Standards for School Science and Mathematics: Background, Purposes, Goals, Principles
Lynn Arthur Steen, St. Olaf College
A "sidebar" on background of the standards movement in science and mathematics education prepared for the National Science Foundation's "Indicators" study for 1995. Appeared in 1994 Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1995, pp. 38-39.
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In contrast to other nations, the U.S. has always favored local over national control of education. But by 1983, mounting evidence of failures of U.S. education moved the authors of A Nation at Risk to recommend strengthened requirements, rigorous standards, and higher expectations for all students. This bold challenge to a complacent nation was followed by a drumbeat of headlines citing poor performance of U.S. students on international educational comparisons, especially in science and mathematics.

By 1989 rising public disillusionment with U.S. education led President George Bush to call an extraordinary meeting of the nation's Governors, then led by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, to set national goals for education. Among the goals adopted at this meeting are two that lay the foundation for national curriculum standards: Goal 3 urges that all students demonstrate competency in challenging subjects including English, history, science, mathematics, and geography, while Goal 4 declares that by the year 2000 the U.S. should be first in the world in mathematics and science education. Four years later Congress wrote these goals into legislation.

Independently, but also in response to A Nation at Risk, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics began to develop the nation's first educational standards. These voluntary standards were the product not of the federal government, but of a multi-year consensus-building effort led by the nation's mathematics teachers and mathematicians. The authority of these standards rests not on governmental mandate, but on the evidence and logic invoked by the standards themselves. Published in 1989, the NCTM Standards quickly became the nation's premier example of educational "standards"--a set of public expectations, rooted in research and practice, that are intended to raise the academic achievement of all students.

Since 1989 the nation has embarked on a standards-setting process in many subjects. Draft standards and benchmarks for science education have now joined those in mathematics. As the movement towards national standards gains momentum, it has taken on many different forms and often serves quite different purposes. Depending on the context, educational standards can offer:

    • A vision of learning and teaching to guide educators at all levels;

    • A yardstick to measure the quality of educational programs;

    • A strategy to promote equality of educational opportunity;

    • A symbol of what society values in educational accomplishment;

    • A tool to enhance public accountability of the educational system;

    • A concrete expression of national goals for which all can strive;

    • A banner around which educators, parents, and politicians can rally;

    • A public statement of support for exemplary practice.

By creating a shared vision of educational excellence, standards can bring coherence and consistency to the many separate components of the educational system--to schools and colleges, to publishers and test-makers, to teachers and administrators. By giving public expression to educational expectations, standards can enlist students, teachers, and parents in support for a compelling vision of educational excellence. In this way, standards can express expectations, communicate goals, and facilitate reform.

As standards serve many different purposes, so they also come in many different forms. Different standards documents may include:

    Assessment Standards: How to monitor performance of students and programs.

    Content Standards: What students should know and be able to do.

    Curriculum Standards: What students should learn and how they should learn it

    Delivery Standards: What schools must provide in order that students can learn.

    Evaluation Standards: How to measure what students know and can do.

    Opportunity-to-Learn Standards: What is necessary to enable students to learn.

    Performance Standards: How much students should know and be able to do.

    Professional Development Standards: What support teachers need to be effective.

    Program Standards: What departments must provide for learning to take place.

    Skills Standards: What must be mastered as a prerequisite for specific jobs.

    System Standards: How the components of a school system must work together.

    Teaching Standards: How teachers are expected to perform as professionals.

Among the many different subject matter standards, those in science and mathematics bear a special burden concerning the goal of achieving equity in educational achievement. Historically, science and mathematics education has served more as a filter than as a pump in the nation's educational system. Both public and professional attitudes reinforce this "elitist" view of science and mathematics by emphasizing talent over effort as the essential predictor of success.

National standards reverse this elitist perspective by stressing the importance of science and mathematics for all. These standards offer a coherent vision of science and mathematics education that provides literacy sufficient for citizenship and competency sufficient for life and work in a technological age. With such standards available for public review and discussion, everyone--especially students, parents, teachers, and administrators--will know what is expected. These expectations flow from a set of goals on which there is now broad consensus:

  • That all students should be expected to attain high levels of scientific and mathematical competency.

  • That students should learn science and mathematics as active processes focused on a limited number of powerful concepts.

  • That science and mathematics in the school should reflect science and mathematics in practice--as an activity rich in connections, exploration, and inquiry.

  • That curricula should stress understanding, reasoning, and problem-solving rather than memorization of facts, terminology, and algorithms.

  • That teachers should engage students in meaningful activities that regularly employ calculators, computers, and other tools in an appropriate manner.

  • That assessment should be an integral part of instruction and that tests should measure what is most important for students to learn.

  • That teachers need both a deep understanding of subject matter and opportunity to learn to teach in a manner that reflects research on how students learn.

  • That the educational system must recognize that teaching is a complex activity that requires on-going support for classroom teachers.

Copyright © 1994. Contact: Lynn A. Steen URL: