Education hornets’ nest: Creating a national K-12 curriculum


If there is legal support for creation of such a national curriculum by the U.S. Department of Education, we can’t see what it is. Federal control of what students learn in school certainly does not comport with the balance between national and state responsibilities in America’s federal system.

Congress has long been sensitive to the dangers of putting curriculum matters in the hands of the Department of Education, knowing of the department’s immense influence through the funds it gives to states.

The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now known in its current form as the No Child Left Behind Act) all forbid or protect against the Department intruding into curriculum choices by the states and local districts. The legislative history of these statutes and the intent of lawmakers are clear — the federal government has no role in establishing the K-12 curriculum.

We know firsthand that federal intrusion into curriculum can stir up a hornets’ nest of critics.

In 2006, private curriculum developers, members of Congress, and the Department’s own Inspector General excoriated the Department when its Reading First program used members of local advisory groups who were associated with a specific curriculum. Hence, in 2007, when the Department’s policy office created a website (Doing What Works) on best classroom practices, the Department went out of its way to post an explanation on the site confirming that the Department did not endorse any specific curriculum materials.

Back when the Department of Education was created, President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned in 1976 on a promise to create such a cabinet-level department, assured the public in his January 23, 1979 State of the Union address that “states, localities, and private institutions” would continue to bear “primary responsibility for education.”

The House committee report on the bill establishing the department even emphasized that it contained a “clear prohibitive” on “federal interference” in the curriculum. To provide a sense of how this law has historically been understood, we would point to an article by a former senior official in President George W. Bush’s Education Department which speaks of the law as one that “prohibits the feds from endorsing programs or dictating local decisions about curricula.”

But today the Obama Administration is funding the development of national curriculum guidelines, national curriculum models, national teaching materials and national tests, using the Common Core national academic-content standards as the basis for these efforts. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the Department’s grants to the testing groups on September 2, 2010, he pointed enthusiastically to one group “developing curriculum frameworks and ways to share great lesson plans” and the other group developing “instructional modules.”

These efforts to gather the reins of America’s K-12 course of study at the federal level are likely to harm America’s public schools, our teachers and our children. Officials inside the Beltway cannot design a curriculum that is suitable and effective in every classroom across our large country. When mistakes and misjudgments are made in Washington, D.C., as is inevitable, they will affect the entire system and be hard to fix in the classroom.

Only local players in districts, non-profits and the private sector can adroitly detect mistakes and make improvements. Education Department officials should have a prudent sense of their limits and not try to fund or do more than is wise or possible — and they should follow the clear intent of federal statutes.

It is time to find a sticking point on what has thus far been a slippery slope toward a nationalized public-school system. Joseph Califano, President Carter’s Health, Education and Welfare Secretary, said it best: "Any set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum. … [Carried to its full extent,] national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas."

Bill Evers is a research fellow and member of the Koret Education Task Force at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (2007-2009). Kent Talbert and Robert Eitel are members of the Washington, D.C. law firm of Talbert & Eitel, PLLC and served in the U.S. Department of Education as General Counsel (2006-2009) and Deputy General Counsel (2006-2009), respectively.