To the Editor:
Andrew J. Coulson’s essay criticizing the congressional Dodd-Ehlers bill to establish national curriculum standards in math and science (“No National Standards for Public Schools,” Commentary, Jan. 31, 2007) argues against such standards on the grounds that centralized schooling has distanced parents from the direct control they had in one-room schools and is “inconsistent with both liberal education philosophy and conservative political philosophy.” I question both these assertions.
In the first place, the education of the young must not be held hostage to any political philosophy. The goal is to graduate well-informed, skillful young citizens and to provide equal opportunities to reach this goal without regard to where the students live, how they live, or who they (or their parents) are. Whatever political arrangements best achieve this are the ones we should use.
Secondly, the essence of liberal education lies in exploring the vast range of human learning so that we can choose freely in that marketplace of ideas, and be “liberated” from the parochialism that is part of everyone’s native culture. Standards can pose a risk to liberal education, certainly, when they are set by people with a constricted point of view, as recent state and local controversies about science standards attest. But the greater risk, by far, is the absence of national standards, leaving curriculum decisions in the hands of 50 states and 14,000-plus districts. To expect the governing bodies in all those jurisdictions to study, understand, and support the best scholarship in each field is to expect the impossible, not to mention unnecessary.
As for local control, that much-overrated tradition has given us curricular chaos and glaring inequalities between districts, sometimes on opposite sides of the same street. And with one of the world’s most mobile populations, we need to ensure that the millions of children who change schools each year can walk into their new classrooms and find familiar subjects and expectations, identified and organized by the nation’s leading scholars and successful teachers.
The rub is that adopting scholarly standards shifts power from local and state board members, administrators, and politicians to scholars and teachers. This challenges America’s well-documented anti-intellectualism, as well as the human reluctance to abandon power voluntarily.
Kansas City Campus
Kansas City, Mo.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as No ‘Inconsistency’ Seen In National Standards