Extra Curricula

In a recent post on Jay P. Greene’s blog, Greg Forster admonishes the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for running my piece on the importance of common curriculum in Gadfly, its weekly education publication (here). My ideas were never addressed. He simply uses the piece (and the fact of my position with the Albert Shanker Institute) to inform Checker Finn, Fordham's president, of his and Greene’s continuing worry "that the national standards machine Fordham has helped to create will be hijacked by the teacher unions." Forster goes on to issue a diatribe about the dangers of "national standards," "national curriculum," and "federal control of schools." He warns of this conspiracy leading to "a benevolent dictator who will make sure that everyone will do everything in the one best way." He also implies that the advocates of standards/curriculum-based education reform (an impressive bipartisan list), are really collaborators in a misguided plot to federalize education.

Mr. Forster could not have read what I wrote very carefully to come up with such a distorted account.He has also grossly misrepresented the implications of what I said for American education. I defended a set of standards developed by state organizations, not the federal government. And yes, we should want the states with weaker standards to use them, but that does not make them "federal," or even "national." How did Mr. Forster skip over the fact of this common, but individual, state decision-making to arrive at a "one best way" administered by "a benevolent dictatorship"?

It seems that the post was less about serious consideration of important policies than ascribing guilt by association to anyone who dares to consider and publish the merits of a view (Checker Finn, in this case) put forward by someone like me who is avowedly pro-union.

For the record, Checker Finn and I have been on the opposite sides of policy issues (tuition tax credits, vouchers, etc.) more often than on the same side (standards-based education reform). But I'd like to believe that both of us have the capacity to read, reflect, and think about what the other says. I tried to write my piece straight – avoiding ideology, hyperbole, rhetoric, and misrepresentation. I think it was published by Fordham in the same spirit. I would ask Greg Forster to do the same.

The real tragedy is that the trend toward balkanization which Mr. Forster exemplifies comes at a moment of historic promise for American public education. Since 1983, with the publication of "A Nation at Risk," this nation has been trying to improve a system that isn't nearly as good as it needs to be. Today there is a greater willingness among thoughtful officials, unions, and educators to be guided by the best research and experience available. There is growing agreement about the need for common standards to be used across states. Hopefully, there will soon be agreement that these standards need quality curricula and other tools needed for effective implementation. A number of such curricula could serve the purpose as long as the teachers and students using each one learn what is needed to meet the standards.

But, as long as Forster has raised the union question, I can't help but wondering what he thinks about this: Finland, with what is arguably the top performing education system in the world (here and here), has national standards and national curriculum frameworks (here and here), but very little standardized testing and lots of local control. It is also over 95% unionized – an interesting correlation, no? Or, is Finland a dictatorship?