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Behind the Scenes -- December 1995

An Interview with Paul Gagnon

What is your current position?

I'm senior research associate which is a two-year post that is supported by bequest from an alum. I'm the first recipient of it. It is designed to allow senior professors to do their own research and consult with graduate students and other faculty members. I'm editing a special issue of the school of education journal on standards.

How did this article come about?

This article came out of my research and my experience as the director at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, which funded the national standards project.

Are we in an education crisis right now?

Yes. I think that the standards strategy which is being used and has been used by foreign systems gives us a chance--whether we apply it on a nation scale or a state scale--to bring an equal curriculum to kids. I was particularly concerned and still am that not enough people understand how the strategy is supposed to work and how it works in other countries so that we don't lose the chance to bring some equity into the schools. Since the founding of the Republic, the academic curriculum has been for the minority and this is a democratic system. I think that what the standards strategy is supposed to do is lay out common and high academic expectations and leave how you reach them to the local and state schools.

What countries have employed this strategy well?

Japan, France, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium. The European countries imposed standards after World War II. Since the French Revolution there had been people who demanded equal schooling for all kids regardless of what they were expected to do with their life--to prepare them as people and as citizens. They've been arguing it for a long time. For the most part, the high schools in Western Europe were open to all kids and made obligatory only after W.W.II, but as they were being opened the political parties insisted that it be the same curriculum for all. In other words children of the lower classes would be given the same chances in schools. Whereas when we opened our high schools in the 1920s and 1930s, we tracked students from the start; academics were really reserved for the top 15-20%. And that was the case pretty much through the 1980s. It is only with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 that the standards movement started. It has been vigorously opposed by people who say, all these poor kids, minorities, and immigrants will drop out if you give them an academic core. Teaching poorer kids an academic core exposes to what the humanities and the social sciences can offer to people's lives. Close to half of the kids who are graduating in France today are graduating from pre-technical high schools, but their core curriculum is liberal arts and to that core they add other technical and vocational stuff. They don't cut the core out of this.

Is there a problem with funding for schools?

The resources that have been given to schools have been so uneven for so long. Some schools are really starved. My argument is that this is harder to do in countries where the standards are equal for all kids. I think the issue of funding and support will depend on adopting common and high academic standards.

What do you think of the push to make English a national language in the U.S.?

I think it is beside the point. I think there is a problem in some school districts in which the bilingual programs have become a lobby and vested interest and often keep kids in those programs longer than they have to be. But polls taken by the American Federation of Teachers in New York and other states show that the parents are determined that their kids should learn English. I think it will happen and common standards in English will help it happen.

What do you think of The Atlantic's tradition in publishing on education?

Well, I think it's been helpfully eclectic. It's been open to all strains. I'm concerned mainly that people get a clear view of what the standards strategy is. How it connects to school spending and school experiments. How it works in other places and it's really not a mysterious thing at all. I think the education industry thrives on making things seem more complicated than they are.

Interview by Marty Hergert

Copyright © (1995) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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