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Federal Opinion

No National Standards for Public Schools

By Andrew J. Coulson — January 30, 2007 4 min read
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Hippolyte Fortoul, the education minister to Napoleon III, liked to boast that he could pick up his watch at any time of day and tell a person what every school student in France was learning at that moment. Soon, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings may be able to do the same.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan, a Republican, proposed the creation of national standards for math and science classes at the K-12 level. The “Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids” Act, which I hope doesn’t attempt to teach kids how to come up with clever acronyms, would lay down explicit goals for what every child should learn in those subjects at every grade, and financially reward states that adopted them. (“Standards Get Boost on the Hill,” Jan. 17, 2007.)

Both liberals and conservatives now seem bent on adding a federal conveyor belt to our already factory-like public schools.

To say that national standards enjoy bipartisan support would be an understatement. A flier promoting the Dodd-Ehlers bill lists the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, led by a former Reagan administration assistant secretary of education, Chester E. Finn Jr., immediately above the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. Throw in the recent high-profile endorsement of national standards by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, and a federal curriculum-and-testing package begins to seem like a done deal.

It should be left undone.

For one thing, it’s just more of the same, and the same isn’t working out. For 150 years, we’ve relentlessly centralized control over our schools, and they’ve grown from one-room schoolhouses answering directly to parents to vast bureaucracies consuming half the budgets of their respective states. We’ve gone from 127,000 school districts in 1932 to fewer than 15,000 today.

The argument, then as now, was that more-centralized control would allow the real experts to beat our dysfunctional school systems into shape, lowering per-pupil costs and raising achievement. But public schools now spend twice as much as they did in 1970, in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. Meanwhile, the overall achievement of high school seniors has stagnated over that same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s own “Trends in Academic Progress” study (though the scores of African-American students did improve).

That record does not make a compelling case for even further centralization.

National-curriculum advocates argue that there are success stories—places where they believe uniform standards improved student performance—at the state level. But they also acknowledge that there are states with poor or even counterproductive standards.

Another justification is that national standards are purportedly necessary to ensure academic success on the world stage. Italy has a national curriculum, and it is the only industrialized country that performed worse than the United States in 12th grade science on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Canada and Australia, who trounced us in both subjects, have no national curricula.

The proposed legislation’s standards are described as “voluntary,” but for whom? Not for parents and students. What the bill’s authors mean is that it would be voluntary for state school boards or superintendents. Once they decided, you, me, and Dupree would not have a choice. State authorities would receive financial incentives to participate, just as they do under the No Child Left Behind Act—and no state has opted out of that program.

Nationalizing the curriculum is inconsistent with both liberal education philosophy and conservative political philosophy. Progressive educators have long maintained that education should be a “child centered” process addressing each student’s unique needs and skills. Once upon a time, conservatives maintained that parents, not central planners, should be in the education driver’s seat, and that competition should be allowed to drive excellence and innovation. They used to point out that the 10th Amendment reserves responsibility for education to the states and the people.

The best thing we can do for American students is to treat them as the individuals they are.

Despite these avowed ideals, both liberals and conservatives now seem bent on adding a federal conveyor belt to our already factory-like public schools. Children would be fed in one end, moved through a homogenized curriculum at a fixed pace, and then supposedly emerge well educated on the other side.

This approach assumes that children are all alike, and learn every subject at the same pace. But of course they aren’t and don’t. The best thing we can do for American students is to treat them as the individuals they are, helping them progress through their studies at the best pace for them. We can do that by giving families unfettered choice, and requiring all schools to compete to serve them.

Sen. Dodd and Rep. Ehlers should be commended for trying to improve our schools, but we’ve been centralizing control for a century and a half with little to show for it. Americans are an entrepreneurial, liberty-loving people. Surely we can find a better exemplar of education policy than a 19th-century French imperialist.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as No National Standards For Public Schools

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