National Curriculum Battle Joined

Remember several weeks ago, when the Albert Shanker Institute released a manifesto calling for the creation of detailed curriculum guides to go with the national standards and tests being pushed and pulled through the back doors of states across the country? Apparently, that was the last straw for a lot of education analysts and policymakers, especially folks like Williamson Evers of the Hoover Institution (and Bush II Education Department); one-time Fordham Institute state-standards evaluator Sandra Stotsky; and Foundation for Education Choice senior fellow Greg Forster. Those three, along with a few others, organized a counter-manifesto being released today, a 100-plus signatory reply which, according to the group’s press release, declares that:

  • These efforts are against federal law and undermine the constitutional balance between national and state authority.
  • The evidence doesn’t show a need for national curriculum or a national test for all students.
  • U.S. Department of Education is basing its initiative on inadequate content standards.
  • There is no research-based consensus on what is the best curricular approach to each subject.
  • There is not even consensus on whether a single “best curricular approach” for all students exists.

These points certainly sum up many of the major problems with the national standards drive, a drive that has been shrouded in half-truths about “voluntary” standards adoption; shorthand pleas for federal coercion; and what appears to be a camel’s-nose-under-the-tent strategy to ultimately impose a detailed, de facto federal curriculum. There is more to the problem than the summary points above cover – for instance, the Constitution gives the federal government no authority whatsoever to meddle in school curricula – but for a consensus-driven document, this new and desperately needed cannon blast against national standards is very welcome.

For a great explanation of why the anti-manifesto ringleaders did what they did, check out Greg Forster’s entry on the Witherspoon Institute’s blog. He hits lots of important points – especially that nationalizing curricula is a surefire way to fuel all-encompassing social strife – and I would quibble with only one thing:

My own view is that the root of the problem is the government monopoly on schools. Governmental monopolization of the education of children guarantees that all our religious and moral differences will be constantly politicized. School choice, in addition to delivering better academic performance, seems to me to be the only way to end the scorpions-in-a-bottle cultural dynamic and create space for shared citizenship across diverse religious and moral views.

But that’s an argument for another day.

Here’s where I think Greg is incorrect: Choice is not an argument for another day. It is the argument for this day.

Until all parents have real, full choice they will have no option but to demand that higher levels of government force intractable lower levels to provide good education. It won’t work – thanks to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs all levels of government are dominated by teachers’ unions and administrators’ associations that will never let tough accountability and high standards rein – but it is all that parents can do absent the ability to take their children, and tax dollars, somewhere else. That means choice is essential right now, because it is the only way to take power away from special-interest dominated government and give it to the people the schools are supposed to serve. In other words, it is the only option that will actually work, obliterating the special-interest hammerlock, imposing accountability to customers, and when coupled with freedom for educators unleashing competition, specialization, innovation, and constant upward pressure on standards. In other words, it will do all those things that national standardizers emptily and illogically promise that their reform will do, and much, much more.