mented nature of school governance and the frayed connections among major school functions—curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Standards-based reforms called for a more centralized approach to a school system. Though it can be argued that the absence of centralized authority has given U.S. schools an advantage in capacity to innovate and to respond to the needs of a fast-growing and diverse population (see, e.g., Cremin, 1990; Feuer, 2006), it is also clear that large numbers of students are still not meeting rigorous standards, at least as defined by current national and international benchmarks.

At the core of the standards movement is the focus on holding states, districts, and schools accountable for their students’ achievement—in part by monitoring their performance using assessments aligned with rigorous standards.1 This kind of accountability entails a commitment that is relatively new in the United States: to hold every student to high standards and to provide every student with the curricula and instruction necessary to meet them. Expectations for young people have evolved significantly over the past 100 years. At the beginning of the 1900s, only about 10 percent of students graduated from high school, yet by the second half of the century the prevalent view was that all students should not only be expected to graduate from high school, but also to aspire to college (see National Research Council, 2001). The pattern of participation in education for the second half of the 20th century was what has led some scholars to label it as “the human capital century” (Goldin and Katz, 2008). It is worth noting that this massive expansion in access began decades before any even vaguely similar expansion was implemented in most European and Asian democracies.

The idea that all students should be held to the same high standards was put to the test as a growing body of achievement data—from both the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state assessments—documented the persistent disparity in academic performance among students with different racial, ethnic, and socieconomic backgrounds. The legal responses to these disparities have ranged from disputes over racial preferences in selection processes and the use of busing to desegregate schools to numerous school finance lawsuits, such as Abbott v. Burke, in which the New Jersey court ruled that the state had failed in its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to students in poor, urban school districts. The 1985 ruling led to a requirement that the state implement a variety of reforms to ensure equitable distribution


1For more information on Race to the Top, see [accessed November 2010]. For discussions of content and performance standards and their influence on schools, see, among others, Stecher and Vernez (2010) and Goertz and Duffy (2003).

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement