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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