Duncan Balls

It seems U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and British schools secretary Ed Balls disagree on the merits of national standards. While Duncan has said that homogenizing educational standards nationwide is his single most important goal while in office, Balls has just pulled the plug on the U.K.’s 10 year experiment with national reading and math strategies. He told the media:

I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre but by schools themselves.

The problem with saying that every 5th grader in the nation should learn the same things at the same time is that all 5th graders are not created equal. Some are better at math than reading. Some the reverse. Some are quick learners across the board. Some are slower. To deny this is ridiculous, but to acknowledge it is to admit that homogenized standards in a system that groups students rigidly by age is educational malpractice.

Even if kids were all identical automatons, national standards wouldn’t drive excellence. It is the incentive structure of the free enterprise system that has driven progress in all the fields that have actually progressed – not externally-imposed standards.

What America needs for an educational renaissance is to release schools and families from the shackles of monopoly, and re-inject the freedom and incentives that kindle innovation and efficiency. Sitting 50 million Jills and Johnnies down on a conveyor belt that drags them all through their studies at the same pace makes no sense.