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Cathy Duffy
The Education Standards Movement Spells Trouble for Private and Home Schools

By Cathy Duffy
A Homeschool World exclusive!

Cathy Duffy is one of the best-known and most respected names in homeschooling. She is the author of the Christian Home Educators' Curriculum Manual and Government Nannies and a frequent convention speaker. To visit her web site, click on her name above.


The Standards/Testing Movement

States have been forced by federal legislation to participate in the standards movement - developing lists of skills and content required at each grade level. The weapon of enforcement is testing. New tests are being developed that reflect the content of the standards. These tests are supposed to judge student mastery of what is actually being taught rather than the general competence measured by standardized tests of the past. If students are or are not learning (as shown by test scores), schools and teachers are rewarded or penalized. There are two underlying assumptions: that every child is capable of learning the identical information at the same time as every other child, and that all the standards selected by each state are academically sound and worthwhile. If children were programmable robots, the first might be possible. If politics and public pressure played no role in the standards, the second might be possible. The experiences of the left-leaning Coalition for Educational Justice and the right-leaning Kansas State School Board demonstrate the fallout from these two false assumptions.

Leftist Group Decries Standards

On May 8, 2001, the left-leaning Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) orchestrated a demonstration against the Los Angeles School Board's use of the Stanford 9 test, labeling it a racist test. They also protested the use of high-stakes testing to dole out monetary rewards and punishments. The basis of CEJ's arguments is that biased tests and unequal school funding are the cause of low test scores among schools serving low-income students of color. Thus, they stand strongly opposed to the increasing use of test scores for determining what schools and teachers get extra money and which lose funding or get taken over by the state. [Coalition for Educational Justice (May 8, 2001). [press release] "At the Height of Stanford 9 Testing, CEJ Demands 'End the Racist Tests! City Schools Deserve the Best!'" May 31, 2001 - http://www.fairtest.org/arn/Calif-pr.html

"Right Wing" School Board Members Cause Brouhaha by Change in Standards

In Kansas, school board members were labeled right-wing radicals in 1999 when they voted to NOT include questions on macro-evolution in state tests. [footnote: Macro-evolution means one species changing into another species; micro-evolution means adaptations or changes within species.] Teachers were not forbidden to teach macro-evolution, but it wouldn't be included in a standards-based test. Evolutionists viewed the decision as a challenge to the very fundamentals of science education. Adrian Melott, a University of Kansas physics professor told the board, "I see this as an attack on science in general, not just biology." [Beem, K. (1999, April 11). Evolution vs. Biblical creation: The conflict continues. Kansas City Star. http://www.kcstar.com/item/pages/home.pat,local/30dae5e2.411,.html

CEJ and the Kansas School Board members appear to have little in common on the surface. But their respective battles over testing and standards are merely the tip of the iceberg, illustrating just a few of the problems stemming from school reform efforts centered around development of national standards and high-stakes testing. Problems for private and homeschools promise to be even worse.

Control of Private School Curricula

While the standards and testing movement is certain to create enemies from across the political spectrum from far left to far right, it poses the most serious threat to private schools who wish to pursue their own "standards" based on philosophical outlooks and values that differ from that which buttress the standards/testing movement. For example, classical education is the latest movement in private schooling. Many new classical schools have opened in recent years. Their courses of study usually differ dramatically from those of government schools. High school students study works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Keynes, Marx, and other influential thinkers rather than reading through typical textbooks. They study Latin, logic, and debate. They don't take classes in Conflict Resolution, Sex Education, or Cultural Awareness. They are not well prepared to pass tests that assume all students are being taught the same things, but they seem to be better educated than the average government school graduate.

The danger of undermining such private schools with government testing and standards mandates has gone largely unremarked because most families enroll their children in government schools and have little or no interaction with any private schools. However, private schools - a category which includes homeschools and religiously-affiliated schools up through very prestigious prep schools - are valuable not only to those whose children attend such schools, but to the public at large, even though they are largely unaware of this. Why? For one thing, because private schools pose a continual challenge to government-financed schooling. They offer a "product" that is perceived to be significantly different enough from the "free" public schools that many parents make the necessary sacrifices so that their children might attend. Whether those differences are academic, social, religious, ethical, emotion, or physical, many parents pay twice through taxes and tuition for their children to get "a better education."

Such parents seem to believe they are getting value for their money or they wouldn't continue to pay, but the rest of the country also benefits from the competition posed by this alternate "system" of private schools. Yes, it reflects poorly upon a government school when a private school in the same geographic area, serving a similar socio-economic group, produces better-educated graduates, a safer environment, or other temptations for parents to defect to the private school. And this might force some government schools to do a better job than they might without any competition. But the real value of private schools lies in their ability to teach what they believe to be right or best without dictates from the government. They are free to develop a more-challenging or alternative curriculum, then let the marketplace decide whether or not they are successful. If they do a good job, they will have students.

It should surprise no one that innovation and creativity is much more common in private schools than government schools. In fact, the most-private schools - homeschools - are the most innovative of all. Why else would so many online education providers first target homeschool students? They understand the openness and flexibility of parents who constantly look for the best methods of providing education for their own children. Homeschoolers can pick and choose from among the wide world of options: traditional texts, programmed learning, student-initiated projects, video courses, computer programs, tutors, group classes, and online learning.

Because of this, homeschools operate as a laboratory for the development of new and unusual content and delivery methods in ways that traditional private schools cannot. And the evidence is clear that homeschooling is producing both academic and personal excellence. As more and more homeschoolers have gone on to college, they have done so well that college recruiters across the country actively court homeschoolers to attend their institutions.

Redefining Education as Vocational Training

The standards/testing movement has the potential to cripple private schooling by constraining it within its own narrow boundaries. Those boundaries are the result of Goals 2000 and School-to-Work (STW) legislation passed in 1994, coupled with other, older efforts from the Departments of Labor and Education to redefine education as "training for the workforce." Documents such as Learning a Living, published by the Department of Labor in 1992, have explained the economic necessity of preparing students to compete in the global economy of the 21st century as the justification for educational restructuring. Goals 2000 and STW allowed the federal government to dictate restructuring requirements to the states.

Floretta Dukes McKenzie helps us understand the thinking behind the "school as training" agenda. McKenzie voices support for this view of education in a book published by the NEA spinoff organization, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Notice McKenzie's emphasis on economic competition, "marketable skills," and workers as the primary focus of education "equity." She tells us,

Educators and policymakers must join forces with other government agencies to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. This gap threatens the safety of our cities today, as well as the economic survival of our society into the next century.... From a purely economic point of view, failure to pursue educational equity for minority youth is a form of slow suicide. The internationalization of the economy will require an increasing economic competitiveness. ...We must transcend the common practices of focusing on basic skills and marketable skills for minority students without providing the thinking and learning skills that will help them adapt to the 21st-century career environment. The continued development and use of leading-edge technology will require a high-quality work force. On a more selfish note, the next generation of workers will require three workers to support each person on Social security.... today's older workers must maximize the learning skills and, therefore, the earning skills of tomorrow's minority workers, on whom they will rely for their retirement incomes. [McKenzie, F.D. (1993.). Equity: A Call to action. In Challenges and Achievements of American Education, Cawelti, G. (Ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp. 9, 12-13.]

While McKenzie is on the right track with her recognition of the need for improved "thinking and learning skills," she and others seem to view the purpose only as success in the workforce. Postman labels this educational outlook as "Economic Utility" in his book The End of Education: "If you pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done. Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community."[ Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education. New York: Vintage Books, p. 27.]

Contrast this view of "education solely as job preparation" with the idea of "liberal" (in the classical sense) education as described by Great Books Academy - a new online classical school: "Liberal education is ordered toward making the student a free and happy individual. This freedom and happiness arises within the student as he is freed from ignorance and becomes better equipped to recognize the truth and beauty of the world around him. And it is truth which in turn leads him to freedom and happiness" ["Liberal Arts and Liberal Education versus Liberalism." (2000, Summer). Classical Homeschooling. Morton, WA. p. 31.]

A liberal education, as traditionally understood, was designed to produce a wise young adult with a wide breadth of tools for learning and evaluating any new situation or task - the very result politicians and educators have been clamoring for. These "tools of learning" are accompanied in a liberal education by a solid grounding in the great thinkers and events of the past. A student so educated is capable of holding a wide variety of jobs - whatever his innate talents and desires draw him to - not just one that is chosen for him by state planners. However, the most important part of such an education, once the basic tools of learning are mastered, is the student's growth in understanding - a quality that can only be measured through ongoing interaction with wise teachers and mentors.

The effect of the theory of economic utility in education is to transform it into a commodity that can be easily measured, tracked, and quantified and that requires no special wisdom or insight to administer. That transformation happens as reformers come up with specific, measurable educational objectives relating to their goals; write curricula that teaches each one of those objectives; then create tests that measure student mastery of each objective - the economic utility style reform we have come to label as the "standards movement."

Broad Support for Standards

Across the political spectrum, almost everyone from President George W. Bush to Senator Edward Kennedy supports the push for national standards and the testing necessary to support the standards. [Kennedy, E.M. (1997, September 4). Statement of Senator Edward M. Kennedy for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on voluntary national tests in education. http://www.senate.gov/~kennedy/statements/970904edtesting.html Governor Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts echoes the widespread support President Bush has garnered by making this a top priority in the early days of his administration: "President Bush's decision to tackle the difficult problems of education as the first initiative of his new Administration is good news for America's families. The President has made it clear that comprehensive education reform must start by insisting upon high standards and strengthening accountability for student performance." [Republican Governors Back Bush Education Plan. (2001, January 23). Press release issued by the Republican National Committee. See http://www.rnc.org/newsroom1/0124_104.htm

Educational historian and former Department of Education official Diane Ravitch joins the chorus of approval: "...standards are essential both for excellence and equal opportunity." Ravitch, President Bush, and many others recognize that national education standards are pointless without testing as an enforcement mechanism. If it isn't tested, it won't be taught. Consequently, Ravitch and other standards advocates call for either the expanded use of the federally-funded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test or state tests aligned with and calibrated to the NAEP standards. [Ravitch, D. (1996, Summer). 50 states, 50 standards. The Brookings Review, 14 (3). http://www.brook.edu/press/review/ravsu96.htm on April 9, 2001; Ravitch, D. (1999, winter). Retrieved from Student performance: The national agenda in education. The Brookings Review. See http://www.brook.edu/es/research/areas/edu/standards.htm

The new tests must be what are called "high-stakes tests" (you lose a lot if you fail to pass), otherwise the national standards won't have any influence. At present, states use a variety of tests. Some use the familiar standardized tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the SAT 9. Many states have developed or are in the process of developing their own exams such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and California's Golden State Exams. While the older standardized tests measure general academic knowledge and skills, the new tests are aligned directly with each state's standards or framework that measure whether or not students at each grade level have mastered very prescriptive lists of content and skills.

Problems arise because, thus far, the standards and tests created by various states are not identical. States differ in what they believe is important for students to learn, although not by much. The National Education Goals Panel, which was created by Goals 2000, set up Technical Planning Groups to work out the details of Goals 2000. One of these groups concluded, "there can logically be only one set of national education standards per subject area." [Goals 3 and 4 Technical Planning Group on the Review of Education Standards. (1993, November 15). Promises to Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students, pp. 11, 15-16.]

Standards Conflicts

Groups of subject matter experts have formed around the country to try to come up with a single set of national standards for each subject that will be accepted nationwide. However, many people began to realize how challenging, and perhaps impossible, this might be with the presentation of national history standards in 1994. The seemingly simple choice of what historical information to include or not to include was recognized to be a powerful determiner of attitudes and values for children. Fans of western civilization felt betrayed when European history and classic American heroes such as George Washington and Patrick Henry, whose lives clearly shaped American history, were demoted in favor of a more multicultural approach that allotted space to less influential heroes representative of minorities and other cultures. [Morris, J. (1998, March-April). How not to set national history standards. Civreviews, 2, (2). See http://www.civnet.org/journal/issue6/revjmorr.htm

The Kansas State School Board conflict was actually more important than most people realize because it demonstrated the hollowness of claims that the educational standards were merely voluntary guidelines that would not control the curriculum. Teachers were not forbidden to teach macro-evolution, but that topic wouldn't be included in a standards-based test. Yet, many understood that what was on the tests is what would get taught in the classroom and vice versa. Pro-evolution forces marshaled their armies and waged a successful campaign to unseat conservative board members in February, 2001. New, pro-macro-evolution board members promptly voted to revise the standards so they are now in alignment with the national standards from the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS standards are based upon five "unifying concepts" or "cornerstones of science" - one of which is "evolution and equilibrium." [Beem, K. (1999, April 11). Evolution vs. Biblical creation: The conflict continues. Kansas City Star. Retrieved from http://www.kcstar.com/item/pages/home.pat,local/30dae5e2.411,.html

The end result for Kansas is the same as the more-peacefully achieved results in most other states. National standards for each subject are being used as the basis for state standards, resulting in a high degree of similarity in the curriculum from state to state. This is a highly desirable goal for backers of national standards and testing since one of their objectives is easy comparability from state to state.

High-Stakes Testing

Rewards and punishments play a crucial role in the push for national standards. To make sure school personnel understand the importance of teaching the new standards, many states have instituted "high-stakes tests" with rewards and punishments meted out to school personnel in relation to student scores. At present, 41 states already have high-stakes testing. Increasingly, states are tying improved test scores to cash bonuses (up to $25,000 per teacher in California) and positive job evaluations for both teachers and principals. As an important side note, cheating incidents among educators have risen dramatically with implementation of high-stakes testing. [Harrington-Lueker, D. (2000, December). When Educators Cheat. AASA School Administrator. http://www.aasa.org/publications/sa/2000_12/harrington-lueker.htm

Implementing high-stakes tests creates pressure for state standards, since these tests do not currently line up with the existing curriculum and standards. Earl H. Wiman, principal of Alexander Elementary School in Jackson, Tennessee, echoes a typical complaint that "the test does not reflect the state's academic standards closely enough to help focus instruction. If we're going to hold schools accountable, we need to very clearly identify for teachers and schools what needs to be taught, and we need to very clearly identify for teachers how that's going to be tested." [Olson, L, (2001, February 21). Usefulness of annual testing varies by state. Education Week, XX (23), 1, 22-23.]

Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, has heard such complaints. In an interview, she comments, "The issue before was, how the heck do you make sure that state standards and state tests are good enough in order to make these rewards and impose these consequences?" She believes that President Bush's education proposal has the answer. "Mr. Bush has proposed verifying state test-score gains by comparing them with NAEP results." If state exams results are substantiated by similar results on the NAEP, this would be a good indicator. However, the comparison cannot even be made in many states because they either do not participate in NAEP testing or too few schools participate to give representative scores for comparison. Thus, for Bush's plan to work, more states would have to participate in the NAEP. [Olson, L. (2001, January 31). "Few states are now in line with Bush testing plan. Education Week, XX (20), pp. 1, 25.]

Whether the Bush administration will choose to expand the NAEP or, instead, opt for NAEP-equivalent questions imbedded in states exams remains to be seen. If the "standards" trend continues, the result will be the same either way. Testing programs will expand, and the federal role will become much more significant. States that are not yet closely aligned with national standards and tests will be brought into alignment one way or another.

Clashing Worldviews

As the standards and tests are being implemented, it becomes increasingly clear that the standards will not easily accommodate those who would have their children learn a Christian worldview or any other worldview that does not align with the dominant secular materialist worldview reflected in the standards. Neutrality isn't an option. Education has an undeniable cultural/philosophic/religious aspect that is transmitted whether purposely or not. Historians Eby and Arrowood tell us, "Education is more than the acquisition of a certain body of knowledge; it comprehends the transmission to the younger generation of the entire culture of a people. Now the culture of a people involves an ideal of character and of religious faith, a system of behavior, together with some theory of the universe, however simple it may be." [Eby, F. & Arrowwood, C. F. (1940). The History and Philosophy of Education Ancient and Modern. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., p. 589.]

The late R. J. Rushdoony wrote even more explicitly: "Not only does education find its foundation in religion, but the educational curriculum expresses the religious standards and expectations of a culture." [Rushdoony, R. J. (1981). The Philosphy of the Christian Curriculum. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, p.4.] This holds true even if the religious foundations are non-theistic. For example, "statism" was the religion of the Soviet Union, so its educational system clearly reflected the state's beliefs, philosophy, historical interpretations, and goals. Under that system, profesing Christians were typically shut out from college admissions, and hence from all but menial jobs, since they did not adhere to the state's philosophy and goals - its "standards."

Can We Work Around the Standards?

Some people suggest that private and home schools can work around the standards by first teaching the required content, then adding worldview-focused curricula to the mix. Others suggest ignoring the standards but providing students with a solid liberal arts education with the expectation that they will then be intelligent enough to "outsmart" the tests.

Unfortunately, neither solution is realistic. Teachers increasingly complain that school days are consumed with teaching to the standards and preparing for tests. The standards have become so extensive and detailed that teachers have no extra time to teach beyond them. [Stoskopf, A. (2000, February 2). Clio's Lament. Education Week, XIX, (21), 38-41.] Homeschoolers might be able to manage the time to do both, but I suspect that most parents would see the hypocrisy and waste in teaching material that supports conflicting worldviews.

Testing is likely to become more and more problematical. If private schools and homeschools try to ignore the standards and implement a classical liberal education (or any other alternative curricular agenda), their students might test poorly as tests become more and more narrowly focused on details dictated by the standards that would be unlikely parts of their educational program.

As the standards movement gathers steam, pressure will be exerted upon private schools and home schools to adhere to the same standards and tests as government schools.

Exit exams (tests students must pass before graduating from high school) might well have the strongest impact. Twenty-four states have exit exams in place or in the planning process thus far. Students in government schools must pass these tests to earn a high school diploma. [Olson, L. (2001, January 24). States adjust high-stakes testing plans. Education Week, XX (19), pp. 1, 18-19.]

Could "Standards" Be Forced on Homeschoolers?

Early in 2001, the Maine legislature introduced legislation (LD 405) requiring homeschoolers to take the state's Maine Educational Assessment exam. Although this legislative effort failed, it demonstrates that it is not a farfetched concern for homeschoolers in general. [HSLDA News Release. (2001, February 16). Home School Legal Defense Association, Purcellville, VA. ] Also, as colleges and universities explore linkage of college entry to student scores on standards-based tests and exit exams, it is likely that they will come to expect private and home school students to pass the same tests just as they now take the same SAT I, SAT II, and ACT exams as public school students for college entry exams.

Private and home schools that choose to teach a significantly different curriculum will be faced with choices of sacrificing their own agenda so their students can achieve high test scores, accepting the risk of low student scores, or fighting for alternative evaluation.

What We Must Do

We might be able to avoid these dismal alternatives if we can keep private and home education free from the standards movement. That means:

  • resisting or getting rid of state and/or federal laws that require home educators to take standards-based tests
  • encouraging colleges and universities to rely on evaluation tools other than standards-based test results
  • not enrolling our children in government-sponsored homeschool programs (which will all use standards-based tests)
  • educating others about the dangers of the standards movement.
  • clearly identifying our own educational goals and diligently working to accomplish them

Only if we resist government-imposed standards will we be free to develop our own standards of education that reflect God's purposes for our own families.


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Cathy Duffy is one of the best-known and most respected names in homeschooling. She is the author of the Christian Home Educators' Curriculum Manual and Government Nannies and a frequent convention speaker.

Article Copyright ©2001 Cathy Duffy. All rights reserved.

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