In December, the third installment of our Capitol Hill Education series featured four experts who discussed the impact of setting high academic standards for students.

Unbelievably, there is strong opposition to setting high academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance. Our panel addressed the current status of implementing standards and why it is necessary to set our expectations high.

Unbelievably, there is strong opposition to setting high academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance. Our panel addressed the current status of implementing standards and why it is necessary to set our expectations high.

Unbelievably, there is strong opposition to setting high academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance. Our panel addressed the current status of implementing standards and why it is necessary to set our expectations high.

Unbelievably, there is strong opposition to setting high academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance. Our panel addressed the current status of implementing standards and why it is necessary to set our expectations high.

Jeanne Allen
President, Center for Education Reform
It used to go without saying that we had high standards of behavior and high standards in school.

However, today, low standards have contributed to a pattern in which all children — even children from financially stable, educated families — find themselves bored, wondering why they are in school.

Standards are important because they give us tools with which to measure academic achievement. If we don’t measure, we don’t know how we’re doing and if we don’t know how we’re doing, we can’t correct problems, and, consequently, we can’t progress in math, reading, history, geography, or civics. Fewer than 35% of American fourth-grade students are proficient in those subjects. We should be aiming for 80 to 90% proficiency and we shouldn’t stop until we reach 100%.

In a recent survey by Public Agenda, 63% of employers stated that a high school diploma is not a guarantee that students have mastered the basics. It sends a significant message that close to two-thirds of employers, the recipients of the high school graduates, do not believe that a high school diploma is a barometer of whether that individual is adequately educated.

Ten years ago, we didn’t have the evidence we have today that lack of standards are the cause of low performance. And many of those who have attempted to make strides toward high academic standards have been rebuffed. For example, when the Los Angeles Unified School District announced an end to social promotion, they discovered that roughly 50% of their students would have to be held back. Unfortunately, nothing was done to help educate those children and, at the end of the year, they had too many failing students. The schools retreated and held back only a small percentage of the worst students by applying an extremely low standard.

The good news is that due to the crisis in which we find our educational system, many people are now talking about issues such as teacher quality and curriculum content. For example, California State Board of Education member Marion Joseph — a self-described liberal Democrat — is pushing phonics and back-to-basics math. Because states like California, Virginia, and others have adopted standards that require schools to implement better curric-ula, we may see ourselves turning the corner slowly but surely over the next several years.

Cheri P. Yecke
Deputy Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia
The Standards of Learning (SOL) program in Virginia has come under heavy fire from critics who resist doing the hard work of reforming our state’s schools.

One impetus for the SOL program was a state report showing that 26% of public high school graduates in Virginia required remedial course work in college, in both two- and four-year institutions. Another wake-up call came in 1994 when Virginia was found to be the only state that showed a statistically significant decline in fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. In trying to trace the origins of that decline, we learned that in 1989, the year these fourth graders started kindergarten, all phonics-based reading textbooks were removed from the state-approved list. We saw a pretty clear cause and effect.

We’ve been attacked for holding schools accountable through annual testing, so I want to address that for a moment. The new standards were approved in 1995 but the testing was not scheduled to begin until 1998, giving schools adequate time to align their curriculum with the new standards. But, we had a gubernatorial election in the fall of 1997. Several school districts expected the Democratic candidate to be elected, and assumed that the standards would be thrown to the wayside. They sat back and waited rather than begin their transition. Consequently, when their kids performed poorly on the first tests given in Spring 1998, they blamed the tests, not their own procrastination.

Despite a national trend of a widening gap between certain groups of children, we’re beginning to close the gap between black and white children in Virginia. The increases in the scores of black children are phenomenal and have outpaced the increases in the performance of white children.

Challenges remain, but a sign of hope is that we now have educators coming to Virginia specifically to be a part of what we?re doing. Superintendent Allen Lee in Washington County said, ?I came to Virginia two years ago to be a part of a strong system of public education. You may not realize it but it?s true.? Educators across the country look to Virginia as the best example of public education in grades K-12. What you are doing in Virginia is unique. I wanted to be a part of this movement.?

Good things are happening now and we’re continuing the uphill battle for our children.

Anne D. Neal
Vice President and General Counsel, American Council of Trustees and Alumni
There is a widespread assumption that most citizens, at least college graduates and particularly those from the leading institutions, have a basic understanding of their country’s founding and history.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni decided to put this assumption to the test. The result was a report titled, Losing America’s Memory. We found that:

  • Of the seniors at the top 55 colleges and universities in the United States, 81% received a D or an F on a 34-question high school level history test.

  • More than one-third of the students did not know that the Constitution established the division of power in American government.

  • An amazing 40% could not identify the correct 50-year time period in which the Civil War was fought.

  • Only 23% could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.

  • Even fewer, 22% of the college students, were able to identify “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as part of the Gettysburg Address.

  • Only 34% of the students surveyed could identify George Washington as the general at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution; 37% thought it was Ulysses Grant.

  • When asked to identify who said, “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country,” 23% said it was John F. Kennedy. Only 40% reported correctly that Nathan Hale spoke these words.

What do these students know? They get an A+ in popular culture. A remarkable 99% correctly identified Beavis and Butt-head and 98% correctly identified Snoop Doggy Dog. In fact, these were the two best results in the entire test. Remember that these were questions drawn from a basic high school curriculum and many of these questions were used in previous NAEP tests given to high school juniors.

We went on to look at the colleges and universities to see what history classes they were requiring. We were profoundly shocked. All of the top 55 colleges and universities required no American history, and 78% of those top-ranked colleges had no history requirement at all.

Shortly after our report was issued, we received a call from the National Park Service. They were seeking our help because they were finding, much as we had in the universities, that people in the parks were lacking a context for the historic sites across this country. It goes without saying that if the majority of our students don’t know and don’t care about James Madison, they’re unlikely to care about going to Montpelier.

Thomas Jefferson was very clear on this point, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Candace de Russy
Trustee, State University of New York
My interest here is the worm at the core of this failure. One very bad idea, collectivism, has been eroding American education for generations. By collectivism I mean that age-old urge to force the individual to conform to the group in the name of creating paradise on earth — paradise, of course, as conceived and controlled by the collectivists themselves.

Now within our schools and teacher education colleges, collectivism appears in the guise of so-called “progressive” education. In her recent book, Left Back, education historian Diane Ravitch shows how progressive methods of instruction — such as whole language learning and new math — neglect academic learning and have thus devastated basic literacy and numeracy. Jean Chall, another education critic, quantifies how these same peda-gogies have lowered achievement rates, especially those of disadvantaged minority students.  

To counter progressive education and its ill effects, it is useful, first, to recall its flawed collectivist origins and, secondly, to be aware of its absolutely loony current incarnations.

Progressive education is the superficially appealing creation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He loftily proclaimed his romantic belief in childhood innocence, in liberating the child from the yoke of custom and tradition, in free and open “natural” education instead of intellectual discipline, and in learning from “experience” rather than from books.

Rousseau’s American descendants have replicated this very same pattern. They encourage students to reject traditional culture and subordinate individual academic development and autonomy to grandiose social ends. They are forever “re-inventing” — or, to use Senator Hillary Clinton’s word, “re-imagining” — education.

The more radically collectivist of today’s progressive educators continue to expunge traditional knowledge from the curriculum and to encourage students to reject traditional institutions, such as the nuclear family and Judeo-Christian religion. Holding forth the vision of a perfect multicultural, global society, these educators make children act as parts of collectives.

Here are a few recent, more egregious examples:

  • Since most children cannot read Shakespeare, one typical “hands-on” English assignment required team building a model of the Globe Theatre.

  • As part of “group conflict resolution,” mostly minority seventh graders in Manhattan recently were given a “child-centered” spelling test on words like “gang-banging,” “homicide,” “child abuse,” and “neglect,” and the list went on. They were also given extra credit for correctly spelling the name of their favorite rapper.

  • Without being given background in the meaning of civil rights, a second-grade class teamed up for skits based on subjects like school desegregation and the Million Man March.

The only antidote to a bad idea is, of course, a good idea of equal force. Need I add that a great deal more — including human liberty — depends on such a shift of ideas? As the great historians of decline knew well, bad ideas have a way of dragging civilization back down into the mud, and good ideas, like wings, lift it toward the light.