March 11, 2010 4:42PM

Slippery Standards Slope

The draft national curricular standards released yesterday, as I wrote earlier, will in all likelihood do little or no educational good if adopted. They'll either be ignored or, if hard to meet, dumbed-down.

That said, the really troubling question is not whether the standards will do any good, but whether they will do much harm.

The answer: Oh, they'll do harm. They'll move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.

Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that complete centralization -- meaning, federalization -- will lead to nationwide conflict over what the schools should teach, much as we are seeing in Texas right now and witnessed in the 1990s, the last time Washington tried to push "voluntary" national standards. Back then national standards in several subjects were proposed, and a national firestorm was set off over what they did, and did not, contain.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative folks clearly learned from the nineties experience, assiduously avoiding even the appearance of mandating the reading of specific literary works and focusing instead on skills. (The draft standards include a lot of reading exemplars but don't require knowledge of any specific literary pieces). As a result, the response so far seems much less heated than occurred in the nineties, though critiques of the proposed standards certainly do exist. Once control over language arts skills and mathematics is fully centralized, however, can we really expect specific content standards in literature and other subjects to be left entirely to states and districts?

It seems unlikely: Once Washington connects receipt of federal funding to performance on national standards for some subjects, it is very likely to expand into others. After all, aren't science, history, and other topics as important as reading and math?

"Promoting" science is a huge favorite of federal politicians, so it's certainly hard to imagine science -- and the freighted questions about human origins and climate change that go with it -- not becoming a target for nationalization. Similarly, since many public schooling advocates argue that we must have government schools to create good citizens, it's hard to envision the controversy-laden subjects of history and civics not entering the sites of federal politicians.  And when they do, we can either expect the sparks to fly, or the standards that are set to be so milquetoast as to be meaningless.

Wait. Am I being overly alarmist about this, trying to start a trumped-up slippery-slope scare to undermine the current national standards push?

Nope. National standards supporters are already talking about targeting science and history. For instance, in the forward to International Lessons about National Standards, a recent report from the national-standards-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it is written about the CCSSI:

Our authors would prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we’d like to get to history sooner rather than later.

And Fordham is not alone. Indeed, the CCSSI folks have already been talking about creating national science and social studies standards!

When should all kids learn evolution, if at all? How much Hispanic history should students know? How many Founding Fathers should high school grads be able to identify? What caused the Civil War? Is global warming a major threat? Are we a Christian nation? How these and numerous other bitterly contested questions will officially be answered will suddenly have to be duked out by every American, and the winners will get to dictate to the entire nation.

So the language arts and math standards revealed yesterday are, almost certainly, just the camel's nose under the tent.  Unfortunately, that means the whole destructive beast isn't far behind.