Saturday, March 01, 2008

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.


Blogger Peter Thies said...

We should not nationalize education. When the federal government extended itself into retirement and health care, it reduced individuals' incentives to work for those needs on their own. We do not want to promote increased dependence on a central government; that has never worked. The federal government should stick to its constitutionally prescribed roles.

3/01/2008 11:21 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

When I was growing up, I just assumed that all schools taught the same things, with some time left open for local subjects--the same way that our tv was national, but with local news several times a day.

The federal government doesn't tell local schools what they have to teach. It also doesn't tell networks what they have to program. But I can move from New York to Chicago to Boston and see the same shows. It's an empirical question just how "national" a curriculum we have.

As far as I can tell, there seems to be national agreement on what a 4th grade or 8 grade reading level is. Every high school has a year-long biology, chemistry, and physics class. I could go on and on.

Of course, different schools (even different teachers) teach in greater or less depth, and cover different aspects.

How much a national curriculum would change that probably depends on how detailed it is. I'll bet Illinois has various state standards. I'd also bet that the education in New Trier is a lot different from that in Chicago, just twenty miles away.

A federal curriculum which told every school what it had to do in every subject every month for every year would impose more uniformity than any state does today. It would certainly solve one aspect of the moving student problem. You wouldn't miss the next episode of American History any more than you'd miss the next episode of 24.

However, when everybody had to do the same thing, it is extraordinarily important that the thing be right. I support an imposed national curriculum on one condition. I get to decide what it is. I'm the only one I trust :)

3/01/2008 11:34 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Roger, you are completely wrong about this. A national curriculum should only be supported if I'M THE ONE who gets to decide what it is.

3/01/2008 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second what Peter Thies says, except that I would extend it to the state government's involvement in education. Parents don't have much incentive to be involved in their children's education if the state takes that responsibility away from them.

Miller's favorable view of social security and government spending in health care makes me skeptical of anything else he says. I imagine that he would be in favor of "finishing the journey" in health care as well, by moving to a universal health care system. What a disaster that would be.

Dennis, please read that Hasnas article, and apply his rationale to education (it took me about 30 minutes to read it, and I'm sure that you're at least as intelligent as I am). Education, just like customary law, used to be a self correcting, evolving system that, although not perfect, worked well in the hands of common folk like you and I.


Daniel Simms

3/01/2008 7:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, I will read the Hasnas article. How can I not after a comment like that? No one who knows me has ever told me that I was at least as intelligent as them.

You and I definitely do differ on some things, though. I am definitely not a flaming liberal. In fact, I believe that nearly all the damage that has been done to public education over the last 40 years has been done by liberals. One issue I am liberal on, however, is universal health care. That is because health care is something that I think SHOULD BE considered a right.

3/02/2008 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you will enjoy the article, Dennis. His main thesis, as I saw it, is that a dynamic system such as law (or I say education and health care) cannot be managed by a central authority without creating more problems than it attempts to solve. He uses the evolution of the common law from the dark ages to the present to demonstrate this.


Daniel Simms

3/02/2008 6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, I probably shouldn't bring this up, but I'm only responding to your comment. If you consider health care to be one person's right, then you imply that it is an obligation for another to provide it. That's how it works. Which means, for example, that if the couple next door has four children without seeking your consultation or consent, knowing that they don't have the resources to provide for the needs of their children, then you're obligated to provide for these needs. Just so you understand what that really means. It sounds to me like the way some people take advantage of other people. It has nothing to do with charity or morality.


Daniel Simms

3/02/2008 9:36 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Daniel, we do not agree on this subject, but you have made me realize that I was wrong to call health care a "right." When I do that, I am using that term too loosely, just like the Supreme Court does when it calls education a right. A right should be viewed only as something that government can't take away from you, not something that it is obligated to give you.

Philip K. Howard calls education a benefit that is provided by a democratic society, and not a right. I agree completely, and I think our society should provide that opportunity. I also think that a democratic society should provide for those who, through misfortune, can't take care of themselves. You and I disagree about that, but you have made me see the light--it is not a right, and should not be considered one.

3/02/2008 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A right should be viewed only as something that government can't take away from you, not something that it is obligated to give you."

Spoken like a true libertarian!


Daniel Simms

3/02/2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Benny the Troll should have hung in here a little longer. He'd be amazed!

3/02/2008 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Canada, for various historical reasons, has an even more fractured education system nation-wide than the US. We don't, for instance, have a federal department of education - it is strictly (very strictly) the provinces' responsibility. This has led to the same thing that you're describing - students from one province can't be assumed to have studied the same thing as students from the next province over.

We've been experimenting the last couple of years with standardising certain aspects of our curriculum, to the point where you can now say that our science classes are standardised nationally. However, within that standardisation, there is still variability. For instance, Grade 11 biology requires the study of genes. Different provinces focus on different things within that (heredity vs. the science of genetics).

In some areas, our curriculum isn't standardised at all, and I'm okay with that, too. History is one example, where someone from St. John's might learn much more about Cabot and the discovery of Canada, than someone from Manitoba, who would focus more on Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion. Our histories and experiences are different across the country, and I think it's appropriate that our education content reflect that.

Maybe where standards would come in would be less in the content areas, and more in the skill areas (i.e. all grade 6 students should be able to do long division, all grade 12 students should be able to write a dialectical essay, etc).

I didn't mean to ramble on so much, sorry...

3/02/2008 4:51 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks for the comment, Ian, and I didn't think you rambled at all. It's good to know what our friends from up north do. I think the biggest concern that anti-nationalists have here is social studies. Unless I completely misunderstand them, they fear that this will subject students to some sort of indoctrination, and I think those fears are unfounded. My fear is that the more state and national politicians get involved in education, the more they screw it up.

3/02/2008 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NCTAF just published a book edited by Bob Wehling and Carri Schneider that contains chapters by lots of influential people on topics related to "nationalizing" education standards. It's available for free, in full - here:

3/03/2008 7:12 AM  
Anonymous Liz Ditz said...

Dennis, two things:

In some ways we have some de-facto national standards, at least in the high-school, college-track area: Advanced Placement tests and the SATs/ACT. Also, at least in the west, the University of California A-G requirements (see here):

I'm not saying if they are good or bad (on the whole, I'm not an AP fan in the lab sciences or the humanities). But there they are.

Second: if by "national standards" you mean a system like the French had, in which on Monday March 3d, all 3rd graders everywhere in the French provinces were studying the exact same thing -- well, no thanks.

But if you mean something more like the Finnish system of national standards and autonomy in methods of reaching those standards, I'm much more enthusiastic.

Here are some links to discussion of education in Finland:


I think to get from local control to national standards is a long, hard road -- if it is even worth it. But the inequity in funding from district A to the one 0.5 miles away, District B -- that is worth fighting over.

3/03/2008 8:55 AM  
Anonymous Liz Ditz said...

I forgot -- BIG congratulations on the hockey successes!

3/03/2008 8:56 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, thank you for the book tip.

Liz, as I said in the post, my feelings on some other issue in education are a lot stronger than they are on this one, but I believe Hirsch would like us to go to something like the French system, while the "Kill All the School Boards" article would seem to favor the Finnish one.

And thank you for the congratulations! :)

3/04/2008 5:16 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home