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The Tyranny of a National Curriculum

By Marc F. Bernstein — January 21, 1998 6 min read
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National testing and national curriculum are one and the same. In spite of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s assertion that it is possible to support national testing (which he does) and oppose national curriculum (which he also does), most educators agree that “what is tested is what will be taught.” Teachers and administrators will spend incredible amounts of their time poring over test questions to analyze the content of each, so that no curriculum gaps exist. And when a significant number of students fail to answer certain questions correctly, teachers will rework the curriculum to guarantee that students are taught that specific material and can answer the questions correctly the next time around.

Tests aren’t used merely to grade pupil performance; they also drive curriculum and textbook selection. Already, some textbook publishers have revised their history texts to conform to the contentious voluntary national standards in history. (“Glimmer of History Standards Shows Up in Latest Textbooks,” Oct. 8, 1997.) How long will it take for history teachers to adapt their curriculum and teaching to these new textbooks?

If we accept the premise that national testing is synonymous with the development of national curricula, then we have to decide if the best interests of children are served by having a uniform curriculum in the areas of reading and mathematics (and, later perhaps, in social studies, language arts, and science). Though a good argument could be made to support such a decision, the inherent risks far outweigh the potential benefits.

People who support a national testing program believe that too many students are failing to perform to their potential and that drastic steps need to be taken to improve their education. And, these supporters hold, only the federal government can do it. Through a series of national tests, which will point out failing schools, learning will be improved, chiefly as the result of increased public scrutiny, the testing proponents conclude. They point to many of our large cities or isolated rural areas where student achievement is particularly low. If only parents in these places were aware of how poorly their children’s schools were performing, the reasoning goes, increased competition and accountability would force the schools to improve.

How simplistic. What is ignored is ample research evidence that poor student performance correlates strongly with low per-pupil expenditures, parents’ own low educational-attainment levels, and family poverty. We all want higher standards and improved achievement, but national testing poses real dangers to public education, and to the role delineation between the federal government and the states.

We have only to recall our experience in developing the voluntary national history standards to shudder at the prospect of national tests. A panel of “recognized experts” was brought together, after the group’s composition was debated ad nauseam to ensure a proper balance of ethnicity, gender, religion, geography, and so on. These well-intentioned people then embarked on the never-ending task of determining what all American schoolchildren should learn about their country’s history. Before they had reached the American Revolution, the panel’s work was in trouble. Advocates for American Indians, for African-Americans, as well as for Italian-Americans and a host of other cultural interests (not to mention religious groups), charged that their constituents’ contributions were being underrepresented. Then scholars disagreed over the priority to be given, say, geography vs. economics, environment vs. nationalism, human rights vs. urbanization. The end product was an incoherent set of standards that continues to be attacked.

Whether any new panel of experts is selected by Secretary Riley or a nonpartisan board is inconsequential. More troubling is the process that would have to be followed to create consensus, reduce criticism, and advance the political correctness of our time.

We have to decide if the best interests of children are served by having a uniform curriculum in reading and in math.

Such a panel’s ineffectiveness is far less dangerous than the possibility that its members might have a preconceived agenda motivated by some desire to change American education or society. Is it inconceivable that a group of ideologues--political, religious, or other--might achieve a dominant position on the panel? And would it not be possible then that they would use that position to advance their own deeply held beliefs? What better way to effect a change in America than through its children’s education?

A further reason to reject efforts that advance a national curriculum is to prevent bipartisan panels of experts from imposing specific educational strategies on all U.S. students. We have had copious examples over recent decades of educational fads, often the products of university think-tanks with little real-life contact or research to support their conclusions. In the 1960s, the “new math” advanced set theory and deemphasized more traditional computation and word problems. In the 1970s, English classrooms ignored spelling errors and sentence structure in the advancement of “creative writing.” In the 1980s, the purist version of “whole language” replaced the teaching of phonics, suggesting that all students would benefit from a literature-based reading curriculum devoid of phonics instruction.

The results of all these trends have been diametrically proportional to the blind enthusiasms with which they were once embraced. Yet, for the most part, exposure to the fads of a university research group, an influential theorist, or a self-interested organization has been confinable to a single state or a region of the country. That may change with national testing.

President Clinton’s proposal is for national tests only in reading and mathematics, but the risks are as great in these subjects as in any other, perhaps greater. The choices of an expert panel would dictate the reading tests’ focus, whether on vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, or comprehension. Would an expert panel in math permit calculators, and for which parts of the test? Would the math test reflect the de-emphasis of basic mathematical skills that Tom Loveless, the Harvard University professor of public policy, recently criticized in these pages? (“HEADLINE,” Oct. 15, 1997.)

Developing a national curriculum is subject to the same pressures that affect other public-policy decisions--pressure to create a consensus among well-intentioned scholars; pressure from unrelenting ideologues and lobby groups; pressure to be part of a larger school of thought (or educational fad). These pressures exist, to a lesser extent, in each of our states’ departments of education. My own state of New York, for example, is replacing its 13-year-old Global Studies curriculum with one entitled Global History. The former course applied a regional perspective to the study of history: By studying distinct regions of the world, students were to learn to make connections between different economic systems, or to gauge the influence of geography on civilization. But many students were simply confounded by this approach.

Now the state will return to a chronological approach to studying the linkages of major historical themes over time. Local educators had been suggesting this for years, but it took well into the curriculum’s second decade for the state education department to be convinced.

We can only imagine how long it might take to change a national curriculum--and how many millions of students would suffer in the meantime. States have served well as the laboratories of education, allowing different strategies and practices to be tried, modified, and then expanded or discarded. Yes, of course, we have to strive for higher standards for our children’s education. But we can do it without national tests.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 1998 edition of Education Week as The Tyranny of a National Curriculum

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