National Standards

January 2008

While opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) grows, there’s another idea increasingly being proposed, which may be even more critical. Is the cure for lots of incompatible and unaligned state-based tests one grand National test to which all schools could align their curriculum?

This idea scares me even more. But I have good friends who think it’s the obvious solution. My fellow Ed Week blogger Diane Ravitch is one such enthusiast even though we agree about NCLB. National history standards is a natural place for us to have a good argument. So far neither of us has budged an inch.

I think the problem with national standards is equally difficult in every field. At some future date I’ll explain why it effects even math standards! But let’s start with history. What makes me leery about any form of political curricular control even if a low stakes form. And the more remote the political authority is the more worried I am. I use the word political to distinguish government-sponsored standards from those put forth by individuals, groups, or professional associations. I do this not as a way of denigrating the word “politics”—which I honor as an essential component of democratic life—but because education requires “persuasion” not “compliance.”

One cannot simply pass on to the next generation an unbiased consensual historical story, based on “the truth” of history. The price of success is too risky.

I majored in history at the University of Chicago. I took history in the humanities rather than the social sciences division. In part this was because I preferred taking literature, not sociology courses as my minor. Besides, while I was a leftist with a Marxist bent, I did not believe that one could fit history into the proper framework of the sciences. I still agree. I’m hoping, in fact, that neither of the many sides of these disputes compromises for the sake of a consensus. It’s the debate that keeps us on our toes. Unlike deciding where to build Highway X or whether or not to go to war—it’s the lack of closure that I treasure.

It’s often precisely in the argument itself, and in the insights we gain from appreciating contradictory and conflicting ideas that new ones emerge. The “dogmatism” of particular scholars is what drives them to pursue their point of view in ways dilettantes won’t. More power to them. Even in the sciences we count on “believers” holding on to their convictions until persuaded otherwise—rather than shifting their stance every time a dilemma arises or seeking easy compromises for the sake of peace. (Ditto for so-called pedagogical fads. Nothing drives me crazier than the way political authorities adopt new pedagogies and drop old ones in order to be fashionable.)

Settling on The Best History Story undermines strong intellectual work rather than elevating it. A good course in history, starting in kindergarten, is consistent with, not in contradiction to, what the highest standards of history are about. We should not and need not treat 5 year olds to a falser view of history. We all love good stories. More power to us, even if the stories we love may not all be compatible, nor true. At least not the whole truth. Even little children are aware of how witnesses retell the playground fight from different viewpoints, and how leaving certain details out changes the way the story comes across. Every member of a family knows also how differently each retells even the history of their shared immediate family past.

But then, I also suspect that, unlike Ravitch, I instinctively suspect that my view will not make it into The National Consensus. My natural inclination is to assume that I won’t be the official designer of the official history. I suspect she imagines she will? I may over-identify perhaps with losers, and also with those who have poor rote memories for facts! As a result am I too vulnerable to seeing “the other side?”

I’m also acutely aware of how such national standards leads to the reasonable desire to measure how well we are succeeding. Next comes, a la NAEP, the standardizing of test items—deciding in short which items go with which and at what age. This pool of items, and even the pool of essay questions that could go with it, create a straight-jacket for engaging the young in the study of history. Any particular set of items, and any single test format carries trade-offs which we fail to acknowledge once we give ONE national body the authority to define “well-educated”.

So, whether it’s my understanding of the nature of historical truth, my fears for minority views or something else entirely, I’m worried. I’m far more worried about the consequences of starting down the path to building a Single American (or global) History Story than I am about leaving such decisions in the hands of champions of different stories.

© 2008 Deborah Meier

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