No Choices Left Behind? Why National Standards Will Increase Standardization, Decrease Accountability, and Probably Not Work
I suppose it was just a matter of time. After years of floating the idea around in the abstract, a national panel of educators and curriculum specialists are unveiling their draft of new national curricular standards for US public schools. And I confess; I don’t get it. The first attempt at widespread federal intervention into education – No Child Left Behind – was roundly and rightly criticized by, seemingly, everyone. But this time…this time will be different.
Maybe I exaggerated; I do get it. I get that we are living in a time where we simply assume that the larger the scale, the better the result. After all, one of the key arguments against allowing states to set their own standards for their own schools is that…well… states can’t be trusted. (Of course, the idea that decision makers on the federal level can be trusted where state decision makers can’t is never argued for; it is just assumed.) William Bennett and Rod Paige took this line several years ago:
But there’s a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act — which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly.
Tennessee, they cite as an example, reports that only 47 percent of its fourth graders are “proficient” in reading. They also cite Oklahoma, where the reason their number of “needs improvement” schools have decreased is because of changes in their standards, not performance.
All of this may well be true. But is there anything in this argument that suggests that nationalization will tackle this problem and get better results? Just as many arguments for national standards do, Paige’s and Bennett’s argument points to state flaws and ASSUMES that those flaws would be ameliorated at the national level.
Now, here, it could be responded that there is nothing to lose by trying. We have let the localities and states think for themselves for far too long, and it is time to let the fed try their hand. There are several reasons I see AGAINST doing this. Not only are there things to lose, there are reasons that localities are simply better governments than nations. (more…)
Here is an interesting vido, where Michigan State University Professor of Education Yong Zhau talks about finding a balance between the push for standardization and pluralism/individualism in American education. (The video takes a few minutes to load and is a bit less than 10 minutes.)
A professor of mine at the University of Delaware, Amanda Jansen, pointed me towards this link after following my discussion with author James Bach (who seems to favor a form of self-education where students are the prime movers of their own education). I, on the other hand, am a strong supporter of a voucher system of the type I think is hinted at in Zhau’s video.
It seems that the issue – like many issues – is often framed in a very extreme binary way: either we allow students 100% control to study what they want when they want, or we push for a highly standardized, NCLB style education where a student’s educational trajectory is quite inflexibly decided for them. As a supporter of a voucher-style approach (whether by voucher, tax-credit, or wholly private but subsidized), I think there is a third way, whereby states could mandate certain minimal curricular objectives while leaving parents and students (not just students, mind you) free to choose what kind of education they, or their children, should have.
As Zhau notes in the video, the largest benefit of such a system is that while certain standards do exist in order to ensure that students acquire the basic skills (reading, writing, math) that would need to be employed to acquire more specialized skills, parents and students can choose the type of school that they think would best suit their child. Not only can they choose the type of school by approach (Montesorri, disciplinarian, online, etc) but they might choose the academic focus they want for their child (arts, humanities, technology, etc.) As it stands now, unless parents want to pay above and beyond the taxes taken to support public schools, parents and students have no choice of where to attend school and very little choice of what to study. (more…)