CREATION of national academic and vocational standards tops the list of priorities for the Clinton admin- istration's education policy.
Legislation outlining the Clinton education plan will be submitted to Congress "within the next couple of weeks," says Madeleine Kunin, deputy secretary of education.
"The president has it high on his agenda," Ms. Kunin says. "It's one of the underpinnings of his economic plan. A well-educated labor force is critical to an employed labor force."
Education Secretary Richard Riley told Congress last month that national education standards would "set critical benchmarks for all of our states and communities."
The development of voluntary content standards outlining what students should learn in various subject areas began under President Bush.
Along with the education goals drafted in 1989, these "rigorous, internationally competitive" standards are an effort to boost the performance of American students in global comparisons and provide uniform guidelines for states.
"We have to have standards to measure our progress toward the goals," says Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, who is a member of the National Education Goals Panel.
Yet the notion of nationally applied standards runs counter to the tradition of local and state control of education in the United States. Although standardized tests dictate an informal national curriculum, state and local officials currently determine what schools should be teaching students.
"It's pure efficiency for us to arrive at something at a national level rather than to duplicate it in each of the 50 states," Governor Romer says.
"The key word to remember here is `voluntary,' " Kunin says. "There's no way that the federal government will say, `You absolutely have to meet this.' "
Kunin, who is the former governor of Vermont, adds: "With three [former] governors involved in this process - the president, Secretary Riley, and myself - we are very sensitive to state and local control. I think you will see that sensitivity being expressed throughout this process."
While some critics charge that national standards will lead to centralization and stifle teacher creativity, others question the likelihood of ever reaching consensus on high-level standards.
"There are a variety of constituencies that have a strong, vested interest in not permitting standards that reveal high rates of failure," says Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "You're going to end up with pablum."
Several weeks ago, Mr. Riley and Labor Secretary Robert Reich told a Senate committee that federally chartered councils would develop the standards, and separate boards would monitor whether they were being reached.
States could submit their own standards and the council would affix a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," Romer says. "We need to have some central place continually updating these standards. The standards are not static; they evolve over time."
Riley announced that standards will be developed in mathematics, science, English and language arts, geography, history, the arts, and foreign languages.
In addition, occupational-skill standards are to be developed. The Department of Education and the Department of Labor will work together to "build a new school-to-work transition," Riley told Congress.
The only existing national standards are in mathematics.
The guidelines were drafted by the National Association of Teachers of Mathematics and completed in 1990. About 40 percent of United States schools have now implemented some portion of the group's recommendations.
A January survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 57 percent of principals favor national standards.
The Bush administration proposed linking national standards to a national examination system. While national standards gained support, the idea of a national exam met with strong opposition in Congress.
Under President Clinton, "there is no consideration being given to requiring a national exam," Kunin says.
But Diane Ravitch, deputy education secretary in the Bush administration and now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that it is critical to push for both the standards and the examination.
"If you have standards and there is not an examination system supporting it, then the standards are just going to disappear," she says. "You can't have standards without any way of assessing whether they're being met."