dards for the content of what is taught
in any grade or subject in school. For
some, establishing content standards
means increasing the rigor of instruction; for others, it means “standardizing”
what knowledge is taught. These two
goals are related but different. An
extreme example of the latter goal
would be the uniformity in France,
where at almost any hour, all students
are studying the same thing.
Some supporters of standards envision a single national test that all
students would be required to take.
Others want both prescribed course
content and a national test. There are
those who claim that standards should
be voluntary and those who believe that
we should subject all students to them.
When people say they are for or against
national standards, they often harbor
different views of what they want to create.
Goals vary: Some want standards to give
teachers information that will improve
instruction, whereas others want a
national test to measure performance in
an NCLB-like accountability system.
Differences also exist on the “how.”
Some people clearly want standards to
be national but to be created and
enforced by some agency other than the
federal government (although possibly
with government funding); others want
the federal government to develop and
prescribe standards. In another version,
both standards and tests would emanate
from outside the federal government,
but they would be used to enforce a
federal accountability system—a
scenario that I believe would effectively
federalize such a test.
Are National Standards the Right Move?
William H. Schmidt
Well-designed national standards are necessary to improve schooling in the United States. Without such standards to guide our fragmented system, we
will continue to fail our children. Even the best U.S. students
do not perform as highly as the students of top-performing
nations; governors and state education leaders have come to
recognize the importance of addressing this lack of competitiveness through national standards.
In the United States, we spend a great deal of time arguing
about why we should not have national standards. It’s more
important to consider the consequences of our not having
national standards. International research has shown that top-achieving countries have focused, coherent, and rigorous
national standards. These three characteristics can only be
achieved when there is a national center. In a highly fragmented system with shared decision making, in which states
and even individual districts often establish their own standards, these qualities are almost impossible to achieve.
My argument is twofold. First, if we want to make our
students more competitive internationally, both for their own
sake and for the nation, then a move to national standards
gives schooling the chance to become more focused, coherent,
The second consequence of not
enacting standards—a more serious
one—is that large numbers of U.S.
students will be left behind other U.S.
students who simply receive better
schooling. The current system, in
which students are taught under
different standards depending on
where they live or the social class of
their parents, is intolerable, especially
in a democracy. Data show that school
districts with higher concentrations of well-educated and
well-off parents have more focused and demanding standards.
These inequalities are built into the system. In effect, the
playing field is not level, and the very students who most
depend on schooling as a means to a better life are the ones
My point is not to ignore potential negative effects of
national standards, but to argue that not moving to such standards has graver consequences. It is detrimental to children’s
lives, the nation’s economic prospects, and perhaps most
important, to equal opportunity itself.
William H. Schmidt is University Distinguished Professor at
Michigan State University, East Lansing; email@example.com.