Thursday, February 26, 2009

National Standards: A society gets the schools it deserves

AFT President Randi Weingarten arguing for national standards said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, “I am not so naive as to think that it would be easy to reach consensus on national standards, but I believe that most people would agree that there is academic content that all students in America's public schools should be taught, and be taught to high standards.”

Do most people agree on the academic content for America’s public schools? What do we, as a nation, expect high school graduates to know and what skills would we like them to have? Despite, the various commissions that recognize the need for 21st Century workers to have good communications skills and the ability to analyze and resolve problems creatively, there is little if any consensus on how schools can produce that highly skilled workforce. There are so many conflicting interests and aspirations that we are forced to consider why we teach certain things, and not others. Can we reconcile the difference between the education of the individual from the education of the citizen?

In our haste to establish national standards, let’s not neglect those students who fail to complete high school. These are the youngsters who increasingly end up in our penal system. This is a national disgrace, but is it an accident of neglect and indifference or is it intentional? Could there be a hidden curriculum in our schools? Before we can establish national standards we have to honestly assess whether those standards will be for all children or will there always be a neglected class that will have to fend for itself?

Obviously, if there are national standards, unlike NCLB, there should be funds to support the mandates. But, would costs force legislators to limit the scope of what schools teach? Will schools only provide “essential” instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic and drop all the other “non-essential” subjects like music, art, social studies, science and health? In other words, will schools and teachers be forced to teach to the test?

I recall former New York State Governor George Pataki saying that he would not approve increased funding for public education because the state constitution only guaranteed a sound education until the 8th grade. So despite all the talk of improving NYS schools, the Governor fought against additional funding for NYC public schools. Where there’s a will there’s a wallet!

Since education has traditionally been a local issue, and a public school education in Massachusetts is generally much better than one in Mississippi, national standards should start to raise all the boats in the harbor. But, local control of schools is so closely guarded that any perceived imposition from Washington will be bitterly opposed. Local politicians wary of outside control, will scare the citizenry with threats of increased costs from higher taxes. Only the most enlightened communities will look at the increases as an investment in their children and the future of the country. 

A society gets the schools it deserves.