What Our Kids Need Most Now

Our Constitution has, by my lights,  one glaring problem that will not be solved through emendation. The Tenth Amendment (the one we hear least about, the olio amendment, the one leaving to the states what’s not addressed in one through nine) leaves nearly all of education policy and standards almost exclusively to the states.

If you want to understand just how ferociously Americans cling to the idea of local control of education go to Vermont. The near-religion of local control there is so fierce that there are elected school boards for just one school, boards that chafe, as many all over do, at any hint of federal standards (for educational attainment, how to treat handicapped kids, even building-requirements).

As a teacher/administrator in public and prep schools here and at two universities overseas in China, I’ve seen a fairly wide set of approaches to English language and math standards, attempts to articulate them, to get teachers to understand and teach to them, and to helping students meet them. And yet I’ve never before here taken on any aspect of the effects of No Child Left Behind legislation, first because it’s enormously unwieldy and, second, because it never was a bill mandating what we have always needed despite the lacuna created by the Tenth Amendment: national uniform standards of reading, writing, public speaking, math conceptualizing and computation, overall achievement, promotion, and graduation.  The longstanding wildly varying standards from state to state (and largely left alone under No Child) are the root reason why so many colleges and universities, both public and private, not only offer but mandate Freshman Year courses in the Basics. It’s wasteful and runs counter to the proper purpose of a university.

Here’s the good news, though.

Very high national K-12 standards might tend toward fewer students attending university, or move them into very good community colleges for a ‘thirteenth year’, a year in which they could catch up and have the time to decide more soberly if university is what they really want. President Obama proposed amending No Child which originally required states (in order to qualify for federal education money) to formulate and teach “challenging academic standards”. Because that language is so vague in practice it allowed state boards to maintain watered-down standards or to create new, still relatively tepid ones.

We ought to require that all states adhere to rigorous national standards to continue to receive federal funds. They must specifically show how standards will make many more students “college-and career-ready”, not just “challenged”. The Common-Core Standards were a start and yet states have far too much control of it.

What exists in the nations beating us all to hell….Japan, China, South Korea, most of Western Europe and the UK…uniform national academic norms for both students and teachers (and far higher teacher salaries)…must develop here if we’re to improve and compete successfully.

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