'An Exercise in Government-Approved Truth'
Conservative opponents of national education standards generally cite three reasons for our opposition: We think it will lead to a further "dumbing down" of academic achievement; we think it will give more power to remote and unresponsive bureaucracies; and we think it will undermine parents' authority by giving the states the power to standardize the education of our children, a power specifically denied them by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters.
Nothing that happened at the recent IBM-sponsored education summit has allayed our concerns.
Backers of the national standards movement received a big boost from the recent "Big Blue" summit in Palisades, N.Y. There, the National Governors' Association met and approved a statement calling for the creation of an entity that would, according to Nevada's Gov. Bob Miller, determine what our children should know, how we would know if they knew it, and what would happen if they didn't know it.
It was an extraordinary event. The governors were presented with consensus documents that had been prepared by staff members well in advance. Dissent from the consensus was strongly discouraged. Unanimity was sought, even demanded. When two governors raised principled objections to the creation of national standards and national curricula, their colleagues were recruited to whip them into line. So urgent was the perceived need for a unanimous declaration that summit organizers actually paired each governor with an attending corporate CEO--all of whom were in complete agreement with standards. These CEOs were allowed to vote alongside the governors in a curious procedure that itself raises questions about the NGA's standards for membership and voting. Was this an official meeting of the NGA? If so, should CEOs, none of whom is an association member, have a vote?
Far from quieting conservative critics, the speakers at the summit inflamed them. When Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman of IBM, pointedly reminded summiteers that IBM is the largest employer in Vermont and North Carolina, the implied threat was not lost on listeners. Mr. Gerstner and other sympathetic CEOs have threatened not to open business sites in states where the governor has not come out in support of the standards documents. Encouraging other CEOs to engage in such a "hiring boycott" of noncompliant states makes a mockery of the oft-repeated claim that the standards movement will be voluntary.
IBM, once the most paternalistic of corporations, is an odd choice to lead the corporate hiring boycott. The Washington Post recently carried a front-page story of IBM's layoffs in the Washington area. One IBM employee told the Post that her manager said to her, "Go home and don't come back." Will such brutal management techniques win the confidence of American moms and dads? Is this the kind of enlightened leadership that we will entrust with the future of our kids? I doubt it.
American parents have always been concerned about the economic well-being and competitiveness of their children. No one has a greater stake in good jobs at good wages than do the parents who nurture and support their children. Ironically, as business leaders followed the governors to bemoan the low-quality product they are receiving from our schools and colleges, they echoed many of the concerns that parents themselves have been voicing for a quarter of a century: lax discipline, poor work ethic, lack of basic skills.
The push for national standards will increase conflict in education. For example, the first draft of the U.S. history standards was so biased, so anti-American that it was denounced by the Senate 99 to 1. This year's new, improved version of the history standards removed some of the most egregious examples of bias but still hewed to political correctness. It only proves that historical revisionists can, in fact, revise. The new draft also stumps for Goals 2000 and school-funding equalization. This has less to do with our students understanding history than it does with advancing a liberal political agenda. And that has been the conservative critique of this Orwellian exercise in government-approved truth all along.
Defenders of the parent-led education-reform movement know that families have a greater influence over a child's academic performance than any other factor--including schools. Parents are the first teachers of their children. That's why the home-school movement is so vigorously resisted by the education establishment: It achieves, at no public expense, what cannot be achieved by all the king's horses and all the king's men.
When parents choose their children's schools, they choose safe, effective schools. By and large, parents reject faddism and narrow careerism. Parents know that excellent public schools and private schools exist all over America. These schools often excel in spite of, not because of, district administrators. Parents ordinarily seek out schools that are friendly, familiar, and near. In so doing, they help create a sense of the school as a community dedicated to learning.
Researchers have found this sense of community to be an indispensible factor in academic success. Yet, it is precisely this community that will be lost if the movement toward national standards succeeds in further distancing students and their parents from education decisionmakers.
Vol. 15, Issue 37, Page 41Published in Print: June 5, 1996, as 'An Exercise in Government-Approved Truth'