US plans to set school standards: National curriculum upsets states

REAWAKENING the national debate on the future of America's ailing schools system, the Clinton administration came forward with controversial plans yesterday to set national educational standards.

The policy overhaul, which still has to be approved by Congress, would mean strengthened federal supervision of schools nationwide, a marked departure from the more free- market philosophy pursued under President Bush.

The reforms are certain to meet with suspicion among state governments, which provide almost all the funding for school education and traditionally have been largely free to set policy. Some governors were warning yesterday about unwelcome federal interference in their schools.

But so deep are the troubles of the US schools system, with high levels of illiteracy and student drop-outs, that President Clinton is under intense pressure to make a convincing show of improving learning standards. He made reform of national education a centrepiece of his campaign last year.

The overhaul would be spearheaded by his Education Secretary, Richard Riley, who, like the President, has personal experience of school reform as a former governor of South Carolina. As Governor of Arkansas, Mr Clinton introduced a state-wide curriculum and testing for teachers.

At the heart of the new policy would be a national curriculum that would seek to identify the skills that children should have at different ages. At the moment there is only a single test taken by all children when they leave school.

Schools would be subject to regular evaluation to ascertain whether they were giving pupils the opportunity to reach those standards.

At first, the curriculum would be introduced on a voluntary basis. However, the participating schools would be rewarded with special federal grants to help improve teaching further. From an initial, relatively modest budget of dollars 400m (pounds 260m), schools introducing 10-year plans on self-improvement would be the first to be considered for grants.

Most significantly, the President has ditched the Bush policy of introducing a voucher system, under which parents would be hae been able to choose between schools.

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