“The public school system has been described as the best sucker list in America. Because of the delivery power of the attendance officer, educational policy is highly vulnerable to use by special interests to forward their personal and public causes. Sooner or later, most social reformers get around to trying to influence what is taught and how.”
Francis Keppel, former United States Commissioner of Education1
The social reformers are now in charge. While the public is preoccupied with stopping federalized health care, job killing environmental regulation and other ambitious extensions of federal power, the take-over of K-12 education is underway.
Rahm Emanuel’s oft-quoted advice about crisis and opportunity comes to mind. The crisis is a stagnant, reform-averse education system. This president, a social reformer and self-described progressive, is not one to waste an opportunity. And what an opportunity it is! Historical amnesia regarding the Founders and the Constitution is already advanced. A national curriculum could accelerate the process and hasten the progressives’ nirvana.
Using education for political ends is hardly a new concept. 20th century history is replete with despots who viewed education as a way to achieve their goals and, not incidentally, hold on to power. Abraham Lincoln understood it, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Joseph Stalin was less sanguine, “Education is a weapon,” he said, “whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
National standards are aimed at transferring state authority over education to Washington. The carrot for the national standards’ stick is the 4.35 billion allocated to “Race to The Top”(RTTT) in the Stimulus Bill. Eligibility to compete for a share of RTTT gold is contingent upon the states’ acceptance of the standards. Putting RTTT in the Stimulus Bill rather than in the rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) avoided legislative discussion. Count another slick maneuver by an administration famous for them.
Although the standards are advertised as state-led and voluntary because they are funded and promoted by the National Governors Association and the Council of State Chief School Officers, the reality is different. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that approval of the standards would also be linked to reauthorization of NCLB, and an even bigger pot of money. At a time when most states are in fiscal disarray, that’s “an offer they can’t refuse.” Duncan also said that the government would provide $350 million to develop tests tied to the standards.
The sucker list beckons and not for the first time.
During the 1930s, the American educational establishment embraced progressive education. It became rooted in the teacher training institutions where, in its various permutations, it is entrenched today. The unifying theme being that to prepare students to remedy society’s inequalities, they must be inculcated with the proper belief system.
A new, “child-centered” approach flooded the nation’s schools requiring a more permissive classroom in which children pursue topics of interest to them. Structured curriculum flew out the window along with American history, civics, phonics and geography. In came a plethora of progressive nostrums, among them whole language, new math, and a social studies curriculum emphasizing the need for government planning and regulation; the primacy of the group over the individual; and a pervasive relativism that proclaims all values equal and subject to change according to societal needs. Textbook publishers have been complicit.
In 2006, Gilbert C. Sewall of the American Textbook Council,2 explained how it all works to a Senate committee. “Publishers cater to pressure groups for whom history textbook content is an extension of a broader political or cultural cause. They make books whose content is meant to suit the sensitivities of groups and causes more interested in self-promotion than in historical fact, scholarly appraisal, or balance. … The collaboration of educational publishers with pressure groups and textbook censors is disturbing. Determining what history children will learn, who will be heroes and villains, what themes will dominate, and what message will be sent are crucial subtexts in civic education. At worst, biased instructional materials are undermining students’ appreciation for America and citizenship.”
Any protests from parents and scholars were mostly ignored until 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Fear that America was falling behind in science and math produced a brief attempt to return to fundamentals. It also provided an opportunity for education lobbyists to expand federal education funding by linking it to national defense. Until then, Congress had been unwilling to fund general education, presumably in deference to the Constitution, which reserves education to the states (10th Amendment). When Congress passed the National Defense in Education Act in 1958 the federal relationship to education changed.
For more than 50 years, under various titles, Congress appropriated ever-larger sums of money to improve education. Ironically, much of that money has been used to promote progressive theories and goals, thanks to like-minded federal bureaucrats who allocate the funds. Inflation adjusted per pupil spending tripled in 4 decades, the number of teachers increased 61 percent, enrollment rose about 10 percent. Test scores stayed flat or declined.
Whether national standards will improve student achievement is very much an open question, contrary to supporters’ claims. A CATO Institute report3 explains that empirical support for national standards is weak. “First, there simply has not been much comparative research done. Second, what little has been done has typically focused not simply on national standards, but standards coupled with high stakes for students, something not contemplated, at least publicly, under the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”
There are very real practical and political reasons why nationally imposed standards won’t improve education outcomes and are more likely to result in mandated mediocrity.
As the CATO report points out, the vast array of well-healed educational special interest groups, (teacher unions, professional associations, think tanks, political and education advocacy groups, publishers and other vendors etc.), are certain to use their considerable lobbying powers (and political muscle) to shape the standards to serve their particular financial and political interests. Many of these groups oppose rigorous standards because they want to avoid the political and job consequences when students fail.
But perhaps the greatest barrier to demanding standards is that they conflict with the egalitarian nature of progressivism. How can there be social justice when some students excel and others don’t? (We already have schools that frown on competitive sports and protect students’ “self esteem” by refusing to name valedictorians.)
The latest proclamation by Secretary of Education Duncan, that the Office of Civil Rights will open “equity” investigations into individual schools, exemplifies the conflict. Duncan wants the government to ensure “that low-income Latino and African American students” have the same access to Advanced Placement classes as do other students. But it is not ethnicity that keeps black and Latino pupils out of AP courses, it is the schools they attend that make them less likely than white and Asian students to possess the academic skills needed to succeed in AP classes. If the investigations determine the numbers are deficicent, will the remedy be a quota system like that used for college admissions? Or will principals avoid the problem by allowing poorly prepared students to enroll in AP classes. And what effect is either remedy likely to have on students and on the quality of AP courses?
Another outcome, perhaps the more plausible one, is outlined in the text of a letter from Marc Tucker to Hillary Clinton on the eve of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and an advisor to the U. S. Department of Education on how to implement the Common Core Standards and Race to the Top.
The letter discusses the Clinton educational agenda, lays out a plan for imposing National Standards, and much, much more. Tucker writes, “We think the great opportunity you have is to remold the entire American System for human resources development…” Tucker recommends “a national—not federal—human resources development system… a national system of education in which curriculum, pedagogy, examinations, and teacher education and licensure systems are all linked to the national standards, a system that rewards students who meet the national standards with further education and good jobs ….” It would be “a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone. … labor market boards” would be “established at the local, state and federal levels to coordinate the systems for job training, postsecondary professional and technical education, adult basic education, job matching and counseling.”4 Tucker warns, however, that “Radical changes in attitudes, values and beliefs are required to move any combination of these agendas,” and he provides suggestions to bring these about.
In the brave new world of Tucker’s description, we are no longer individuals with plans and dreams of our own, we are human resources to be allocated as determined by the needs of the global economy and by those who know what is best for us.
In 1840, Alexis De Tocqueville (Democracy In America) thought about how despotism might overtake a democracy. He warned that should citizens become preoccupied with procuring “petty and paltry pleasures” they would be at risk. He described:
“…an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent…. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry…. After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform…. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided…. It does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd…. It is vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice…will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.”
But I digress.
Given the statist proclivities of the present administration and its disregard, if not contempt, for the democratic process, the drive for a national curriculum will persist, even with public resistance, (if there is any). It’s doubtful if many people will have the time or inclination to read the proposed Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science now available for review, and they will need to hurry. Only three weeks have been allotted for public input before the standards are finalized.
Critics have called them “inexplicit, generic, broadly stated,” and “an empty set of skill-based benchmarks.” No doubt the standards were contrived to avoid the controversies that doomed previous attempts. In any case, their content is irrelevant. The standards are just the bait. The switch comes later.