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National Education Standards….They’re Back!

Over the past six months, the need for national education standards has been talked up. The idea, in short, is that the U.S. should have brief written statements of the skills and knowledge children should attain at each grade level for each subject area. The federal government would either encourage or require states to base their schools’ curricula on these standards. Education colleges, in turn, would train would-be teachers in the standards.

Much of the talk has come from those in the federal education policy circles. In November 2005, the progressive think-tank, the Center for American Progress, released a report that declared, “The federal government should support the crafting, adoption, and promotion of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas….” Education Week, the newspaper of record for school news, recently carried an op-ed by Diane Ravitch arguing for national education standards. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, also participated in an online chat on Education Week’s website, where she advocated a “national core curriculum.” [Disclosure: the author once was a research assistant to Prof. Ravitch.] Meanwhile, Denis Doyle, a long-time observer of schooling and education policy, wrote about national education standards in his online newsletter in January. And, in March, Education Sector, another think-tank, has hosted a debate on… yes, national education standards.

Outside this wonky loop, the New York Times editorial board has made inchoate rumblings about establishing some sort of national education standards policy. “It will be impossible to improve math and science education until we assess teachers’ preparedness based on the same high standards in all parts of the country,” it opined on January 24 th . Whether these teacher education standards should also be used in the classroom, though, the Times has not made clear.

Proponents tend to justify national education standards on two grounds. Some argue that for America to remain economically competitive with other nations, our students needed to be more learned. Other advocates see national standards as a tool for equity. Different children attend schools with challenging curricula, others, all too often in poor and non-white communities, do not. This is not fair; thus, national standards are needed to see that all students receive a rigorous education.

So… A man named George Bush occupies the White House and there is talk of establishing national standards. Pardon me for quoting New York Yankee legend, Yogi Berra, but, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Fifteen years ago, President George H.W. Bush announced his America 2000 plan, which advocated drawing up “world class standards” and achievement tests. Over the next two years, the Department of Education, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Science Foundation awarded grants to fund the development of national standards. Scholars and experts would draft standards and a national board of citizens, scholars, and others would then review the standards and provide feedback to the authors, who would revise the standards. In a nod to tradition, the Bush administration did not intend to impose these curricular guidelines on schools. Rather, the standards would be produced and states free to use them or not.

It was an interesting idea, but it died a violent death at the hands of politics. In October of 1994, the standards for U.S. history were about to be unveiled. Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities who had helped fund the creation of the history standards, savaged the standards for political correctness in the Wall Street Journal. A hullabaloo erupted and editorial pages and talk radio were flooded with outraged voices. In January of 1995, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the standards by a vote of 99 to 1. Not only were the history standards dead, all national education standards were condemned as unlawful and deleterious federal dabbling in local affairs.

This history is relevant to today’s consideration of national education standards because it would appear that the same impediments to enacting national standards that existed then exist now. First, there is the thirty-five year old federal law (20 U..SC. 1232(a)) that declares “No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system.”

Then there is the matter of politics. First, the tradition of local control over educational curricula goes back a long way, all the way back, in fact, to the 1600s, when European settlers first settled on this continent and erected schools. While the federal government has crept further and further into schooling over the past century --- especially since 1965 --- its role in the schools remains quite limited. Less than 10 percent of school funds come from the federal government. Schools remain, very much, local institutions.

Second, schools’ curricula have always been an intensely political matter. Politicians and parents alike have fought tooth and nail over using curricula to “Americanize” students, and to teach them “temperance” and “sex ed.” In the past year, there have been episodes reminiscent of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of a century back, with local school boards mandating that science courses provide theistic explanations of the origins of life.

While national education standards may make good sense as policy, politically they would appear to be as doomed as they were 15 years ago. Although scholars and experts may be best qualified to draw up schools curricula, the rest of the public will not stand by idly as the content of their children’s education is devised. Inevitably, the question of what schools should teach brings up values questions, about which everyone has opinions.