Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Resisting Educational Standards

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Resisting Educational Standards

Article excerpt

We have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers, Mr. Labaree points out. And the last thing we think we need is a standards effort that equalizes educational achievement.

THE MATTER OF setting standards for American education is certainly quite visible these days, but much of what we hear about it is not very enlightening. The talk is frequently filled with ideological heat rather than with critical light, and the tone of the discussion is more often nostalgic than realistic. In addition, the pitch in favor of standards is currently so strong that it may well leave a number of listeners wondering why such an obviously needed and beneficial reform wasn't undertaken a long time ago. But the fact is that the effort to establish educational standards has always been an uphill fight in this country.

In light of these circumstances, it is useful to examine why Americans have so vigorously resisted educational standards over the years. The history of such resistance suggests that there are three factors in particular that have made standards such a hard sell: a commitment to local control of schools, a commitment to expansion of educational opportunity, and a commitment to form over substance in the way we think about educational accomplishment. All three of these factors, which I treat below, can be traced in large part to our preference for one particular purpose of education: we have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers.

Preserving Local Control

First, consider our traditional commitment to preserving local control. The core issue here is the wide and deep strain of libertarian sentiment that lies at the heart of the American psyche. The urge to preserve individual liberty is a key to understanding American society, and it is what defines our distinctive approach to politics, economics, and education. "Don't tell me what to do? has long been our national slogan. By it we have meant in particular that government should keep off our backs - especially government that is far removed from our local community. All you need to do is remember that this nation was born of an uprising against a colonial government that tried to impose modest taxes on it from afar.

In education, this sentiment came to be expressed as a staunch defense of local control of our schools. During most of the 19th century, the local school was the primary unit of educational governance for most Americans.

An individual community built a school, hired a teacher, raised money through local taxes and fees, and implemented education on its own terms.

Outside help was neither offered nor welcomed. This was the ultimate in local control. Even in large cities, control of education tended to rest at the ward level.

Consider some numbers that suggest the radical degree of decentralization that has long characterized American education. It was not until 1937 that we started recording information about the number of individual school systems in the country. In that year, which was some 40 years after the start of a massive effort by reformers to consolidate districts into larger administrative units, there were about 120,000 individual school districts in the U.S. This meant that on average there were only two schools per district. Now, that is really local control. Even now, after consolidation has continued for another 60 years, we still have about 15,000 separate school districts - each with primary control over financing, staffing, and setting curriculum standards for our schools. …

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