Contra Centralization of Our Children’s Education

The relentness discussion of “tribalism” in America prompts the question: Is there anything beyond hating the New England Patriots that can unite Left and Right? One perhaps surprising answer is the issue of public education.

To be sure, modern education has been roiled with debates. Clashes have ranged from math wars to pedagogical disagreements to battles over curricular content ranging from history to sex education. But broader trends in public education have provoked concern and opposition from citizens across the spectrum.

One development that troubles both sides is the corporatization of education. Privately owned and operated charter schools bother liberals who disapprove of privatizing public education, as well as some conservatives who fear the loss of local control over the school. Corporatization occurs as well through flooding classrooms with technology, giving vendors influence over the content and techniques of instruction that parents cannot monitor.

Liberal and conservative parents object as well to privacy threats posed by the technological invasion. Through sophisticated computer platforms, corporate vendors (and the government) gain access to the most intimate “fine-grained” data generated by student users—access that allows not only targeted advertising, but the creation of predictive algorithms that can influence the trajectory of students’ lives. Regardless of their politics, diligent parents are alarmed by this development.

Perhaps the most prominent point of agreement between many on the Left and the Right in education is the Common Core national standards. The idea of imposing one set of standards throughout the United States, and enforcing compliance with those standards through high-stakes testing, rankles across the political spectrum.

Nicholas Tampio’s new book dissects the Common Core scheme. In Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy, the associate professor of political science at Fordham University takes a broad and critical view from a perspective that blends both progressive and conservative principles.

Tampio admires John Dewey, the “father of progressive education,” and approves of much progressive pedagogy (“child-centered learning,” project-based rather than direct instruction). But he also harbors a deeply conservative respect for local control, diversity among communities, and allowing other parents to choose what he himself might not choose. His central theme comports with the thought of James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Can There Be Good National Standards?

The book opens with a balanced discussion of the arguments for and against national standards. Proponents contend national standards, and particularly Common Core, can bring order out of the patchwork of state standards; promote equity by ensuring all students access to a “rigorous” curriculum; bolster the American “21st century economy” by aligning to the needs of corporate supporters of the standards; and ensure that all students are taught the knowledge and dispositions necessary to participate in civil society.

But Tampio comes down on the side of the anti-Common Core, or more generally, anti-centralized control, forces. In support of his thesis he relies on the U.S. Constitution (a document not generally given much thought by the national education establishment), which assigns the federal government no role in education. He also cites the Federalist Papers, particularly Madison’s warning about the dangers of faction: “Madison thinks that all human beings belong to factions, and any one faction’s conception of the good may look like a mischievous plan to the others. In other words, Madison does not grant any one faction the right to speak for the public good.”

But that, of course, is exactly what happened with Common Core. The standards were developed and implemented by one faction (with substantial assistance from the federal government), and “other factions are furious that they have little chance to influence education policy and practice in any meaningful way.”

The realization that local citizens no longer control the most important aspects of their local schools leads first to frustration and, perhaps, ultimately to disengagement. This is the insight Tampio shares with Tocqueville.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville emphasized that citizens’ participation in free institutions and local government hones their abilities to govern themselves—abilities that are obviously critical in a democratic polity. Citing Tocqueville, Tampio writes that “an energetic citizenry tends to improve the quality of the schools . . . . Parents make schools better when they join parent-teacher associations, accompany students on field trips, run for school board, fundraise, make or choose standards, deliberate about or choose curricula, consult experts, and hold schools accountable by voting for budgets and school board members.”

But parents will engage with their schools only if they believe they can influence what happens there. If all important decisions, such as standards, curricula, and testing, are made at a much higher level—and by unknown, unaccountable entities—engagement withers. “This lack of participation,” Tampio writes, “is not good for students, and it is not good for democracy. . . . Top-down education reforms alienate parents from the schools and civic life in general.”

Beyond the doleful effect on civic life, Common Core and its laser focus on standardized curricula and testing threaten what Tampio calls the “entrepreneurial” value of American education. He discusses Professor Yong Zhao’s comparison of the American system with China’s, which pares back any content or activity not directly relevant to the all-important test scores. Any talents students may have in “irrelevant” areas are simply ignored, leading to disengagement, burnout, and a stifling of creativity. Tampio writes: “For Zhao, it is telling that China, given its size, has so few Nobel Prize winners, globally famous artists, or utility patents; it is also telling that farsighted Chinese education policymakers look to America for insights on how to nurture skills in young people that lead to inventions and start-up companies.”

Tampio also takes on the Common Core proponents’ “equity” argument. He posits that the national standards (promoted by Big Business) result in “narrowing the curriculum and life prospects for children in poverty and children of color.” How? By adopting the “workforce development” model of education that focuses mainly on what will, theoretically, get students a job, and that minimizes time devoted to more “equalizing” subjects such as the arts. He mentions a commencement speech in which Steve Jobs (a pretty fair businessman) praised a broad education—not just narrow workforce-training—by recounting how his ideas for the design of the first Macintosh computer came from a calligraphy class he took.

So the author concludes that the idea of nationally standardized education, cemented through national testing, is misguided. He then applies that thesis to the particulars of Common Core.

Common Core’s Sterile Approach Would Even Have Displeased John Dewey

The English language arts (ELA) standards were crafted primarily by current College Board president David Coleman. With their emphasis on non-contextual “close reading” and the skill of ferreting out “claims” and “evidence,” the standards, Tampio argues, are contrary to Dewey’s progressive approach. He claims that Dewey would reject a system that “teaches children to place their own interests and concerns in a separate compartment of their mind than the one completing the assignment.” Traditionalists (such as Dr. Sandra Stotsky) reject the ELA standards as well, not because of any affinity for Dewey but because the “close reading” approach sterilizes the material and makes it less likely that children will ever learn to love reading or appreciate literature.

But the point is this: Though some parents may agree with Tampio, others with Stotsky, and still others with Coleman, Common Core adopts Coleman’s model and applies it by fiat across the nation. Dissenters are shut out.

Turning to the math standards, Tampio responds positively to the underlying philosophy of Common Core:  that understanding the concepts of math is as important as knowing how to work problems. (The reader may be puzzled by his additional statement that Common Core requires students to learn the standard algorithms—computational procedures that work first time, every time. True as far as it goes, but Common Core teaches those algorithms much later in a student’s schooling than do the highest-achieving countries.)

Despite sympathizing with the goal of the math standards, Tampio accurately presents the arguments of critics such as Dr. James Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman (that the standards, with their delayed progression and non-standard methodology, will not prepare students for STEM studies), and Katherine Beals and Barry Garelick (that the “unnecessary and tedious” methodology required by the standards will disadvantage students who may be whizzes at math but less adept at cumbersome, non-standard processes and written explanations of calculations).

Again, Tampio is less concerned about whether these critics have a point than with the fact that the standards were imposed on local schools without their consent or even participation. “The quality of the Common Core standards does not outweigh the political consequences of driving away many people from the political process.”

The author also recognizes and discusses the connection between Common Core and other nationalized education initiatives: the Next Generation Science Standards, the College Board’s Advanced Placement program (especially the controversial AP U.S. History course), and the National Sexuality Education Standards. Though not officially part of the Common Core scheme, these initiatives are based on the same philosophy that centralized “experts” should dictate what children learn across the country—even if parents disagree.

Tampio doesn’t believe that all children everywhere should be taught one theory of environmental sustainability, as the Next Generation Science Standards do. He doesn’t approve of AP U.S. History’s one-size-fits-all approach to history education. He doesn’t think that “expert” opinions on sex-related issues should override parental preferences about appropriate instruction for their children. He believes instead in diversity and individual liberty.

The book closes with a discussion of the testing mania created by No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s and continued by the most recent fed-ed bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act. He endorses the test-refusal movement (it is particularly strong in New York, where he lives) as a way of reasserting parental control over their children’s education. Only with such a refusal to comply, he argues, can local communities begin to recover the autonomy that has been stolen from them.

When Uniformity Reigns . . . 

Discussing Old Europe, Tocqueville wrote:

Education . . . has become a national affair among most of the peoples of today. The State receives and often takes the child from the arms of its mother in order to entrust it to its agents; it is the State that takes charge of inspiring sentiments in each generation and providing each generation with ideas. Uniformity reigns in studies as in all the rest; there diversity, like liberty, disappears each day.

Tampio agrees. He has written a broad-minded book that argues in favor of his fellow citizens’ right to educate their children according to what they think is right, even if he thinks they’re wrong. This is what America used to be about.