Setting standards for what a fifth-grader should know in mathematics might seem fairly elementary. But somehow, no two states seem to do it alike.
In Virginia, for example, students must be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers. In Alaska, where standards are less specific, they must "use mathematics with confidence."
To end this type of disparity, President Clinton is urging all 50 states to adopt one rigorous set of academic standards for math, English, history, and science. He argues that nothing less than America's ability to compete in the global marketplace depends on it - a theme he tested yesterday on the Michigan legislature and the state's reform-minded Republican governor.
National standards are at the core of the most ambitious White House initiative to improve American education in a generation. But to achieve that goal, the president will have to win over a critical mass of state and local officials - many of whom believe that deciding what children should learn is their responsibility, and not the federal government's.
Still, support for the idea seems to be broadening. Already, pressure from parents and business leaders has moved many states to establish or revise academic standards.
"The movement to standards is primarily an economic issue,"
says Michael Kirst, education professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "The big changes in education always come from outside, like Sputnik, the Vietnam War,... That's what causes the system to move."
"In the 1980s, after the recession, Toyota replaced Sputnik," he adds. "That led to the idea that we can no longer afford local standards in an international market."
Business leaders say today's schools produce future employees who have never learned to read, write, or perform basic math. Many parents who have moved from job to job and state to state complain that their children are repeating some lessons and skipping others altogether.
For education reformers, Virginia has become the model for other states to emulate in the standards movement. "Virginia has probably done the best job so far of writing academic standards that are rigorous, specific, and clear enough to use in the classroom," says Heidi Gordon, a policy analyst with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. "The best standards draw a balance between content and skills, what you need to know and what you should be able to do."
In other states, standards vary from the specific to the vague. In Missouri, 11th-grade history students must "acquire a solid foundation which includes knowledge of: continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States, and the world." Their counterparts in Oregon, meanwhile, will "demonstrate the ability to think critically, creatively, and reflectively in making decisions and solving problems."
Some educators say this disparity in standards puts students in some states at a disadvantage. "Look at California," says Mr. Kirst. "There was an uproar over the low scores in reading and math. This is a state with the sixth largest economy in the world, and we're tied with Louisiana, and ahead of only Guam and the District of Columbia. There's something ... wrong with that."
But a small group of states-rights advocates and conservatives say the push for national standards is misguided, at best. "I'm philosophically opposed to a top-down approach," says John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Alexis de Toqueville Institute in Alexandria, Va. Many states may object to "political correctness" in history or English lessons, he says, or an emphasis on global warming in science.
"I prefer a competitive process rather than a collaborative one," he adds. "If 50 states set their own standards, some may get it wrong, but others will have the chance to get it right."
Some long-time supporters of the academic-standards movement say that the goal of higher achievement is still far off. Many states have had standards for a long time, they point out, but that has not stopped a general erosion in educational excellence.
"People say they want high standards," says John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. "People also say they want to lose weight, but they don't."
To Dr. Silber, America's 19th-century curriculum, in which students had four years of math, science, and English, are most worth emulating. "That was a rigorous curriculum. It's just that we got to the point where we thought everything should be fun. Well, it can't all be fun."
Other educators warn that any push for high academic standards will be meaningless unless states test their students.
"Not one state has both high standards and high stakes, with real consequences for students and school personnel," says Edwin Delattre, dean of Boston University's school of education.
While some experts worry the standards movement will be watered down, others say parents will push states for improvement.
"You may have what you feel are strong standards," says Ms. Gordon, "but if parents can't understand them or don't like them, you'll be shot out the window."
What Children Need to Know
Some states have specific education standards, while others set general goals. Compare excerpts from two states' math standards for fourth and fifth graders.
* Create and solve problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of whole numbers, using paper and pencil, estimation, mental computation, and calculators.
* Find the product of two numbers expressed as decimals through thousandths, using appropriate method of calculation.
* Add and subtract with fractions and mixed numerals, with and without regrouping, and express answers in simplest form. Problems will include like and unlike denominators, limited to 12 or less.
* Perform basic arithmetic functions, make reasoned estimates, and select and use appropriate methods ... for computation or estimation including mental arithmetic, paper and pencil, and calculator.
* Represent, analyze, and use mathematical patterns, relations, and functions using ... tables, equations, and graphs.
* Collect organize, analyze, interpret, represent, and formulate questions about data and make reasonable and useful predictions about the certainty, uncertainty, or impossibility of an event.