Standards for content reflect a "knowledge-telling" philosophy of education and are the most prevalent. In this view, a student is a "blank slate" onto which the appropriate knowledge can be written. Instruction is intended to convey knowledge from teacher (or textbook) to student, and the ability to answer specific questions is the sine qua non of the educated student.

Cognitive standards reflect a more constructivist philosophy of education: the student constructs knowledge for himself or herself, perhaps guided or coached by a teacher. In doing so, the student is able to provide an appropriate context for new knowledge and is thus able to take "ownership" of that knowledge in a much more secure manner. (Much of what this report describes as intellectual capabilities is also rooted in a constructivist view of education.)

Standards are often tied to assessments rather than to instructional programs. Because the most common assessments emphasize a skill development or a "knowledge-telling" approach to instruction, instruction that putatively implements cognitive standards may in practice be quite far from constructivist instruction. Although a given set of educational standards does not necessarily imply a form of instruction, the form of instruction really does have an impact on their implementation.

The start of the modern era of educational standards can be said to date from the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983,1 which stated, "The educational foundations of our society are presently eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people. . . ." This report is often credited with identifying the inadequate mathematics and science preparation of U.S. students. Since its publication, efforts have followed to establish both academic and vocational (industry) standards.

In the vocational and industrial arena, Workforce 2000 predicted in 1987 that a shortage of skilled workers would, unless checked, constrain America's economic growth.2 In 1990, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, explicitly called for setting academic and occupational skill standards.3 Otherwise, the report warned, a majority of workers would continue to see their real wages decline. In 1991, the U.S. Department of


National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, Department of Education, Washington, D.C., p. 65.


William B. Johnston and Arnold Packer, with contributions by Matthew P. Jaffe. 1987. Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the Twenty-First Century, Hudson Institute, Indianapolis, Ind., and Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., p. 117.


Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. 1990. America's Choice: High Skill or Low Wages, National Center on Education and the Economy, Rochester, N.Y.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement