If we want tougher academic standards for America's public
schools, then we need a more tough-minded answer to the question
"Why?" Pundits and politicians who argue that higher standards are
essential to global competitiveness miss the point. It's not the
economy, stupid. It's a moral question. It's a matter of basic
After all, the United States already boasts far and away the
most competitive economy in the world. And our best public school
districts - most of them in affluent suburbs - are already
performing at world-class levels. For example, last year a
consortium of 20 school districts in suburban Chicago participated
in the prestigious Third International Mathematics and Science
Study. If those 20 districts had been a separate country, they
would have ranked second in the world (behind Singapore) in science
and among the top five nations in math.
Johnny competes just fine
So the issue isn't whether Johnny can compete academically with
Johann, Yoko, and Yuri. The real issue is whether kids in rural and
inner-city schools will be challenged and enabled to achieve at the
same high levels as their best suburban counterparts.
The most pernicious inequality is not necessarily in funding,
but rather in academic expectations, goals, and requirements - in a
word, standards. Schools without even minimal standards - schools
that pass kids who can't read or compute - flunk a basic moral
test. Says E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia: "A systematic
failure to teach all children the knowledge they need in order to
understand what the next grade has to offer is the major source of
avoidable injustice in our schools."
Indeed, Professor Hirsch correctly characterizes the struggle
for equality of educational opportunity as "the new civil rights
frontier." This gives rise to a disturbing historical parallel: In
the 1950s and 1960s, elected officials literally stood in the
schoolhouse door to deny the civil rights of minority children.
They did so in the name of "states' rights." Today, many governors
are engaged in a new "massive resistance." In the name of "local
control," they have steadfastly rejected all efforts to create
nationwide academic standards.
In recent months, however, this wall of resistance has shown
cracks. Fed up with struggling school districts, the same governors
who give lip service to "local control" are imposing statewide
academic standards and, in some cases, taking over management of
local school districts.
Virginia Gov. George Allen is a remarkable case in point. No one
has more flamboyantly opposed the Goals 2000 effort to develop
voluntary national standards. He has staked his resistance on the
Jeffersonian ideal that local folks know best. …