Tuesday, September 13, 2011

National Standards: The Tipping Point

The culminating moment of opposition between the national standards movement (which sought to retain, if not expand, the role of the federal government and the Department of Education) and the school choice movement that countered it, came in 1994.  After A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, national committees were established in every major school subject to create voluntary national standards.  The idea was to raise the quality of public education for everyone by outlining a clear set of common standards that would guide the improvement of curricula and instruction.

One of the last subjects to be tackled was history.  Lynne Cheney, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded and participated in the creation of the history standards.  However, by the time the standards were nearing a state of completion, Cheney quit her position at the NEH and turned her attention to political concerns.   An important mid-term election was approaching (the Republicans would finally gain control of Congress that fall) and her husband, Dick Cheney (also a Republican), was considering a presidential candidacy.  At this time many Republican kingmakers had taken a strong interest in education and were full-fledged supporters of school choice.  If you were a Republican with political ambitions, you had no choice but to take up the mantel of choice.

But Cheney did not just run away from the national history standards.  She launched an all-out attack on them.  She claimed that she had been bamboozled, and that the standards had been "hijacked" by a bunch of academic radicals who sought to use education to undermine the foundations of American society and incite a socialist/communist revolution.  Her supporting examples (e.g. how many times George Washington is mentioned versus Harriet Tubman) are gross distortions of the documents, and sometimes outright false.  Considering the level of her involvement with these standards, I have a hard time believing that she merely misinterpreted them.  To me, the distortions seem completely intentional.  In reality, there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary with these standards, except that they demanded much of students' ability to reason and form  arguments.  In fact, my own history education (which I would consider anything but radical) seemed to resemble the standards, with perhaps less rigor.

The article Cheney wrote for the Wall Street Journal ended up being a huge political cash cow.  The controversy dominated public and political discussion for months and provided a platform for the Republicans to tighten their ideological narrative.  (Just as a side note, the Senate voted to symbolically condemn the history standards; the only "nay" was a Republican who felt the wording was not strong enough.)

What Cheney and those who followed her were able to do was portray a certain relationship between the federal government and institutions of higher education:  that academic radicals had in some way infiltrated or aligned with government bureaucracies and were simultaneously seeking to foment some kind of socialist or communist revolution.  In this way, Cheney et al. were able to strengthen associations that derived from the core of their ideology, most notably the connection between projects and processes of national scope and radical social change, federal control and communist revolution.

With the "curriculum wars" of 1994, the idea of national standards was dead.  The last remnants of what grew out of A Nation at Risk survived in the form of high-stakes testing and "accountability," and quickly adapted themselves to a new world dominated by "choice."

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