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Education Reporter

New Definition of Education Standards

Virginia Miller
By Virginia Miller

America is embroiled in a debate over how best to educate its students. As post-secondary schools increasingly assume the responsibilities of elementary and secondary education, and as employers and parents complain about the failure of schools to teach basic skills, the standards movement has become the latest attempt to remedy lagging performance.

Eager to respond to growing public pressure to improve the quality of education, policymakers at all levels of government are pressing for higher standards. Major corporations are calling for higher standards and partnering with educators to promote their strategies. Governors are instituting state standards and assessments, and many states are tying them to grade promotion and graduation. Federal funding of education programs through such legislation as the Improving America's Schools Act and Goals 2000 impose state content and performance standards tied to state assessments as a condition of funding eligibility. Indeed, the mantra of the day in education reform is high academic standards with accountability.

Underlying this effort is the assumption that linking high-stakes assessments to standards will motivate educators to higher levels of teaching and students to higher levels of academic achievement. The success of both the new standards and the assessment of student progress in meeting those standards will hinge on the content and quality of the standards themselves; so far, however, policymakers have focused on how to implement standards, paying little attention to their actual content.

Quite unnoticed, a new definition of education standards has emerged - one that places greater relevance on the world of work. All learning is to take place within the context of a work situation or real-world environment with emphasis on workplace competencies. Proponents believe this will foster in students a greater desire to learn because the subject matter has greater relevance to their goals. But the result has been a narrower education that focuses on practical skills to the detriment of a broader academic education. The danger is that the new standards may elevate workplace competencies above essential academic knowledge.

Schools should not be required or encouraged by federal funding to narrow their focus to emphasize workplace skills. The failure of vocational education in America to provide a quality education for non-college-bound students is no reason to infuse workforce education throughout the elementary and secondary education system. A better solution would be to rebuild a vibrant voluntary vocational system to provide a proper transition to work and a career for non-college-bound youth.

The major impetus for transforming academic standards came in the 1990s when the U.S. Secretary of Labor convened the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). In 1992, the commission published a report entitled Learning a Living: A Blueprint for High Performance. This report identified the skills that the commission believed a 21st century high-performance workplace would require, including: "Foundational Skills" - basic reading, writing, and math skills; thinking skills and problem solving; and personal qualities such as individual responsibility, self-esteem, and integrity; and SCANS "Workplace Competencies" - knowing how to allocate time, money, and materials; interpersonal skills such as working on teams, teaching others, and negotiating; using, evaluating, and communicating information; understanding social, organizational, and technological systems; effectively using technology.

The SCANS report recommended integrating these competencies into core academic subjects taught in kindergarten through 12th grade and beyond. Calls to integrate the SCANS skills and competencies into state standards and assessments of core academic subjects increased nationwide.

Today, state after state is implementing such standards, and a focus on work-force development is replacing academic essentials. It does not matter what descriptors are attached to these standards - "high," "rigorous," or "academic." What is important is the objective level each standard sets for measuring academic quality.

In 1994, Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which embodies the central tenets of the school-to-work (STW) philosophy - workplace relevance, integration of academic and vocational education, and workplace competencies. STW is neither vocational education nor a distinct program. Rather, it is an umbrella philosophy for many activities that are intended to systematically restructure all education for all students.

A number of studies have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of STW. While some studies have found higher student motivation and engagement, as well as slightly lower dropout rates, not one study conducted to date has found that STW, or any of its component learning theories, has increased the academic achievement of students as measured by standardized test scores. Children may be more motivated to attend school, but this does not answer the question, what are they learning and how well?

To improve education, Washington should assure that efforts to promote standards focus on academic standards. More important, state legislators and education officials at the state and local level should:

  • Eliminate school-to-work programs and activities from comprehensive elementary and secondary education;
  • Develop and incorporate education standards that are academic, rigorous, specific, measurable, and non-prescriptive of methodology or ideology, and that focus on academic content rather than workplace competencies;
  • Phase out contextual learning and replace it with proven teaching methods;
  • Resist the integration of workplace competencies and academics at all grade levels;
  • Restore academic focus and rigor to all subjects for all students;
  • Restrict the participation of students in workforce investment programs;
  • Protect kindergarten through 12th-grade curricula and standards from inordinate business influence; and
  • Rebuild a vibrant and voluntary vocational system for transition to work and careers for non-college-bound students.

Research shows that education oriented to specific workplace skills and job training produces graduates who are less versatile and unable to change occupations without substantial retraining. By contrast, graduates of a rigorous liberal arts education can readily learn new skills and adjust to new jobs. There is lifelong value in gaining knowledge of history, literature, science, mathematics, and the arts far beyond the world of work. The most important purpose of schools is to educate Americans to be vigilant guardians of their freedom and to be able to take advantage of the social and economic opportunities that a free society affords.

America's schools should not be required by their utilization of government funding to narrow their focus to practical skills at the expense of academic skills. There is more to education than securing gainful employment. Knowledge of history, science, mathematics, and literature is valuable regardless of whether it leads directly to a job.

For too long, primary and secondary public education has retreated from teaching these core academic competencies. The success of the current effort in Washington to improve the quality of education and to graduate adults who are better prepared for the many opportunities of the 21st century by imposing higher standards and assessments will depend on the content and quality of these standards.

Virginia Miller is an education policy consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. This article is excerpted from the Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1427, April 4, 2001, entitled The New Definition of Standards in American Education.

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