What an alarming picture: expelled students in Chicago, unwanted black youngsters in Lynn, vulnerable urban kids terribly harmed by the demand that they meet state academic standards. What on earth can Massachusetts and so many other states be thinking of?

Of course, those Chicago students may be troublemakers keeping everyone else from learning; they may need the “safe schools” that have been specially designed for them. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the METCO program (which brings a select group of city kids to suburban schools) has never been properly evaluated for its academic impact on the minority students–who are, after all, far from a random sample of the Boston school population. Sure, they go to college in high numbers, but, most likely, that would have been equally true had they stayed in Boston. If we want to talk about equity, let’s discuss all of Boston’s students–not just those who have been privileged to ride a bus to the suburbs. They all deserve a good education, which is precisely what the current drive for high academic standards and accountability is about.

Indeed, the reforms that Deborah Meier scorns have been inspired, first and foremost, by concern for highly disadvantaged kids, who for so long have been educationally neglected. And already in Massachusetts the new demands are driving better instruction. For instance, for years Boston promoted students who had not mastered the most basic reading and math skills; the district is now talking about strategies to teach reading to those who arrive in high school functionally illiterate. It’s running a catch-up summer school. Many districts are placing new emphasis on early intervention to rescue children already behind by second grade; some are running summer workshops in content areas for teachers; others are adding more reading and writing to the curriculum, since the tests ask open-ended questions that assess the student’s ability to understand complex material and organize a short essay.

The demand for academic rigor is changing teaching in the tony suburbs too. But it’s not the kids in Lexington and Concord who will gain the most from the new stress on solid skills and a basic knowledge of core subjects. Deborah Meier wants different standards for advantaged and disadvantaged children. Instead, the state is delivering a vital message: no excuses. Kids can come from low-income, one-parent families, or from chaotic neighborhoods. The color of their skin may be a few shades darker than that of an Irish Catholic. But in the classroom, it doesn’t matter. They can still be expected to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to hold down decent jobs in today’s economy. And knowledge and skills are the road to true equality.

Low expectations are demeaning and patronizing, and let’s not kid ourselves about the basic economic picture. Meier is concerned about “income equity.” Increasingly since the early 1980s, those who know more, earn more. Not the number of years spent in school, but actual skills determine earnings. Word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, arithmetical reasoning, mathematical understanding: these are some of the skills the state-wide assessments measure, and they are the same skills that middle-class jobs require.

Deborah Meier suggests the definition of “well-educated” is up for grabs, that there is no consensus on what an 18-year-old should know. Does she really want to argue about the worth of learning geometry or the importance of understanding why we fought a Civil War? And how about a nine-year-old? Would she label the insistence that kids read abhorrent “standardization”? Should the state remain unconcerned when a child does badly on a third-grade assessment? No one is talking about punishment; the point is to provide help. And to do so before the child begins to slip further and further behind, becomes discouraged, and tunes out.

The kids in her school were learning to read, she would undoubtedly argue. Not to worry. Trust her. Well, aside from the fact that her students at the Mission Hill school performed below the state average on the third-grade reading test, what is the principle here? In setting academic standards, should we trust everyone involved in every school, including the children themselves? Unencumbered by the road map that the state provides, will they magically all decide to drive in a good educational direction?

In fact, what’s all this romantic stuff about schools freed from “outside” educational arbiters in order to do their own thing have to do with teaching kids basic democratic values–responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for others, the capacity to negotiate differences? Totally severed from the state, some schools may engage in racist admissions practices, teach intolerance, and celebrate armed conflict. And that’s just for starters. Public dollars carry strings. That’s what Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is all about; accept federal money, and you can’t discriminate. Accountability is now tied to state education funds as well. Schools that the taxpayers fund must meet the standards that those taxpayers and their representatives set. If Deborah Meier doesn’t like strings, she ought to advocate the complete privatization of education–an idea from which she surely recoils. Or she should campaign to send some educationally deprived students to one of the parochial schools that are serving inner-city children so well, free from heavy-handed government interference. She’s a closet no-strings voucher advocate.

Meier sees standards as a threat to individuality. But the highly educated are the most radical individuals of all in American society–just cast an eye over the Harvard faculty. The educational system in France could hardly be more centralized, but the French don’t look like lemmings to me. Knowledge is liberating, not confining. And you can’t embark on an intellectual adventure–say, exploring the still unanswered questions about World War II–unless you have a solid grounding in European history, the immediate German context, and the chronology of the conflict. Yes, learning requires digesting, even memorizing, some basic knowledge. But that knowledge, once acquired, becomes the spring board from which the imaginative individual takes off.

Meier’s essay contains much rhetoric about “democracy” and “community.” She even throws in “commitment” and “love.” Nice buzz words. They warm our hearts. But how do our new academic standards stop the creation of smaller, more nurturing schools that are tied to the local neighborhood? And how do they threaten the fabric of American democratic life? (She draws a lurid link between state-wide standards and low turnout on election day. Quite a stretch.) Thriving democracies require educated citizens. And educating citizens is what ed reform is all about.