Education, like politics, is local. You want it close to home, the better to monitor it. That's how it should be.
What and how to teach the kids, like politics, is subject to the changes of clout, even when it hurts the kids. That's not how it should be, but that's how it was in Washington, where a mayor stood behind an innovative leader in education who took on the powerful teachers unions, daring to fire poor teachers, to ignore tenure when teachers underperformed and to dismiss principals of chronically underperforming schools. Student test scores improved, but when the mayor lost an election, the innovative leader was out, too.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's story is told, without its recent ending, in a new documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.'" She resigned this week. Now we're waiting for Clark Kent.
Washington has one of the most expensive public school systems in the United States, spending more per pupil than any other system. But the schools are, in a word, lousy. The president of the United States wouldn't dream of sending his daughters to Washington public schools. (Jimmy Carter as president tried that as an expression of good faith, and eventually withdrew his daughter for a private school.)
In most years, not a single congressman enrolls his children in Washington's public schools, electing instead to send them to expensive private schools.
The local teachers union lost its battle against merit pay, based on student performance, but won the war by defeating the mayor who tried to change things. Lousy teachers are protected to continue the lousy schools.
The debate over education remains mired in arguments over how best to measure performance, and how to create charter schools and implement school choice. Almost no one disputes the importance of making academic standards more competitive, measured against standards prevailing in other countries. But almost nobody wants to talk -- in public -- about what our kids should be studying.
Teaching methods as well as subject matter always suffer from the pursuit of trends, and the trends today are particularly deleterious. In many schools in the lower grades, for example, a popular "technique" to get children to read is to let them choose whatever book they want, rather than assigning the books that every American child ought to know. Instead of "smarting up," this dumbing-down fosters an attitude children will keep as they grow older.
Not so long ago, E.D. Hirsch, an outspoken critic of education, joined a wide range of scholars in specifying what a core knowledge curriculum in the English language ought to include, from the kindergarten upward. In the second grade, this curriculum included such engaging writers of poetry as Emily Dickinson and Robert Louis Stevenson. Not many second-graders today choose those poets -- they prefer books with lots of pictures to lure them to read for the mindless "fun" of it.
"Cultural literacy," as Hirsch defines it, means that no student is to leave high school without a common core of reading for citizenship, including a close reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This idea is difficult to implement today, when many teachers themselves are historical illiterates.
"High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do," a recent study commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute, finds that both public and private school teachers push courses directed more toward personal and professional advancement than imparting basic core knowledge.
Courses in history, civics and political science have lost status -- the pressure on schools is to show progress in statewide math and language arts tests. In the American Enterprise Institute survey of more than a thousand public and private school teachers, only a slim majority say their students read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution with focus and care.
Many teachers admit to prejudice against teaching fundamental historical information. Fully a third say it's not necessary "to be knowledgeable about such periods as the American Founding, the Civil War and the Cold War." In a list of priorities for teaching citizenship, a mere 20 percent of these teachers put teaching about Bunker Hill, Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor at the top of their list.
"Dumbing down" is a phenomenon that threatens all of us, but in a political culture eager to find a crisis not to waste, it's hard to accentuate learning for citizenship. "As the tangible economic benefits of schooling have become central to policy thinking," says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "the teaching of citizenship has become increasingly peripheral."
We could be fusing economic possibility with the obligations of citizenship, but instead we separate them. Instead of education drawing us together with a common core of knowledge, we foster a runaway multiculturalism that widens and emphasizes differences. The Founding Fathers knew that a shared body of knowledge was needed to protect democracy. It's needed now more than ever.