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Out of many, one set of standards

Inspectors are to play a key role in the Education Secretary's new Pounds 100 million scheme to raise standards. TES correspondents report on how other countries keep an eye on what goes on in their classrooms. The United States is in the grip of a nationwide debate on standards. Almost every state claims it has in place or is developing standards for what students should know and be able to do in the core subjects.

As many as 46 of the 50 states have applied for money under President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act. That law, which was enacted just over a year ago, has become a bandwagon onto which almost everyone is jumping. It requires states to develop content standards and a related system of assessment in return for federal grants.

Much of the work is being done at state level. According to the American constitution, education is a local matter. But some of the impetus is coming from the centre. Since, 1992, for example, the US department of education has spent more than $24 million (Pounds 16 million) on the development of standards across the country, and subject associations have been hard at work drawing up standards in their subject areas.

The mathematics standards, formulated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and published in 1989, have been the most influential. They introduced problem-solving and have been widely followed. The history standards, by contrast, developed with government money at the University of California at Los Angeles, have been the most controversial, criticised for their liberal bias.

One state to have refused to take part officially in the national effort is Montana. Its legislature has barred the state's education officials from using Goals 2000 money they had applied for. Four others have yet to apply for funding, and it is not known whether all will do so. They are New Hampshire, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming.

America is never likely to have a single national curriculum along British lines. And once the effort is over some fear there will be two groups of states: those that have thought about and implemented reform; and those in which the schools are still teaching what they did 15 to 20 years ago. Similarly the problem left by the devolution of powers in the US system, particularly as Congress this month abolished the national council set up under Goals 2000 to check on each state's standards, is that there will be 50 different sets of standards.

There could also be 50 different assessment systems - ways of measuring the standards. Maryland, for example, has a new system of assessing what pupils can do at grades three, five and eight. Kentucky assesses pupils at grades four, eight and eleven. Oregon is proposing to assess pupils at grades three, five, eight and ten.

However, Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education, thinks states' standards and assessments systems will be noticeable for their similarities rather than differences. "Political rhetoric will not allow us to refer to the standards as national, even though they will end up being largely national standards," he said.

The standards bandwagon really began to roll in the 1980s but it has only been in the 1990s that such effort became nationwide. Before, states might have had curriculum guidelines or "vision statements". These might have been very detailed and prescriptive or incredibly vague, and they were almost always minimum requirements.

Americans do not inspect schools to check on the quality of teaching, though New York State has been conducting an experiment to turn some of its teachers into roughly the old version of HMIs. Individual states have programmes to check on failing schools, which can entail the state taking control of a whole district in which schools are considered to be failing.

In Maryland, the state identifies through a handful of indicators, such as attendance records and assessment performance, how schools are performing. Those seen to be failing are reconstituted. A new headteacher is hired and staff are made to reapply for their jobs. This has happened to five schools in the past two years in Baltimore.

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