Don’t SPEAK

I’ve just been perusing the “Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids” (SPEAK) Act. This is the bill, introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), that seeks to homogenize math and science education in America.

Dodd and Ehlers are to be commended for wanting to improve our schools, but SPEAK isn’t going to do that.

The bill’s preamble laments how the 50 curriculum standards laid down by our 50 centrally planned state school systems have fallen short of the mark. To fix this problem, it recommends central planning at the national level.

We have been inexorably centralizing control over the schools in this country for 150 years. We’ve gone from one-room schoolhouses overseen directly by the parents of the children who attended them to sprawling bureaucracies that consume half of the operating budgets of their respective states. We’ve gone from 127,000 school districts in 1932 to fewer than 15,000 today – despite a massive increase in the number of students.

Is anyone – ANYONE – arguing that this centralization of educational power has made schools better, more efficient, or more responsive to the needs and demands of families?

[crickets]

So how could anyone think that even more centralized planning – the most centralized planning we can possibly have in this country unless someone would like to turn the schools over to UN control – would be a good thing?

The most plausible explanation is that it is simply a triumph of wishful thinking over reason and evidence: “Maybe THIS time it’ll work!?!?”

There are, of course, a few more specific rationalizations embedded in the bill; some to help justify it, and others to make it seem less grossly incompatible with the liberal democracy we’re supposed to be.

On the justification front: SPEAK would ostensibly make it easier for students to transfer between states without finding themselves far behind or ahead of their classmates. This is like whacking your own hand with a hammer to distract yourself from a pounding headache. The only reason there is a problem with students transferring between states (or, for that matter, between schools within states) is that public schools started rigidly grouping students by age at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a pedagogically backward practice that was adopted for its bureaucratic simplicity, and competitive market schools often dispense with it, grouping students based on what they know and can do. Much easier to teach Calculus to a class full of people who all understand algebra, hmm?

On the rationalization front, the standards sought by SPEAK are referred to as “voluntary.” But voluntary for whom? Not for parents and students. It isn’t as though you’ll be able to walk into your local school and opt in or out. What the bill’s authors mean is that it would be voluntary for state school boards or state school superintendents. Once they decide, you, me, and Dupree don’t get a say.

America will start leading on the international education stage when it starts leveraging its strengths. We are an entrepreneurial nation that values individual liberty and recognizes the virtues of voluntary cooperation, competition between providers, specialization, and the division of labor. Instead of standardizing our schools and our kids, we should be energizing our education system with the same market freedoms and incentives that have made us a world economic power.

More on the recent interest in homogenizing American education here.