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Towards a Better Educational System

November 6, 2010

The recent attempt to politicize social studies education by the Texas State Board of Education led to outbursts of disbelief across the country, particularly by the Left.  Editorials were written criticizing the silliness of the whole process of letting politically motivated individuals dictate what students should learn.  The New York Times editorial bemoaned the “effort to justify injecting more religion into government”, as well as the aborted attempt to rename the “slave trade” the “Atlantic triangular trade.” A spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network called the board’s majority “extremists” and that “they’ve been successful in turning what should be a curriculum document into a political manifesto.”

Citizens across the country are correctly outraged over the new content.  Citizens should also be outraged that they struck down amendments like board member Mavis Knight’s to “examine the reason the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” Conspicuously absent, however, is any questioning of why an elected board in Texas has this amount of authority in the first place?  So ingrained is the notion that states and local communities should have the authority to make these decisions, nobody bothers to ask why we do not have “national standards” and curriculum?  How did it come to be that we left important matters of what is taught in the classroom to elected, politically and ideologically motivated individuals?

What happened in Texas recently is not new (since the 1960s, especially due to the lobbying of religious conservatives Mel and Norma Gabler and their nonprofit corporation, Educational Research Associates, conservative action groups have been pressuring Textbook companies with great success). Nor is it unique to Texas.  According to a recent Washington Post article, “lousy” social studies standards are common.  The Board of Education in Indiana, just as an example, “warned local school districts in an open letter not to use many of the social studies texts that were actually adopted by the state” due to their poor quality. The over 4 billion dollar text book industry tailors its books to ensure virtually nothing controversial makes it into their books.  Considering the sensibilities of the Texas State Board of Education and its power over the industry in general, this is no surprise.  Indiana’s board accurately warned that “the now standardized form of social studies textbooks — jammed full of facts without interesting prose, racing through data without telling the story (good and bad) of our country — may jeopardize both student interest in history as a subject and the effective learning of the country’s principles and values as a predicate to participating as a citizen of our nation.”

Why then is there virtually no discussion by government officials, pundits, and other examiners and experts of education over one of the underlying reasons for the current controversy in Texas and the decay of textbooks?  Virtually every expert paraded on TV will wag their finger at the board in Texas, but won’t dare question the legitimacy of boards in the first place.  Why do we have boards like the one in Texas?  Do other countries have this problem?

The answer to this last question is No!  Off the table in virtually any discussion of education is something Horace Mann Lamented over 150 years ago:  our fetish with local and state control.  To even mention that education might be a national priority and not left to the whims of state and local boards borders on heresy.  Mann wouldn’t be surprised that this almost “religious truth” he saw 150 years ago would still be with us today.  But like most religious truths, this truth was born in another century and no longer applies to the modern world.

From Horace Mann to NCLB

In 1843, on his European honeymoon, Horace Mann decided to take a peek at the Prussian school system.  What he saw amazed him.  Prussia had a centralized system, compulsory attendance, and national curriculum institutes.  Moreover, rigorous national curriculum and testing for each grade was developed. So impressed by what he saw, in his “Seventh Annual Report” as secretary of the Mass. Board of Education, Mann wrote, I do not hesitate to say, that if those teachers were brought together, in one body, I believe they would form as dignified, intelligent, benevolent-looking a company of men as could be collected from the same amount of population in any country.” High praise!

Understanding that his dream of a Prussian style system was beyond reach, Mann contented himself on developing common schools within Massachusetts.  His dream of a national system did not die though.  In 1870, George Hoar, a Massachusetts congressman, proposed “to establish a system of national education.” His bill died on the vine, unfortunately, as fears that it would integrate schools squashed any support it might have had.

The issue of nationalization and standardization of education again popped up as the “Committee of Ten” in 1894 issued a report arguing for the nationalization of the high school curriculum.  Showing how political labels change over time, it was the Left that most vigorously attacked these proposals at the time, viewing them as elitist.

While these proposals for nationalization and standardization of the curriculum failed, the U.S. did develop a de facto national curriculum due to the college entrance examinations developed by the College Board.  The Board’s tests were, according to education expert Diane Ravitch, “highly respected…based on specific and explicit syllabus, designed by teachers and professors of each subject.”

By mid-century this system was essentially dead, leaving advocates of increased federal involvement out in the cold.  By the 1960s, the culture wars and divisions within society made any serious attempt at national standards out of the question.  Unsurprisingly, in states like Texas, citizens groups sprouted up to take on what they saw as “liberal bias.”  Couples like Mel and Norma Gabler, thrust their very conservative view into the textbook adoption process by pressuring the board.  The “politically correct degradation of academics” had to be combated with a new emphasis on Judeo-Christian values, free enterprise, and creationism. They formed the Educational Research Analysts, a nonprofit corporation that still harangues textbook publishers. The Left got in on the act as well, with groups like People for the American Way pushing in the opposite direction.

With all this pressure from non-educators, there should be little surprise that textbook manufacturers watered down their product. Any thought of federal intervention and promotion of national standards was out of the question.  This is not to say that attempts were not made.  Even Nixon knew something had to be done (yet again proving that Nixon might really have been the last liberal president.) Nixon’s commissioner of education mused on how little the federal government contributed toward education and how it should be increased from the single digits up to around a quarter of the total spent.

By the 1980s, America’s stagnation in education relative to other advancing industrial countries was becoming all-too apparent.  Japan’s advancing economy was seen as a threat to our economic hegemony.  The work ethic of the Japanese was seen as far superior to our self-indulgent ways.  Movies like Gung-ho, where the American workers were portrayed as slovenly and lazy, played this out.  Something was amiss.

The Reagan administration put together a commission to examine whether the public’s “perception that something is seriously remiss” in our educational system was correct. The final report, published in 1983 with the hyperbolic title, “A Nation at Risk”, found American education in disrepair.  According to the report, SAT scores had dropped, our performance compared to other countries dropped, and even students ability to draw inferences or write persuasive essays dropped.

Something had to be done.  “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The report pulled no punches.  “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” Clearly with language this dire in the report, something radical needed to be done. Maybe Horace Mann’s recommendation that we copy what worked in Prussia might be correct response to the crisis. (19)

This is not what the Reagan administration was shooting for with the report. They had hoped the report would further support his educational platform: vouchers, school prayer, and abolishing the department of education. (20)  The report said nothing about these things.  What the report did do though was unleash the reform hounds.  If economic health correlated to educational strength, as many believed at the time and which is now discredited, major reform needed to occur.

Public concern led to new ideas.  Districts across the country innovated.  But most of the innovation revolved around school structure and pedagogy, not the core curriculum.  When Bush Sr. came to power, he set out to do something about education’s decline.  Bush Sr. set out his Goals 2000 program, which included lofty goals such as: 90% of US students would graduate; literacy would be universal; and American students would be number one in Math and Science. Worthy goals, yet none were accomplished.

Bush’s program did, though, lead to a renewed effort to produce national standards—even if they would be voluntary (US law restricts the imposition of national standards).  One hundred and fifty years after his initial report, Horace Mann’s dream returned; and then died…again.

The Sisyphean effort to push the national standards boulder up the hill again failed.  While President Bush might have believed that voluntary national standards would help right the educational ship, he forgot that the mere mention of any such thing would cause mutiny among some of the passengers.  He also forgot that history, as viewed by historians, is often messier than the “Washington never told a lie” variety preferred by many conservatives.  When the voluntary standards for history were finally released, voluntary national standards took their last breath.

As head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney, wife of the Sec.of Defense and future Vice President, helped fund the development of the voluntary national standards.  After receiving the unpublished national standards in 1994, Cheney went into manic overdrive.  Cheney, like others in her family, seems to have caught a virus that forces her to never miss an opportunity to spew hyperbole.  According to Cheney, “preventing certification will be a formidable task. Those wishing to do so will have to go up against an academic establishment that revels in the kind of politicized history.”  Of course this turned out to be nonsense.  The Senate voted 99-1 in support of condemning the standards.(24)  I guess Cheney was right that “preventing certification will be…formidable.” Overall, Cheney’s main criticism was the “authors…unqualified admiration for people, places and events that are politically correct.”  How insightful.

Cheney’s criticism, the Senate’s resolution condemning the not-yet-finished standards, and the Republican landslide of 1994 ended any push toward national standards and an increased role for the federal government—that is, unless you consider testing and accountability, which hijacked the movement to strengthen schools.

After the death of the national standards, Clinton pushed through his Goals 2000, which gave money to the states to develop standards.  Rigorous and detailed, the national standards so-lambasted by Cheney and her ilk were infinitely better than the vague standards developed by states.

The most recent misguided reform push in education, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), show yet again that internalized ideas are rarely if ever questioned.  Honest observers should see NCLB as a low point in the effort to reform education.  Instead of looking out at the world and seeing what works in other countries, or even in some of the more innovative districts in this country, NCLB judges school performance solely on two skill sets: reading and math.  Building a safe, nurturing, fulfilling environment means little under NCLB.  Reading and math means all.  To accomplish these completely unrealistic and laughable goals—all built on the assumption that school structure and lazy teachers are the problem for struggling schools—schools have been forced to refocus on testing, testing, testing in these two areas.   Knowing something about what you are reading means far less than being able to use reading strategies to answer questions appropriately on a multiple choice test under NCLB.  Past arguments over the national history standards look quaint next to the extremely narrow goals of NCLB.

What all this history should show you is how little progress has been made toward truly reforming education.  Each new innovation and reform trends more toward gimmick than actual substantive change.  The most vocal reformers claim this or that panacea will heal education’s woes, but fail to notice the root of the illness: the system has no direction.

Back to Horace Mann

Reading about Prussian education in the 1840s is no exciting read, but Horace Mann should not be ignored.  His critique remains as true today as it was in 1843.  In fact, the situation is far-more dire as the world has become increasingly globalized.  It is no longer sufficient for a state or county to block out the world due to ideological or cultural reasons.  Students need an education that prepares them for the globalized world they live in.  To do this, schools need a set and well-defined direction, adequate research budget, and equitable funding for all students in all districts.

Sadly, though, as Mann noted so long ago, we are too stuck in outmoded forms of thinking.  The idea that states and local school boards are better suited for directing school missions and curriculums within their states and districts is so deep-seated only heretics dare speak against it.  Even President Obama, who ran on the ambiguous and empty slogan of “change”, would not dare change education in this way.  Why?

The notion that local is better than national affected other aspects of government earlier in this nation’s history.  But we remedied those deficiencies by highlighting the fallacies in the “local is better” approach.  In fact, there are historical analogies that might be worth looking at.

As everyone who has studied American history knows, the Articles of Confederation turned out to be wholly unsuitable for a modern state.  Instead of having any coherency, the confederation was an unruly mess.  For America to thrive and survive, a centralized government was needed to hold the states together in a meaningful union.  Of course, the anti-federalists disagreed vociferously, but fortunately for subsequent generations, they lost out to the voices of reason.

The distant, tyrannical and imposing federal government, a government that did not understand the mores and desires of states, that the anti-federalists feared, mirrors the claims that advocates of local and state control of education make.  The board of education in Texas give us a modern example of this belief that local is better than federal.  But just as the anti-federalists were wrong over two centuries ago, the advocates for local and state control are also wrong today, and for the same reasons.

What we learned from the debates over the Constitution is that a federal government does not lead to abuse—or at least not in the United States.  Rather, the Constitution and Bill of Rights gave the country a national direction.  States were free to do as they pleased as long as they kept to the core standards set out in the Constitution.  Overall, instead of tyranny, we got coherence and unity.

We should learn a lesson from this.  While the majority of Americans have internalized all the talking points about why local control is preferable to national control, we have ended up with a system similar to the Articles of Confederacy: lack of proper funding, lack of direction, and lack of cohesion or sense of shared purpose.

Sadly, unlike the Federalists of the early republic, no national voices have made themselves heard.  Horace Mann tried 150 years ago and failed.  Others have tried since.  But all have failed.  Until we grow up as a country and realize what was best in the 1800s is not necessarily best for the 21st century, we will continue to have spats like the one that popped up in Texas recently.  We will continue to have declining education.  We will continue to follow fads.  And we will continue to fail in fixing education.


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One Response to Towards a Better Educational System

  1. globalcitizen on December 19, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Texas is another world. Like much of the south, civilization has been slow in coming. Their judicial system is capable of the most egregious violations of human rights on par with any third world banana republic, so it is not surprising that their educational system is often churning backwards into antebellum modes of thought.

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