Federal Opinion

The “Counter-Manifesto” Against a National Curriculum

By Anthony Cody — May 09, 2011 2 min read
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Today a “counter-manifesto” was released, opposing the move towards a common national curriculum. Entitled “A Critical Response to the Shanker Institute Manifesto and
the U.S. Department of Education’s Initiative to Develop a National Curriculum and National Assessments Based on National Standards,”
it was signed by people with a range of beliefs, but most of them are on the conservative end of the political spectrum, including Grover Norquist and a number of fellows from the Hoover Institute. Though I do not often agree with most of the signers, I find myself sharing much of their critique in this case.

I especially agree with this statement:

... there is no evidence to justify a single high school curriculum for all students. A single set of curriculum guidelines, models, or frameworks cannot be justified at the high school level, given the diversity of interests, talents and pedagogical needs among adolescents. American schools should not be constrained in the diversity of the curricula they offer to students. Other countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula; Finland, for example, offers all students leaving grade 9 the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50% of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school. We worry that the "comprehensive" American high school may have outlived its usefulness, as a recent Harvard report implies.9 A one-size-fits-all model not only assumes that we already know the one best curriculum for all students; it assumes that one best way for all students exists. We see no grounds for carving that assumption in stone.

This resonates with Nancy Flanagan’s recent thought experiment, a trip into a future where the schools have embraced a national curriculum, and the critique made by Yong Zhao, in his book Catching up or Leading the Way.

The Department of Education still does not wish to acknowledge what is happening here. In a recent conversation with a representative, I noted that the Department’s promotion of connecting test scores to teacher pay and evaluations was attaching even higher stakes to tests. He responded that I should understand that we have a “decentralized system.” But since these changes were largely inspired by Race to the Top, this claim seems to be a weak one. Witness the recent incident in Delaware, where a local school board reversed itself and reaffirmed the reassignment of 13 teachers, after a “scolding” from Secretary Duncan, who froze their “Race to the Top” funding to force them to comply. Nothing decentralized about that. [Correction: It was the State of Delaware which actually froze these funds to force compliance, a move which was then praised by Secretary Duncan.]

The efforts to create a national curriculum aligned with the Common Core Standards now under development put us on the road to transforming our system into the epitome of centralization. The Department of Education has been quiet about this. Everything is voluntary. The states are not obliged to sign on - however, federal funding is increasingly contingent on the degree to which one obeys their directions.

Federal funding for education under ESEA was originally developed as an outgrowth of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and was designed to make up for inequities in local funding. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind, in 2001, these funds have been increasingly used to advance the Department of Education’s vision for education reform. In today’s fiscal climate, when state revenues have declined drastically, federal funding has become an absolute necessity. Though states and local districts technically have the option of refusing these funds, in practice they are totally dependent on them. This explains why even the chance of getting funded under Race to the Top prompted many states to change laws in order to qualify.

The move towards national standards, a national curriculum and nation-wide tests is likewise proceeding on a “voluntary” basis, with nothing but the persuasive power of philanthropic support from the Gates Foundation, and the promise of future billions in federal funding. We may end with all of our states “volunteering” to become centralized, with the Department of Education (and Gates, Pearson and other publishers of the national curriculum) at the helm.

What do you think of the “counter-manifesto” against a national curriculum?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.