National Standards in Education

National Standards in Education

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about American education standards. Written for HIS 324: History of American Education.


National Standards in Education



          Since the beginning of our country, there has been a struggle between those who would have education controlled by a national government and those who believed that education should be controlled on a local or, at most, by each state.  This conflict continues today as the United States government seeks to impose national academic standards on education and opponents of national standards argue that “[t]he absence of any specific mention of education [in the U.S. Constitution], coupled with the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, renders education a state function” (Guthrie, 2010, para. 3).  Although it is true that the U.S. Constitution, in containing no specific provision for education, gives control of education to the states by default, the challenges of the current global community demand that American education become standardized so that the United States may be able to keep up and compete with the other advanced nations of the world.  An examination of recent reports on American education will support the claim that the time has come for the adoption of national educational standards, and that the majority of Americans agree with this view.

          The U.S. Constitution is the ultimate law in the United  States, and it defines what may and may not be legislated by the federal government.  In so doing, it also limits the power of the federal government to enact national legislation in any area not specifically designated as the province of the federal government.  Over the course of America’s history, the Constitution has been amended numerous times to add national laws that were not foreseen by the framers of the Constitution.  In this way, freedom of speech was guaranteed to all citizens, along with the freedom of religion, and the freedom from illegal search and seizure.  Later amendments provided for suffrage for women, for Blacks, and for citizens over the age of 18.  Although the argument has been made that “Supreme Court rulings … find no constitutional mandates for federal control of education; therefore, education is a responsibility of the individual states” (Yudof, et. Al., 1992, cited in Rhoads, Sieber & Slayton, 1999, para. 1), it is possible for the Constitution to be amended yet again to require “national academic expectations and standards for students in all states” (Idea of the Day, 2008, para. 1).  Despite the resistance of Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, who “insisted that the process [of improving standards] shouldn’t ‘federalize education’” (Hoff, 2009, para. 6), in 2009, 46 states and the District of Columbia united in “an effort to craft a single vision for what children should learn each year from kindergarten through high school graduation” (Glod, 2009, para. 1), and an August, 2007, survey funded by the Gates and Broad Foundation reported that “63 percent of Americans” (Idea of the Day, 2008, para. 1) support national standards for all American students.

          One of the greatest problems in American education is the disparity among the various states’ standards and curricula.  As Melissa Kelly (2010) writes in an article targeted to secondary school teachers, “[e]ach state develops its own standards according to their own system.  This creates a system whereby a tenth-grader who moves from Texas to Florida halfway through the school year will be faced with quite a different curriculum and standards that need to be met” (para. 2).  Families in the United States are more mobile now than they have been since settlers fanned out across the continent to establish this country over a century ago.  National control of education and national education standards would improve education by ensuring that a student could receive a relatively seamless and consistent education, no matter whither or whence he or she moved or how many schools he or she attended.  In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Paul Gagnon (1995) reports that “[p]olls showed overwhelming public support, even for a national curriculum” (p. 68).  Even

[m]any of the founding fathers of the United States feared that leaving education in the hands of private families, churches, local communities, or philanthropic societies would not guarantee the survival of a democracy … [and] [c]onsiderable effort was made to obtain a national university.  (Pulliam and Van Patten, 2007, p. 122).

How much more important, then, are national education standards now that our country has grown to such proportions?  It is important to keep in mind that “school leaders, teachers, parents and citizens need to understand what they are up against, what has to be done differently, and how much is at stake” (Gagnon, 1995, p. 65).

          Efforts have been made at various times in America’s history to establish national control of education, although “[a]t the time of the nation’s founding, transportation and communication were primitive by twenty-first-century century [sic] standards … [and] states generally saw fit to delegate authority for school operation to local school districts” (Guthrie, 2010, para. 4).  Transportation and communication are no longer primitive, and a student may walk out of a California classroom one day and enroll in a New York classroom the next day.  Students in Oregon, Texas, Maine, and on a U.S. military base in Europe, Asia, or the South Pacific may all share a single virtual classroom online.  In order for these students to have equal opportunities to succeed in school, they must have access to the same curricula, and their schools must all be held to the same academic standards.  “Instituting such standards implies that students will learn the same content regardless of where they reside” (Rhoads, Sieber & Slayton, 1999, para. 2).  A beginning was made in this regard with the Lanham Act of 1946, “which evolved into the Federal Impact Aid program” (Guthrie, 2010, para. 21), by which the federal government began to be involved in the operation of schools.  More recent, and better known, efforts include the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which attempts to ensure an equal education to every American student.

          Although the United States does not yet have nationally mandated academic standards, NCLB brings the future reality of national standards closer.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying that “today’s patchwork system amounts to ‘lying to children and their parents, because states have dumbed down their standards’” (Glod, 2009, para. 7).  Under the present system of local controls, on a reading exam in 2007 in Mississippi, “only 51 percent had at least ‘basic’ or ‘partial mastery’ on the test known as the Nation’s Report Card” (Glod, 2009, para. 8).  On the same test, 69 percent of students in Maryland and 74 percent of students in Virginia “reached at least a basic score” (Glod, 2009, para. 9).  With national curricula and national standards, states could expect higher percentages of students to achieve at least basic mastery of reading, and scores from state to state could be expected to be more uniform.  “Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the new expectations would be ‘higher, clearer and fewer’” (Glod, 2009, para. 10).

          National standards would improve education in the United States in several ways.  Along with making it easier for students to move from one state to another without disrupting their education, national standards would allow all schools to use the same textbooks, which would reduce the confusion that can arise when different schools, or even different teachers in a single school, use different textbooks.  Additionally, national standards would allow schools to hire teachers regardless of where the teachers were educated and certified.  This would allow greater mobility for teachers, and would allow teachers from areas with more teachers to move and teach in areas where certified teachers are scarce, with less need to adjust to a new school system.

          At present, although initiatives like NCLB are a step toward national education standards, educational control still rests with local school districts and with the states.  However, the time has come when the United States needs national education standards in order to compete in the global community.  It is time for a new constitutional amendment to guarantee an equal education to every American student.



Gagnon, P.  (1995, December).  What should children learn? [Electronic version].  The Atlantic       Monthly,  276 (6), 65-74.

Glod, M.  (2009, June 1).  46 states, D.C. plan to draft common education standards.  The           Washington Post.  Retrieved January 14, 2010, from          dyn/content/article/2009/05/31/AR2009053102339_pf.html

Guthrie, J.W.  (2010).  State educational systems " the legal basis for state control of education, school organization models, the school district consolidation      movement.  Retrieved January 14, 2010, from 

Hoff, D.J.  (2009, February 24).  Governors endorse ‘common core’ of standards, leave debate          for later.  Retrieved January 14, 2010, from          ActII/2009/02/governors_endorse_common_core.html?print=1

Idea of the day: establish national standards for schools.  (2008, May 28).  Retrieved January 14,          2010, from                                        

Kelly, M.  (2010).  State versus national standards.  Retrieved January 14, 2010, from 

Pulliam. J.D. and VanPatten, J.J. (2007).  History of education in America.  Upper Saddle   River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Rhoads, M., Sieber, R. & Slayton, S.  (1999, February 25).  Examining national standards.            Retrieved January 14, 2010, from 

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, education, standards

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..