I have recently been reading The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. Its author, Matt Miller, says the recent “standards” emphasis is a positive move away from a piecemeal “local control” approach to school curriculum, which he sees as pretty much the root of all our problems with schools today. He points out that the lack of a coherent, nationwide policy on how schools are run has resulted in the educational equivalent of “jumping on our horse and riding off in all directions.” Every little school board is its own power center, for good or for ill, and that, plus tying school funding to local property taxes, results in spotty successes and rampant inequity in our nation’s schools.
I agree with many of his points. I live in the Kansas City metro area, where we have an elephant-in-the-living-room-sized example of just how crazy and dysfunctional local control can get. But I’ve got to say that I think in our consumer-oriented society, where individualism is prized so highly and everyone wants to have everything “their way,” local control is much more likely to morph than to die. Any successful national standards initiative is going to have to recognize and accommodate this.
The history of local school control is too long in this country, and the suspicions of national or central control are too firmly grounded, for anything else. Aside from the long tradition, in some ways local control of schools makes good sense: who knows better than the parents and teachers of the individual students in question, how to teach them?
I also am an advocate of what are called “democratic” schools—schools in which teachers and students seek out the ways that work best for them, and inform policy changes and rules of operation for their school in a kind of “ground-up” approach. That’s why I think that if they are to truly revolutionize U.S. education, national standards must set agreed-upon goals—but NOT force-feed specific approaches.
Specific approaches, rammed down our throats, are about all we’ve had so far, thanks to the “education-industrial complex” of test-makers, large textbook companies and other special interests busily spending millions to lobby Washington. The trouble-plagued “Reading First” program is a good example. A textbook company with connections within the Beltway foisted a questionable program on millions of young readers, at huge cost to taxpayers and school districts. The Department of Education vigorously pushed it for several years; now it has been discredited.
For most of the country’s educators, the whole “No Child Left Behind” effort has been an expensive, heavy-handed and questionably effective social experiment that I think is guaranteed to set up greater resistance to future national initiatives.