No National Curriculum, Thanks

Posted: May 10, 2011 12:01 AM
The good old American inclination to wave a magic wand and say to an urgent problem, "Begone!" is on display in the fast-emerging movement for a national K-12 curriculum.

Ah, you didn't know there was such a movement, far less that it was emerging. Here's the lowdown. Various analysts representing mostly the education establishment are pressing for a so-called "common curriculum" -- one that would supposedly engage the minds of all American students, aligning their performance with the latest thinking as to what's needed.

All but six states (including Texas) have fallen into bed with an effort -- supported by the U.S. Education Department and led by the National Governors Association and state educational officials -- to shape a core curriculum "robust and relevant to the real world." A couple of weeks ago, the Pearson Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said they were developing a complete online curriculum for math and English/language arts courses.

The Albert Shanker Institute, named for the late, widely respected head of the American Federation of Teachers, wants a "coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the knowledge and skills" expected of all students.

Every new movement worth its salt, if that's not the wrong gastronomic image for our health-obsessed century, in due course faces organized dissent. Which honor the common curriculum movement received this week in the form of a manifesto, "Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America" that is signed by numerous notables of a generally rightward bent.

The debate can commence and not a moment too soon. The idea of a "common curriculum" is one of those notions we fall into occasionally, supposing that what sounds good and feels good must somehow or other be really, really good. We identify "good," we decree it and that should be it.

There's much good, obviously, in urging high educational standards. The setting of standards, nonetheless, is generally best left to the people closest to "the people" -- who know what can be done and what "done" actually looks like in practice. A nation of 300 million-plus is more diverse than the nation that engaged the old blue-backed spellers and assigned aspiring pupils to declaim, "Sail on! Sail on and on!" What's right for New York (whatever New York may think!) isn't necessarily right for Rockwall, Texas.

Moreover, the idea of a national curriculum implies no higher duty than to develop and promulgate it. All students shall read and do math up to X-standard of performance? You could put it that way. The No Child Left Behind Act certainly decrees as much, and, lo, it ain't happening. Facts and circumstances have a logic that planners never seem to anticipate.

The facts and circumstances chiefly on display in education don't relate to money. Some of our worst school systems (e.g. Washington, D.C.'s) spend the most money per pupil. Money doesn't heal the social dysfunctions that are at the heart of America's educational slump.

The United States has the kind of educational systems that modern Americans seem most to desire: not the worst possible but not the best possible, either. Sort of in-between: The logical product of a culture so attuned to the demands of absolute equality as to shrink from sorting out sheep from goats, academically speaking. Modern America doesn't want you to fail. If you do, you can start over. If that doesn't work, we'll lower the standards. Anything for success -- real or fake!

American schools will become good the minute American culture finally decides it wants good schools, which isn't the same as deciding to commission a national curriculum. Instead, it's the same as forming a commitment at home and in the community and at the office and in the shop: first to expect and then to enforce a high level of student achievement. Overseers of the public good who think the job gets done by simply commanding high performance are: well, let's be nice. These folk need the summer off.

William Murchison writes from Dallas. To learn more about William Murchison and to see features and cartoons by other Creators Syndicate writers, visit the Creators Syndicate website at