“Where a Student Lives”
I’m grateful to Audrey Spalding for directing me to this op-ed in the New York Times. The author argues in favor of adopting a national curriculum, or at the very least national education standards. She then produces an inspirational quote from Daniel Webster and concludes with these words:
These great principles cannot be upheld if the quality of our public schooling continues to depend more on where a student lives than on a national commitment to excellence.
Advocates for standards rely on this reasoning time and again: In the current public school system, they observe, students can receive an excellent education if they live in a wealthy neighborhood or a terrible education if they live in a poor neighborhood. This is obviously inequitable. Therefore, they think that the federal government should intervene and ensure that every school follow the same standards.
There’s a problem with that argument. If the government could iron out variations in educational quality by imposing standards, we would already have a more equitable education system. States maintain education standards, yet there’s a wide range of school districts within each state; some districts exceed the state standards, and others fall short. School boards ostensibly choose one curriculum for all of a district’s students, but every district has some schools that are known to be better than others. Even within a single school building, you’ll find teachers who are helping their students excel and others who really ought to look for a new line of work.
Advocates for national standards are implicitly saying that the federal government is different. Where lower levels of government have failed, they expect a national policy to be more effective. This is wishful thinking. If levels of government that are closer to the classrooms can’t bring a few schools up to a standard, a directive from far-off Washington won’t be able to transform all the schools in the nation.