National education standards politicize education

The whimsical words of Roger Miller’s old country tune come to mind: “England swings like a pendulum do.” When a nation with monolithic standards for its schools experiences a shift in political control, the pendulum almost certainly will lurch right or left for education ideology as well.

Witness the changes underway in England led by the Conservative coalition’s minister of education, Michael Gove. The Daily Mail of London reports Gove has severely criticized the previous Labor government for having stripped basic knowledge out of the English, geography, history, and music curricula.

When the leftist Laborites had their turn at mandating what all British children should know and be able to do, they eliminated important leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill from teachers’ suggested lesson plans. The supposed purpose was to give teachers more “flexibility.”

Teachers got loads of leeway, in fact, because “at present, the only historical figures in the entire secondary history curriculum are William Wilberforce, the architect of the abolition of the slave trade, and Olaudah, a freed slave whose autobiography helped persuade MPs [Members of Parliament] to ban slavery,” the Daily Mail reported.

Similarly, “the secondary geography curriculum does not mention a single country apart from the UK or any continents, rivers, oceans, mountains, or cities. It does, however, mention the European Union and global warming.”

In addition, “the secondary music curriculum fails to mention a single composer, musician, or piece of music.”

Gove observes left-wing ideologues believe schools “shouldn’t be doing anything so old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics.”

Leading the charge for the Tories, the education minister plans to fill in the knowledge gaps. For instance, he will reinstall such authors as John Keats, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy in the English standards. An overhaul of the history curriculum is supposed to ensure that all children thoroughly learn Britain’s “island story” before graduating.

Proponents of knowledge-based learning on both sides of the Atlantic will applaud Gove’s intentions. But what will happen to England’s national education standards when the political pendulum swings back and the Laborites return to power? Out will go the basics and in will come the multiculturalism and political correctness once again. None of this reflects the preferences of parents.

The United States is not yet at the point of no return regarding national standards. There are standards only for English and mathematics, but proponents are talking about adding history and science and maybe more. Forty-four states have voted to accept the national standards, many of them doing so (as the president himself indicated) in a bid to gain favor with the Obama administration in its distribution of Race to the Top cash. 

However, with only a dozen states winning grants and the Republican-led House unlikely to approve more such loot, some states’ political leaders are talking about revoking their adoption of the Common Core standards.

Now is the time for the nation to decide whether we really want to commit to education standards forever subject to political manipulation by Washington and crazy swings in the national political pendulum. Would we prefer to have a national minister of education decide what our children will study, or be able to choose for ourselves from among schools offering diverse curricula and methods?

Within a marketplace will probably be an approach just right for each child. Parents can’t be sure of that when Washington’s politicians and special interests are writing a common playbook.

Robert Holland (rholland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.