Standardize education nationally

Defining requirements would improve quality, reduce bias in teaching.

When I was growing up, it always seemed to me that teachers and textbooks were an infallible source of knowledge.

Textbooks, dry and authoritative, weren’t even meant to be read straight through, but consulted for pearls of wisdom that were faithfully jotted down verbatim to earn yet another check-plus.

Perhaps that unyielding gullibility is what has made curriculum content so controversial.

This is not an entirely recent issue, as textbook and curriculum treatment of subjects such as evolution and abortion have been debated for years, especially with the development of the American culture war.

The spread of standardized testing and the federal No Child Left Behind program have also left their imprint on how and what our nation’s children are taught, both of which are also controversial.

Well-reasoned arguments exist both for and against the success of NCLB and its focus on measuring educational effectiveness through standardized testing.

No one doubts, however, that education in America is in serious trouble. These and other efforts to reform curriculum and overall education will doubtless meet much disagreement about their efficacy.

The past few weeks, though, have brought new developments.

Last week, a national panel of educators proposed a national curriculum standard.

States currently set their own education standards and administer standardized tests, though they must meet basic NCLB standards in order to receive federal funding.

There is, thus, a patchwork of varying state standards that require different methods and tests, which, in practice, must bring about the same results: success on standardized testing.

The new proposal would replace widely disparate state standards with one uniform standard, which would presumably have higher expectations of student performance and make testing and textbook writing easier.

Each state can choose to accept the standards according to their state laws and most already have.

In my view, this is undoubtedly a good thing. Many may argue that this is blatant infringement on states’ rights and that only local communities can properly know how to teach their children.

In a sense, the new standards acknowledge this. They only propose what concepts should be learned, but beyond suggestions for age-appropriate material, they do not mandate a direct curriculum to impart those concepts.

The most convincing argument in favor of the new standards is that states simply are not measuring up.

If states across the board had adequate standards and were successfully teaching to those standards, there would be no impetus to change.

As it stands, defenders of states’ rights should bear the burden of proof here and show how state standards are not only being met but are high enough in both absolute and relative terms.

And they are not putting their students at a disadvantage to other states and even other countries.

For example, a New York Times account of the proposal notes that in 2005, 87 percent of students in Tennessee met the state math standards, while only 21 percent passed the federal test.

There isn’t further information on other performance on the federal tests and whether they are, in fact, too high.

That said, assuming the federal test has some grounding in reality, the statistic still provides a drastic illustration of the disparities in measuring educational achievement.

Several states, though, are resisting the national-standard movement. Massachusetts opposes the new standards, saying that its standards are already much higher than the proposed common standards.

It’s no surprise that Texas is also one of the holdouts, with Gov. Rick Perry defending his state’s tradition of independence. However, Texas takes the curriculum controversy to whole new levels.

A recent three-day meeting to propose changes to textbook content didn’t lead to higher or stricter standards, or new ways of teaching traditional content.

Rather, as another New York Times article describes, the entire effort was characterized by attempts to infuse the material with conservative-friendly versions of reality.

This is, undoubtedly, a bad thing. The conservative proposals go beyond simply debating semantics, or familiar and ubiquitous debates over whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

The reform advocates argue that current textbooks are biased towards the left, but their proposals themselves are far from neutral. Rather, they are blatant efforts to make materials more pro-American, pro-religious, pro-southern and pro-conservative.

The activists want to edit discussions of the civil rights movement and the effects of race and cultural identity on our national history, while adding country music to the list of cultural movements worthy of study.

The writings of Jefferson Davis should be taught alongside Lincoln, and General Stonewall Jackson upheld as a model citizen. They say textbooks should explain how government regulation impedes free enterprise, and should further emphasize less of liberal movements like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and more of the “conservative resurgence” of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

There is nothing inherently wrong with students learning about these ideas; they are part of American history and should be studied to some extent.

Communities should also feel free to teach their unique values and identity to their children, provided they do so while meeting certain educational standards.

But the suggestion that some ideas, particularly those of a certain ideological bent, should be taught in lieu of others is anathema to the entire concept of education.

Education has been called the civil rights movement of our generation.

As perhaps the only source of the fundamental American idea of equality of opportunity, it is morally imperative that students of all ages, income, background and location be given the chance to pursue a better life.

While we don’t know for sure what exactly will work, and will doubtless make mistakes, we know what isn’t working.

Common federal standards are a step in the right direction: We need to raise our expectations of our students in order to enable them and our communities to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.

Infesting our textbooks with biases and ideology is a step backwards: rather than indoctrinating students and telling them what to think, we must teach them how to think — and we must teach them well.

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