Should American education be nationalized?
In one on his comments on my last post, Daniel Simms expressed his concern about having a national curriculum. I have never had particularly strong feelings one way or another about that, but it’s an interesting topic. I’m interested in knowing Daniel’s reasons for being so strongly against it, and I hope by posting this, we’ll get that, as well as the views of some others on the subject.
I have read a couple of books by E. D. Hirsch, the cultural literacy guru, and he is a very strong proponent of a national curriculum. One reason he is so strongly in favor of a national curriculum is the mobility of the American population. A relatively large number of people with children move from one school district to another during a school year. Some of these people move frequently, and those that do usually don’t have very high incomes. Hirsch argues that different states and different school districts all being on their own programs makes it nearly impossible for those children to keep up in school. Hirsch also believes there needs to be a core base of knowledge that all Americans share so that people in our country can read and communicate intelligently.
Hirsch is not the only one for nationalizing education. About a week before Daniel asked me what I thought about a national curriculum, a friend of mine had given me an article by Matt Miller in Atlantic Monthly called "First, Kill All the School Boards."
In the article, Miller acknowledges that nationalizing education has never been a popular idea, but he argues that the time has come:
In (Horace Mann's) time, the challenge was to embrace a bigger role for the state; today, the challenge is to embrace a bigger role for the federal government in standards, funding, and other arenas.
The usual explanation for why national standards won’t fly is that the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.” But that’s changing. Two Republican former secretaries of education, Rod Paige and William Bennett, now support national standards and tests, writing in The Washington Post: “In a world of fierce economic competition, we can’t afford to pretend that the current system (of state and local control) is getting us where we need to go.” On the Democratic side, John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton and the current president of the Center for American Progress, told me that he believes the public is far ahead of the established political wisdom...
Recent polling suggests he’s right. Two surveys conducted for the education campaign Strong American Schools, which I advised in 2006, found that a majority of Americans think there should be uniform national standards. Most proponents suggest we start by establishing standards and tests in grades 3–12 in the core subjects—reading, math, and science—and leave more-controversial subjects, such as history, until we have gotten our feet wet...
Nationalizing our schools even a little goes against every cultural tradition we have, save the one that matters most: our capacity to renew ourselves to meet new challenges. Once upon a time a national role in retirement funding was anathema; then suddenly, after the Depression, we had Social Security. Once, a federal role in health care would have been rejected as socialism; now, federal money accounts for half of what we spend on health care. We started down this road on schooling a long time ago. Time now to finish the journey.
I can see some of the points of the nationalists, but I think there are things we could do to improve public schools that would be much more effective than what they want. I have also seen what happened when our state government got heavily involved in curriculum with the Minnesota Standards, and in the area of American History, I thought their finished product was horrible. I'm afraid if the federal government does it, it might even be worse. But then on the other hand, maybe it couldn't be worse. So on this one, consider me on the fence.