Standards-Based Education

by Joseph G.Rosenstein

Professor of Mathematics, Rutgers University
Director, New Jersey Mathematics Coalition

"You have to know where you're going before you figure out how you're going to get there"! This simple advice was the basic thrust of Colorado Governor Roy Romer's keynote address to the February 9-11 education conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation on the theme "Beyond National Standards and Goals: Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education K-16."

Although the context of Governor Romer's remarks was mathematics and science education, his advice applies, of course, to education in general. In discussing our educational system as a whole, or the curriculum of an individual school, we have at present no good way of evaluating how we're doing, since as a society we have no clear idea of what we value.

"Standards-based education" requires us to develop a vision of what we value, articulate that vision in clear statements of what we want to accomplish (called "standards"), and then figure out how we get there. With a goal and a plan in place, we will be able to assess how we're doing and take corrective action as necessary.

Why are standards needed, and why now? This question was addressed in a companion keynote address by economist Ray Marshall, formerly Secretary of Labor, and presently Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas. The economic success of the United States in the first half of this century was based to a large extent on mass-production, as exemplified by the automobile industry. Assembly-line workers did not need to know how to think in order to do their jobs -- that was left to the managers; at best, they needed to be literate in order to read their instructions. Our educational model has been a two-tier system, with the "Three R's" for the many and thinking for an elite.

That model, Marshall argues, doesn't work anymore because of the emergence of technology, which renders obsolete many mindless occupations, and the globalization of the economy, which forces us to compete in unfamiliar areas. In response to this challenge to be competitive, we may either increase productivity or decrease wages; Marshall notes that by failing to develop a strategic plan to increase productivity we have "backed into" the lower-wages solution, the results of which are increasingly evident.

The key to increased productivity is quality education, since the investment which yields the greatest return is investment in human resources, a theme echoed by President Clinton. And quality education requires a commitment to high standards.

Standards-based education has now become a major direction in education as the result of the success of the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) between 1985 and 1989. While the implementation of the NCTM Standards has only just begun, the document has clearly served as a rallying point (another meaning of "standard") for those seeking to improve mathematics education.

The response to the NCTM Standards has been very positive. It was endorsed by the National Governors Association, now chaired by Gov. Romer and previously by Gov. Bill Clinton, and was supported by former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, former Governor of Tennessee. A major project is now underway to develop science standards by the end of 1994 (under the leadership of the National Academy of Sciences), and other content areas are not far behind.

Quality education, based on high standards, must be provided to all students. The NCTM Standards asserts that all students can learn and do mathematics. In other countries, children are successful with mathematics; our children can enjoy the same success. In a recent study, the students at the best of 20 Minneapolis schools were on a par with those at the worst of 40 schools in Taiwan and Japan. Parents in other countries believe uniformly that the key to learning mathematics is persistence and hard work; only in this country do many believe that the key to success in mathematics is innate talent. The commitment of the mathematics community is to all students, as exemplified by the "Math 4 All" logo of the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition. Developing high standards for all students, world-class standards which will enable us to compete with world-class economies, is a major challenge for those committed to education.

In New Jersey, the Department of Education has established panels which are working to articulate a vision and develop content standards in eight different areas. In addition, the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition together with the Department of Education have obtained a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to permit us to translate the "where do we want to go?" of the standards into the "how do we get there?" that will follow. The project involves developing a mathematics curriculum framework and working with schools on implementing the framework.

Readers are invited to share with the Coalition their responses to "Where do we want to go?" More concretely, we seek your responses to the following question: "What do we want our high school graduates to know and be able to do in mathematics and science, so that they may succeed in careers and in college, as citizens and as consumers?" Let us hear from you! Our address is NJMC, P.O. Box 10867, New Brunswick, NJ 08906; responses dealing with other content areas will be forwarded to the appropriate panels.

(This article appeared in the Star Ledger in March 1993.)