National Curriculum or National Standards?

Discussions about a national curriculum have been part of the background noise in American education for a long time but the volume has been turned up in recent months.  The issue is discussed frequently on education websites; writers like Susan Jacobi (author of The Age of American Unreason1) have argued for a national curriculum, and President Obama's speech to students2 extended the notion of a federal role in education.

What is the attraction of a national curriculum?

For a country that doesn't have a national curriculum, the idea that all children not only have the right to a good education, but that the content of that education is somehow assured can be a very attractive one.  The national curriculum in England and Wales (even there, the "national" curriculum doesn't extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland) was broadly welcomed as a way of evening out recognized inequalities among schools.  The French have had an extreme national curriculum for a long time.  However, as in most matters, things are often not what they seem.

Enthusiasts for a national curriculum need to be wary of a number of factors.

First, it is very easy to be mistaken in what is actually desired: is it a national curriculum, or recognized national standards?  The objective examination of knowledge is far more feasible than working out what should be in or out of a national curriculum, and when and how it should be taught.

Secondly, establishing a national curriculum in a country the size of Minnesota or even Texas is one thing, but accommodating the requirements of states from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska to Florida is not something a one size fits all curriculum can do.  Having national standards for key subjects -- math, the sciences, English -- is one thing, but prescribing what should be taught about history or geography across the nation becomes a tricky business.  Yes, there should be a common core -- and, de facto, isn't there one already, defined by college admissions departments? -- but once in the political arena, prescribing a curriculum becomes problematic.

Thirdly, and most importantly, a national curriculum is probably unconstitutional.  There is no provision in the Constitution for any Federal involvement in education.  The Federal government, under both Democrats and Republicans, has elbowed its way into education by means of ensuring civil rights, sex discrimination, Federal funding of research, provision of financial aid, assistance to states, and initiatives like "No Child Left Behind."

The Federal government moved into education when states failed to act, or acted illegally.  Before anyone fully realized the full implications or consequences, Federal programs were extended not just to cover deficient states, but all states, thereby creating the illusion of legitimacy, culminating in the establishment of the Department for Education.

Establishing standards

While market forces may not easily work in education, they can, and perhaps should.  One of the perennial complaints of universities (in my experience, both in the US and the UK) is that "the last lot of freshmen you sent us could barely read."

Whose fault is this?  Is it the schools'?  Or is it the fault of the colleges who admitted those students?  The message colleges send by giving places is that the schools are doing their job satisfactorily.

If secondary schools refused to admit children who weren't literate, numerate, and articulate, the "market" would correct the problem pretty quickly.  (I am not speaking about children with special medical or mental needs here.)  Primary schools should stop finding reasons why their pupils can't read, write, do arithmetic, and speak coherently and just teach the children how to do it.3

Curiously, in England, the national curriculum actually prevents schools from doing this.  The national curriculum must be followed, so the actual needs of the children are pushed aside and time given to subject work they cannot understand when they should be learning how to read.  At the same time in England, they have instituted special schools, funded by the central government and enterprises.  These "academies" have proved to be successful through a combination of hand-picked staff, more funding than normal schools, and the abandonment of the national curriculum.

The Emergent Curriculum

In most traditional subjects, key material rather than being set, emerges from the subject itself.  The principles of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and other fields are seldom matters of debate in curriculum meetings beyond questions of when, and how much.4  English language is relatively straightforward, too, though if and how grammar should be taught is something seldom agreed upon.

However, in the realms of literature and history, discussions become more heated, both in the schools and in the political arena.  When I began teaching in England, it appeared that the English literature syllabus comprised "The Most Frequently Banned Books in American Schools" plus a bit of Shakespeare and Milton.

Like it or not, this is when local sensibilities should be allowed to come into play.  There will always be knee-jerk reactions by some principals and politicians, but that is not a sound reason for imposing a Federal dictum.  Local school boards, city councils, and state legislators are far more sensitive and responsive to public opinion and electoral pressure than any administration in Washington.

Those responsible for education at the local, county, and state level may have to get tough and tell populations that if they persist in telling schools what and how to teach, then they may have to get used to the idea that no one from there will go to medical or law schools for a while.  Of course, that gives the Federal government a pretty good excuse to intervene.

It is the proper job of the Federal government, with or without a Department of Education, to ensure that individual liberties are being protected, but a national curriculum is not necessary for it to fulfill that function, nor are standards thereby assured.


1 Pantheon Books, 2008

2 Prepared Remarks to Students, Back to School Event, 7 September 2009

3 James Bowman, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, Encounter Books, 2006, p. 87

4 Areas of biology are controversial, but ultimately it is the universities and medical schools that will decide on what is an acceptable curriculum

P Michael Reidy (BA, MA [English], MA [Philosophy of Education], FRSA) taught for 15 years in the US and UK and is chairman of the governing body of a large secondary boys' school where he has been a governor for 18 years.  He is also a PR/marketing consultant.

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