October 17th, 2007

Commentary: New American Revolution Fought Over National Education Standards

New American revolution fought over national education standards

By John Merrow
Published: Oct 17, 2007 / San Jose Mercury News

History seems to be repeating itself. Just as they did in the 1770s, the American “colonies” are
rebelling against a distant ruler named George.

A fractious bunch, the original 13 colonies regularly engaged in disputes over boundaries and trade.
An early attempt at unification, the Albany Plan in 1754, fell flat. It took a common enemy, the
English King George III, to unite them. Preoccupied with the Seven Years War with France,
George III taxed the colonies to pay his military expenditures, while making heavy-handed efforts to
control the colonies. Heeding Benjamin Franklin’s warning, “We must all hang together, or most
assuredly we shall all hang separately,” the colonists created an alliance.

The rest is history.

Why is it “déjà vu all over again”? For one thing, the original 13 colonies (and most of the other 37)
are upset with this president - let’s call him George II - and his education policies. Three of the
original colonies - New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont - have already banded together. Fed
up with what they perceive as heavy-handed interference mandated by his No Child Left Behind
law, they’ve joined forces to create tests for grades 3-8, the grades that George II insists on testing.
Now nine more colonies (excuse me, states) are working to develop a common exam for algebra II.

Something important is happening. Prominent educators, including Paul Vallas of New Orleans,
Rudy Crew of Miami, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Michael
Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools, are calling for national standards, something 65 urban
school districts have already endorsed.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Douglas Christensen believes Washington is usurping power.
“Our union came from the states, not the other way around.”

Michael Cohen of Achieve, an organization that supports common standards, says state leaders
know such standards are “desirable and inevitable.” He adds, “Increasingly they are coming to see
that, if they don’t step up to the plate now and take the lead, they are leaving the door wide open for
the feds to step in, potentially with undesirable consequences.”

George II might have done what his father, George I, did in 1989 and invited the governors to an
education summit to thrash out a plan for national standards. But that’s unlikely, because George II,
like George III, is preoccupied with a seemingly never-ending war.

And so, united in opposition to the heavy hand of a distant ruler, nearly all the 50 states may soon
be working together. And if that happens, they - not President Bush or Congress - will create
common standards and national testing.

Taking back public education means reclaiming the language. Philanthropist Eli Broad and others
concerned about public education now talk about “common” or “American” standards, eschewing
the familiar descriptive “national.” For most Americans, “national” and “federal” are
interchangeable, implying that Washington is in charge.

For the 13 colonies, the long struggle with George III turned out well. Things did not go smoothly
for George III, who presided over the dissolution of much of the British Empire, and eventually
died at Windsor Castle in 1820, blind, deaf and mad as a hatter.

Because of our Constitution, the current struggle will turn out differently. George II has said that,
after January 2009, he will build a Freedom Institute in Dallas, spend time on his ranch in Crawford,
and give speeches to “refill the old coffers.”

The best outcome of this modern American Revolution will be common education standards,
common tests and an end to federal domination of K-12 public education. And No Child Left
Behind may turn out to have been “the shot heard round the world” (of education) that united the
colonies. Once considered the signature domestic accomplishment of the Bush administration
because of its laudable focus on student achievement, No Child Left Behind is increasingly seen as
an unprecedented attempt at federal control over public education.

There are four unknowns: if the federal government provides money (and civil rights protection) but
otherwise butts out; if the standards that emerge are specific and sufficiently demanding; if the states pool their resources to create challenging tests; and if appropriate resources are put into the right places, then public education might be on the cusp of a golden age.

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started reading your op-ed with a smile on my face, enjoying the similarities you drew between King George III and George Bush II.  The smile dropped off my face very quickly when I began reading about states banding together for common standards and common assessments.  Are you nuts?
 
What has become of States’ rights?  We have 50 very different education systems in our 50 very different states.  Who exactly do you think is going to run this common system?  The only common system of anything we have in this country is the federal government, and they have proven to be inept and idiotic at every turn in the last 25 years when dealing with education.  If we have common standards and common assessments and the feds don’t run the system, are we somehow going to create a national education commission/directorate/ “dare I say it” corporation?
 
We are playing directly into the hands of the forces that started in fracas in 1983.  Education has become big business, and what is infinitely galling to me is that we let this happen.  Michael Cohen must have been salivating to get his quote into your op-ed, considering that Achieve was formed by the National Governors Association at the second National Education Summit in 1996, with Gerstner and IBM hosting the event, just as they did in 1989 at the first Summit.  Our schools, which used to be a source of local civic pride and controlled if not at that level, at least at the state level, are literally being laid into the outstretched waiting arms of global multinational corporations.
 
The basic fact here is that educational performance-based accountability systems simply don’t work.  They are designed to prove only one thing, that A Nation At Risk was correct, and our schools are failing.  Our schools are not failing, and we know it.  The only thing these systems have been successful at is making us pay attention to low performing students, but since all in education must pay constant attention to the constantly rising moving target of annual achievement gains, student who should get more attention don’t get it.  Statistically, a point will come when all children will be left behind, and every school in the nation will be on the “needs improvement” list.  Do you actually think common standards and common assessments will keep us from this nightmare, considering the options of who will be in charge of this mess?
 
A colleague of mine from Sweden once asked me why Americans educators disagreed with accountability so vehemently.  His actual point was that other countries seemed to be doing fine using the concept.  It took me awhile to come up with the answer, but the answer is actually quite simple.  American is made up of 50 separate “Swedens” or states, each state with its own history and its own collection of cultures.  Having common standards and common assessments (with the attending common rewards and sanctions) is just about as workable as having a common education system for Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, and even if you’re not Scandinavian, I’m sure you can imagine the kind of horrors that conjures up.
 
Face it.  We made a mistake.  Conspiracy theories aside, NCLB should have never happened.  We were never A Nation At Risk.  But this time as in 1776, we need to be certain what we are uniting for, because this time our children could swing on the gallows with us.




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