CHEVY CHASE, MD. — Alone among advanced nations, America has no explicit national educational standards.
Our uniqueness stems from the country's nearly mythic attachment to "local control." Deeply embedded in the American experience, the Constitution's 10th Amendment--the "reserve powers clause"--specifically reserves to the states any powers not expressly given to the national government: Education is a case in point.
That is why California's landmark 1976 Serrano decision, which mandated equal funding for all students, was decided on state rather than federal constitutional grounds, and why federal education programs are "conditional." States and localities are free to accept or reject federal money. The price of the gift, however, is compliance with federal standards--no program, no money. Uncle Sam can't require states to withhold driver's licenses to students who drop out, except by threatening to withhold highway funds.
As powerful as law is custom: Americans have controlled schools locally for two centuries, and most people think it is a good idea.
But do these old ways make sense in the closing decade of the 20th Century? Can we have a vigorous economy--and a functioning democracy--if levels of educational attainment are inconsistent and variable across the country?
With such conditions the United States is virtually alone in the developed world. From France to Japan to the Soviet Union to Britain, we are confronted by countries that have decided their futures can only be secured with national educational standards. What does this mean for America as we look to an increasingly competitive, global economy?
Six years after the release of "A Nation at Risk," the stinging report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the question of national standards for the United States is finally being taken seriously.
The Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress are national tests that produce the "nation's report card." And make no mistake, tests determine curriculum. Overseen by a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon panel, the National Assessment is meeting its responsibilities quietly and well.
At the state level, more and more governments are establishing and imposing standards on their schools, describing and defining what it is students should know as a condition of graduation. California is in the forefront of this movement.
But an "education president" notwithstanding, school reform has moved at a glacial pace. And while we have been prevaricating, the Europeans have been getting the jump on us.
1992, when members of the Europe Economic Community remove national trade barriers and create an economic superpower, is not far off, and one of the most important signs is unfolding in Brussels--not the European Parliament, but the European Round Table of Industrialists. It recently published "Education and European Competence."
Not only is the document without precedent in Europe, so is its source, a genuinely pan-European organization. And the industrialist members are committed to an integrated Europe. Not surprisingly, such a vision goes beyond central banks and border checkpoints. It involves the essence of modern economies: the work force, and the skills possessed--or not possessed.
In this, the European industrialists have taken some pages from the American book, through the work of the American Committee for Economic Development, the Business Roundtable and the National Alliance of Business. First, they meet not as industry representatives but as chief executive officers concerned about the future of Europe. And like their American counterparts, they think education is the top domestic priority.
Second, they recognize that if there is to be a new Europe after 1992, there must be education for Europeans--not Frenchmen, Germans or Belgians, but Europeans. At a national level, it is not a novel idea. Without exception, government-supported education--including compulsory attendance--was a part of 19th-Century nation-building. Schools provided a national glue, creating Frenchmen, Englishmen or Americans.
Not surprisingly, the issue was cast in terms of language as well as curriculum: French in France, German in Germany, English in Britain. It was the same in the United States: Noah Webster's "American Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1828, was explicitly designed as a tool of nation-building. American usage--"labor" rather than "labour"--distinguished us from the English, and Webster was proud of it.
And while we tend to think of modern schooling in less chauvinistic terms, the underlying idea is still correct. E.D. Hirsch's book "Cultural Literacy" makes the point that as a nation we need a common vocabulary, shared knowledge that makes it possible for us to communicate with one another.