A number of educators, academics, and political figures recently signed a statement released by the Albert Shanker Institute favoring a “common content core curriculum” for all public schools in the United States. The idea has an obvious appeal: Simply select what students should learn and tell the schools to teach it. However, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” There is no single best curriculum for all students in all districts, and any attempt to create one at the federal level opens the door to political meddling in educational content.
Across the country, there is widespread disagreement among educators, politicians, and the general public about what constitutes a good curriculum. Even within districts, conflicting interest groups fight heated battles over curricular changes.
On April 26, a group of students took over a board meeting of the Tuscon Unified School District, protesting a proposal that would change the district’s Mexican American Studies program from a social studies credit to an elective. Student supporters of the program chained themselves to the board’s dais and could not be removed by security. Under a national curriculum, disputes such as this would have to be resolved at the federal level. Congress would determine what students should learn. Allowing Congress to serve as the custodian of truth in the teaching of history, social studies, and other subjects is asking for trouble.
In fact, our current system is already too centralized, with state legislators and boards of education committing new crimes against veracity every time curriculum design comes up for debate. Last spring, conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education pushed through a new social studies curriculum. Among other changes, the new curriculum required a greater emphasis on the “conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” and excised the insufficiently religious Thomas Jefferson from a list of thinkers who inspired revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, replacing him with overtly Christian figures such as John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. The left plays this game just as much as the right. California’s guidelines forbid textbooks to “cast adverse reflection on any gender, race, ethnicity, religion or cultural group.” That sounds well-meaning, but it has led to a whitewashed version of history for fear of offending any interest group.
We should return decisions about educational content to the local level. That would not make these arguments disappear, but it would give parents the greatest opportunity to find a curriculum that suits their educational preferences.
Furthermore, localized curricula would give teachers more flexibility in meeting students’ individual educational needs. When I pursued teacher certification, I encountered repeatedly in my coursework the idea that every student learns in different ways. Good teachers must vary the information they present and how they present it in order to appeal to the different aptitudes and interests of their students. A national curriculum may not completely strip teachers of the ability to tailor lessons for the particularities of their students, but every new mandate from on high removes a little more autonomy from the educators who know their students best.
Many American schools are in desperate need of reform, but more federal micromanagement is not the solution. We need more autonomy for schools to innovate and serve the individual needs and interests of their students, and greater choice for parents to hold those schools accountable. A national curriculum would take us in the opposite direction — toward heavily politicized subject matter and no alternatives for students whose needs are left out. Reforming education in this country is not one large problem — it’s millions of small ones, and a national curriculum would only make them harder to address.
John Payne is a research assistant with the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy. He is a former high school social studies teacher, and an original signatory to “Closing the Door on Innovation,” a manifesto opposing a national education curriculum.