Policy Documents

Mediocre National Standards No Answer To 'Curriculum Massacre' Down In Texas

Ben Boychuk –
June 17, 2010

A bipartisan group of governors and state school superintendents gathered in Georgia earlier this month to unveil the final draft of proposed national math and English curriculum frameworks.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is the latest attempt to impose order on the supposed chaos wrought by 50 states and the District of Columbia having the freedom to choose their own curricula and tests.

On the surface a common standards approach sounds appealing—especially after last month’s raucous vote by the Texas Board of Education to overhaul the state’s history and social studies textbooks. The end of that months-long political drama led many pundits and politicians to conclude the best way to avoid such fiascos is to embrace a national curriculum crafted by “experts” as opposed to elected “yahoos.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. If we want all the politicking and controversial content of the Texas process but little of the transparency and none of the accountability to voters, a national curriculum is definitely the way to go.

The Common Core State Standards are the culmination of some 18 months of work, mostly done behind closed doors or in small symposia, by 48 states and the District of Columbia. Drafts of the English and math frameworks were released in March for a brief public comment period, but most Americans probably have no idea the standards exist, much less what they say.

Those who have reviewed the standards carefully, including Sandra Stotsky, a member of the Massachusetts school board who helped draft that state’s excellent math curriculum, say the Common Core standards are mediocre at best.

Alaska and Texas opted out of the project, saying they wouldn’t cede any control over education standards and academic content, despite assurances from the National Governors Association that the resulting curriculum frameworks would be purely voluntary.

Technically, that’s true. No state is required to adopt the Common Core frameworks, just as no state was required to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

But what is technically voluntary is de facto mandatory. The Obama administration says a state’s refusal to adopt the standards could jeopardize its share of more than $14 billion in federal Title I aid to low-income and urban schools. And U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month said states should adopt the standards by August 2 if they hope to win some of the remaining $3.75 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in September.

Now consider what happened in Texas. The Lone Star State is the second-largest textbook market in the country, just behind California. The state’s Board of Education argued for months over questions as vital as the role of religion in the American founding and as arcane as the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Enlightenment. National and local press covered the board’s deliberations closely. Many of the board’s hearings were broadcast on television and streamed over the Internet.

But even though the board’s decision was mocked by left-wing Newsweek as the “Texas Curriculum Massacre” and publishers will have to cater to that large market, states are under no obligation to accept the Texas brand of history. In fact, California just passed legislation to ensure no child in the Golden State will be held to the Texas standards.

Whatever the wisdom of California’s legislation, Texas shouldn’t dictate what California’s kids learn any more than a largely anonymous panel of educrats should get to impose a curriculum on the entire nation.

Perhaps the most instructive outcome of the Texas controversy is the fate of Don McLeroy, the chairman of the state board and one of the prime movers behind the textbook revisions. He lost his bid for reelection in March. Voters did not like his ham-fisted approach and turned him out. That’s accountability.

Americans have had little opportunity to weigh in on the national Common Core State Standards the way Texans did with their textbooks. They certainly won’t be allowed to hold the committee that wrote the standards accountable as Texans can do with their school board.

Given the choice between “experts” and “yahoos,” the yahoos are the safer bet.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News.