In the current issue of the Education Gadfly and on the Education Next blog Checker Finn offers an unusual argument for adoption of K-12 national standards. He likens opposition to national standards to rooting for the Euro to fail:
If you hope the Euro crashes, that this week’s Brussels summit fails, and that European commerce returns to francs, marks, lira, drachma, and pesetas, you may be one of those rare Americans who also seeks the demise of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in U.S. education.
It’s odd that Checker should pick the Euro as a way to make the case for national standards since the Euro’s difficulties wonderfully illustrate the problems with national standards. The Euro is in trouble because it was an attempt to impose a common currency on countries that were too diverse in their economic needs and political traditions. The Euro is too strong of a currency for countries with un-competitive labor forces and undisciplined budget deficits, like Greece, Italy, and Spain. But if the European Central Bank significantly loosens the currency to bail out these countries, it will create serious inflation problems in countries like Germany and others with more skilled labor forces and reasonable deficits.
The Euro is not in trouble because some people “hope the Euro crashes.” It’s in trouble because it is a centralized institution that does not fit the diversity of its members.
Similarly, national standards will fail because it is not possible to have a centrally determined set of meaningful standards that can accommodate the legitimate diversity of needs, goals, and values of all of our nation’s school children. To have an effect national standards inevitably drive the assessments that are used to measure student achievement as well as the methods of instruction that are used to produce that achievement. “Tight-loose” is just an empty slogan (or part of a drinking game). In reality standards, assessments, and instruction are closely connected unless they are just irrelevant things.
In a country as large and diverse as ours there is no single, right set of knowledge for all students to possess, no single, best way to assess that knowledge, and no single, best method for teaching it. The attempt to impose a nationalized system onto this diversity is doomed to fail just as the Euro is doomed to fail in imposing a common currency on such diverse economies and political systems.
The fact that the Euro is in such trouble and creating such political and economic turmoil ought to scare us away from trying to impose a centralized solution on too much diversity. The Euro crisis is an argument against national standards, unless we are eager to have similar difficulties here.
No one is rooting for those failures, per se. Some of us just recognize that reality is not created by repeating slogans to each other over catered lunches at DC think tank conferences. Reality actually exists out there in the world and no matter how many chardonnays I’ve had while listening to the keynote speaker and no matter how many grants the Gates Foundation sprinkles on me and my friends, centrally imposing institutions on too much diversity is doomed to fail.
Of course, there is a way to overcome that diversity and improve the chances for centrally imposed institutions to succeed — force. If European countries relinquish power to make their own budgets to a central authority, the Euro might work. Similarly, if individual schools, school districts, and states relinquish power over daily operations to a central authority, the nationalized education movement might succeed.
But achieving that type of centralization in the face of diversity requires an enormous amount of coercion. People who disagree have to be suppressed, or at least denied the ability to do anything about their dissent. Local folks no longer get to make the meaningful decisions. They can just implement the decisions that are centrally made.
This could work but it would be awful. Some people say they would favor a World Government if only it were possible to do it. I’m not one of those people. World Government would be awful because it would require an enormous amount of coercion to overcome local diversity. To a much lesser degree, a nationalized education system in the US could be done but it would run roughshod over the needs and legitimate interests of many individuals.
But some people are nevertheless attracted to centralized solutions. I think Tears for Fears has a song that might explain why.