Rethinking a National Curriculum

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An outrageous school board decision and a new congressional bill make nationwide standards sound a lot better.

Geoffrey H. FletcherMaybe we do need a national curriculum.

Two unrelated items prompted this thought. The first was an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It seems a parent in the Seattle-area Federal Way school district complained about a teacher showing An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, in class. The parent convinced the Federal Way School Board to place a moratorium on classroomshowings of the film.

What concerned me was not the merits of the film, but the idea that one outspoken parent could dictate whether a teacher can use it to teach about global warming. A national curriculum that required teachers to teach about global warming would make it more difficult for one parent to interfere, and a spineless school board like the one in Federal Way would have something to fall back on to support its teachers.

The second attention-getter was a notice from Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-CT) office regarding a bill Dodd is co-sponsoring with Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), titled the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids (SPEAK) Act. According to the letter, “This bill will create, adopt, and implement voluntary core American education content standards in math and science while incentivizing states to adopt them.” The National Assessment Governing Board would create the standards, and states could choose to adopt them or not.

If states adopted the standards, they would get federal funds for implementing the project, in addition to funds to bolster their No Child Left Behind data systems. States would also get additional time to meet NCLB requirements in order to put in the new standards and align their teacher training and testing systems. That’s a meaningful incentive.

A fact sheet accompanying a copy of the SPEAK Act makes a case for the bill, relying in part on The World Is Flat argument—we are doing poorly in math and science, our economy will soon be bypassed by other countries, etc. The fact sheet also references the varying sets of standards, assessments, and proficiency levels across states, and it cites our highly mobile society, in which students often move across districts, or across states, which can result in their confronting changing standards and requirements in each new location.

According to its proponents, the SPEAK Act would give all kids the same opportunity to learn no matter where they live; colleges would know for sure that kids were prepared in math and science; and the United States would increase its competitive edge.

My initial reaction to the SPEAK Act was that it was the first step down the slippery slope toward a national curriculum, and we ought not to go there— education is a state responsibility. Then I thought about our own field of technology, in which we have a de facto set of national standards with the standards set by the International Society for Technology in Education. States have tweaked those standards, as they could with the SPEAK Act, and so far no harm has come to education.

I thought back to more than two decades ago, when states began to implement state standards with a very similar rationale. State standards are now in place in 49 states, and I think most educators would agree that having clear and high standards of what students should know and be able to do is not a bad thing. And then I harkened back to the Federal Way School Board and thought: I like the SPEAK Act. And I’m starting to think I may like the idea of a national curriculum.

—Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial director

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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