarely translate into a consensus.

Curriculum standards currently are set by an amalgam of state, local, and school-specific bodies. In New York, for example, the education department sets broad standards for public school students in seven basic disciplines.

Since the standards are relatively broad, school districts, individual schools, and teachers exercise some discretion over what is taught. But there's a catch: Schools are assessed in part by how well the students perform on state competency tests. This helps encourage schools' adherence to state standards.

Nonetheless, states have come under significant criticism for the poor performance of students on domestic and international tests over the past few decades. "Standards are far too vague," says Diane Ravitch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and senior research fellow at New York University. "There seems to be an agreement that states should do them, but they aren't. They have proven unwilling to take standards seriously."

In Missouri, for instance, students are expected to be familiar with such broad social-science standards as "principles and processes of governance systems" and "relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions." So should students be familiar with the US Constitution? The Gettysburg Address? Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech? Is one or two enough?

Furthermore, standards frequently don't address other related questions, such as how students should apply their education to life in the "real world." And what about the contentious subjects facing some schools, like the debate over teaching Darwin's theory of evolution versus the account of creation in the Bible?

For Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, these touchy issues should not be included in curriculum standards at the national or state level. "It works out best to have them discussed at the local and school-specific level," he contends. Indeed, many schools allow students to be withdrawn from a class if a parent is uncomfortable with a book being taught, or a subject matter clashes with religious views.

Some argue that curriculum guidelines are only as good as the environment in which students operate. Parental involvement, student motivation, and teacher training are all key. "A specific curriculum doesn't make that big of a difference. There is no evidence that once you have these standards, students' test scores will rise," says Donald Oliver, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

But the debate has generated some innovative proposals. Ms. Ravitch, for example, argues for clearly stated national - not federally mandated - standards that would be set by a conglomeration of teachers, scholars, and members of the public, and reviewed by educators before implementation.

Mr. Finn envisions a model of concentric circles. The innermost circle, making up about 25 percent of what a student learns, would be national standards, such as rudimentary reading and writing skills. The next circle, another 25 percent, would be standards set by the state. The final 50 percent would be left to the discretion of districts, schools, and the teacher.

Some states are starting to address the criticism of ambiguity in standards. Massachusetts, for example, is in the midst of a major overhaul of its education system. Following the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in June 1993, the state began the process of developing statewide standards by articulating broad goals for public education.

The second step, which is still being hashed out, includes specific guidelines for teachers in seven different academic areas. The third step will be a comprehensive system to assess the performance of both students and schools.

The goal is "to ensure that there's a state standard for what all kids should be able to do in every academic area and every grade level in any school," says Alan Safran, a Massachusetts Department of Education spokesman.

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