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The Threat to Freedom in Goals 2000

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The Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which President Clinton signed into law last week, has eight lofty goals for systematically improving the quality of American schooling. But the law also has one deep and probably fatal flaw: It will lead to the creation of a national curriculum as a means of reaching its student-achievement and citizenship goal. In setting model national content and performance standards in English, mathematics, science, foreign language, civics and government, arts, history, and geography for K-12 students, as well as certifying standards and assessments submitted by states seeking federal school reform grants, the government will be provoking a storm of conflict which it can neither resolve nor control.

The self-destructive conflicts which now plague California reading tests and Texas health textbooks are signposts for what we may expect on the federal level as this national curriculum takes shape. Californians are confronting a dispute over the state's removal of two stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker from a reading comprehension and -analysis test. One story, involving the marriage of a Christian and a Muslim, was alleged to be antireligious; the other was apparently considered propaganda for a fifth column of militant vegetarians. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

Meanwhile, Texas has been continuing its tradition of looking for a secular humanist under every textbook cover by ordering 300 changes demanded by conservatives in state-authorized health texts. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.) The battle over whether students in Texas ought to be permitted an informed discussion of AIDS, divorce, drug abuse, human sexuality, and physician-assisted suicide appears headed for the state legislature. There a majority vote will presumably distinguish between official truth and dissenting propaganda, and inform the teachers and children of Texas of which ideas and opinions they should adopt as their own.

By creating a mechanism for the establishment of a national curriculum, Washington is tooling up for its own zero-sum conflicts over conscience and belief in schooling. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., got it started even before the new law was enacted. His amendment to Goals 2000, adopted by the Senate but modified in the final version of the act, would have barred federal aid to any school district that prohibited voluntary, "constitutionally protected'' student prayer in schools. It is clear that the ideological and epistemological battles over schooling are likely to be even more detached from reality on the national level than they have been on the state and local levels.

Under the Goals 2000 law, political-interest groups, politicians with local followings and national aspirations, and associations of education experts are given new forums--including the politically appointed National Education Standards and Improvement Council--in which to engage in a democratic struggle over what Michael Apple has called "official knowledge.'' In the federal government, as in California and Texas, the more we submit these matters of intellect and conscience to political determinations, the less respect for intellectual freedom, cultural diversity, and critical thinking we should expect our children to learn.

Many in the Clinton Administration and in Congress will deny that such a substantial shift of power over curriculum content to the national government is intended or possible under Goals 2000. They will point to the clearly stated voluntary nature of national content standards in the act and to the prohibition the law contains against conditioning federal school aid on state acceptance of the national curriculum. But these assurances ought to be given no more credence now than Americans of 1789 gave to the argument that the new U.S. Constitution contained sufficient checks and balances to make a Bill of Rights unnecessary for protecting individual freedom. There is no education "bill of rights'' in the Goals 2000 attempt to reconstitute schooling in the United States.

Once the political and bureaucratic specification of official knowledge is in full federal swing, the conflict over whose beliefs will be reflected in a national curriculum may become so intense that it cripples the entire federal school-reform effort and weakens intellectual freedom and cultural diversity around the country. Here is how the U.S. Supreme Court saw the problem in 1943 when, in West Virginia v. Barnette, it declared the compulsory flag salute in public schools to be an unconstitutional "confession of belief'':

"Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing.... If it [public education] is to impose any ideological discipline, however, each party or denomination must seek to control, or failing that, to weaken the influence of the educational system.''

The Goals 2000 act adopts a top-down, authoritarian, and systematized model of schooling, and it ought probably to be rejected by teachers, students, families, and subcultures on educational grounds alone. But by moving control of the goals of education and the content of schooling ever further from individuals, and by linking performance testing of all students to national content requirements, the act also raises serious constitutional issues.

Establishment of a national curriculum--or of 50 state curricula--would be broadly inconsistent with the principles of constitutional democracy. Those principles hold that if political majorities are empowered to manipulate the content of communication or to regulate the individual freedom to form and express opinions, majority rule itself, and the "just consent of the governed'' it is supposed to express, would be rendered meaningless.

An analogy to religious freedoms is incomplete but helpful. The creation of a national curriculum would be as contrary to the fundamental freedoms of intellect and belief protected by the First Amendment as would the establishment of a national religion or the approval of an official catechism. Suggesting that a national curriculum would be inoffensive to the First Amendment, as long as the knowledge and skills students must demonstrate are value-neutral, ignores a fundamental reality of learning and teaching. Government technocrats would be as convincing if they claimed that an established religion would be constitutionally acceptable as long as it were based on monotheism. In a pluralistic society, value-neutral schooling is a contradiction in terms.

These are serious problems with a long-overdue federal commitment to improving the quality of teacher-student interactions around the country. But perhaps an urgent concern for freedom of conscience in schooling is unwarranted here. After all, the law was crafted by two Presidential administrations and two political parties, has mobilized much of the education establishment, and probably would be approved by most educators if put to a vote. What's more, right-wing fundamentalists have had increasing success in gaining a foothold in local school board elections, so a nationalization of education policy might slow the trend of intolerance that threatens individual freedoms.

But the fact that there has been virtually no public debate about the fate of intellectual freedom and cultural diversity under Goals 2000 does not inspire confidence in the wisdom of this reform program. Nor should those who appreciate the complex connection between democracy and education be reassured by the tacit approval a national curriculum has received from educators.

If there are significant reasons for putting the principles of constitutional democracy at risk by creating a national curriculum, they ought to become part of the public discourse before this juggernaut gets under way.

Only one argument for taking this risk appears important enough to be taken seriously--the need to reverse the widely acknowledged inequalities in schooling that have brutalized large segments of the rising generation. Among the most harmful of these inequalities are the disparate expectations which mark some students for success, consign others to frustration and broken dreams, and are all too often the silent justification for gross inequalities in the resources available for schools. The imposition of a national curriculum might be advocated as a means to insure that the same high expectations are held and pursued for all students, regardless of poverty, race, ethnic or linguistic heritage, gender, or other status.

But the essential goal of eliminating these individually and culturally destructive inequalities can be effectively achieved without resorting to a national curriculum. It isn't necessary to impose the conflict-inducing, freedom-restricting, diversity-inhibiting uniformity of official knowledge on every teacher, student, school, and subculture in the country. The alternative, a thorough program for updating and improving the professional skills of teachers, would neither cause the kind of conflict which would undermine all of Goals 2000, nor restrict the freedoms essential to professional teaching, active learning, and a healthy, pluralistic democracy.

The curriculum provisions of Goals 2000 ought to be repealed. In their place should be created a 10-year program during which every teacher in the United States receives two summer scholarships for continuing education in the substance and pedagogy of his or her field, whether elementary reading or advanced physics. Every teacher would be required to participate, but each would be free to choose from among many continuing-education offerings created by decentralized, nongovernmental consortia, each of which would include a college or university. Goals 2000 already calls for some grants for professional-development programs, so the idea is hardly revolutionary.

In addition to scholarships which would empower teachers and induce colleges and universities to offer continuing education for them, what is needed is to make the choice of which continuing-education program to attend entirely voluntary, and to leave the content of the offerings to the professional judgment of their sponsors. There would be no national curriculum standards to systematize these offerings, and other government content controls at the state or federal level would be prohibited. The program could be set up so that every teacher could use it within its 10-year life. The program of required continuing education would begin with teachers working in schools in which inequalities have taken their heaviest toll. States would be required to provide the in-school resources necessary for a re-educated teaching profession to function at a higher level.

Adoption of a teacher-scholarship program as a substitute for national curriculum standards would provide what the principles of constitutional law would call a "less restrictive alternative.'' That is, it would attain the legitimate and compelling goals of the legislation, but by a means that would impose fewer restrictions on constitutional rights than a national curriculum would. By this mechanism we might not only avoid prolonged conflict and litigation, but also improve schooling, preserve diversity, secure the freedom of belief, and protect the sphere of intellect and spirit which is at the core of education and which the First Amendment excludes from majority control.

Stephen Arons is a professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Compelling Belief: The Culture of American Schooling (University of Massachusetts Press). The issues discussed in this article, along with others related to national curriculum standards, will be treated in detail in a Summer 1994 special issue of The Educational Forum.

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