If we want tougher academic standards for America's public schools, then we need a more tough-minded answer to the question "Why?" Pundits and politicians who argue that higher standards are essential to global competitiveness miss the point. It's not the economy, stupid. It's a moral question. It's a matter of basic civil rights.
After all, the United States already boasts far and away the most competitive economy in the world. And our best public school districts - most of them in affluent suburbs - are already performing at world-class levels. For example, last year a consortium of 20 school districts in suburban Chicago participated in the prestigious Third International Mathematics and Science Study. If those 20 districts had been a separate country, they would have ranked second in the world (behind Singapore) in science and among the top five nations in math.
Johnny competes just fine
So the issue isn't whether Johnny can compete academically with Johann, Yoko, and Yuri. The real issue is whether kids in rural and inner-city schools will be challenged and enabled to achieve at the same high levels as their best suburban counterparts.
The most pernicious inequality is not necessarily in funding, but rather in academic expectations, goals, and requirements - in a word, standards. Schools without even minimal standards - schools that pass kids who can't read or compute - flunk a basic moral test. Says E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia: "A systematic failure to teach all children the knowledge they need in order to understand what the next grade has to offer is the major source of avoidable injustice in our schools."
Indeed, Professor Hirsch correctly characterizes the struggle for equality of educational opportunity as "the new civil rights frontier." This gives rise to a disturbing historical parallel: In the 1950s and 1960s, elected officials literally stood in the schoolhouse door to deny the civil rights of minority children. They did so in the name of "states' rights." Today, many governors are engaged in a new "massive resistance." In the name of "local control," they have steadfastly rejected all efforts to create nationwide academic standards.
In recent months, however, this wall of resistance has shown cracks. Fed up with struggling school districts, the same governors who give lip service to "local control" are imposing statewide academic standards and, in some cases, taking over management of local school districts.
Virginia Gov. George Allen is a remarkable case in point. No one has more flamboyantly opposed the Goals 2000 effort to develop voluntary national standards. He has staked his resistance on the Jeffersonian ideal that local folks know best. In February, however, Governor Allen proposed requiring all 133 Virginia school districts to conform to a strict, grade-by-grade curriculum guideline drafted in Richmond. Schools that refuse to comply would be denied accreditation.
In Michigan, Gov. John Engler has fiercely opposed federal meddling in local school affairs. But earlier this year he proposed a new law to allow the state government to take over school districts that are underperforming. Said Governor Engler: "I defend local control, but I can't defend failure." Exactly.
The scandal in American public education is not just the social promotion of failing students, but, in effect, the social promotion of entire school districts. In the absence of objective standards for measuring their performance, grossly underperforming districts slide by. Likewise, politicians and school administrators - as well as, yes, teachers and their unions - are allowed to skirt accountability.
The tragic upshot is that, in an era of unprecedented de jure civil rights, millions of young people are being denied the fundamental enabling right to a quality public education. And this is why high academic standards for all American children is arguably the most urgent civil rights issue of our day.
A crying national need
In the quest for higher standards, no one wants to trample on the tradition of local control of schools. But there is a crying need for minimum but ambitious national benchmarks against which every school and school district in America can be measured and held accountable.
However, to avoid the same old fights about federal meddling, I propose that we leave Washington out of the standards-setting process and avoid a repeat of the voluminous and mostly unusable "standards" created under Goals 2000. Instead, let the National Governors Association (or some comparable state-based group) convene the best educators from all 50 states to set broad national benchmarks in the basic subject areas of reading, grammar, math, science, and history.
Local school districts would be free to supplement the national benchmarks and to set even more ambitious standards. And, of course, how to meet the national benchmarks - for example, decisions about textbooks, instructional methods, and the details of curriculum - would be left entirely to local discretion.
America's challenge is to bridge our traditional deference to local control with our new demand for higher standards. This bridge can guarantee every child's civil right to a quality education. It can also serve as President Clinton's much talked about bridge to the 21st century.
* Bob Chase is president of the National Education Association.