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Debunking Standards Issue #6: Local Control

This and next week I am raising objections to the idea that new standards — particularly new national standards — are worth the attention they get. It is ridiculous to think that they can be a meaningful lever of broad educational improvement. In fact, I do not think that they can have any significant impact at all.

Problem #6: Local Control

Directly contrary to the urge for state or even national standards is the long standing support for local control of schools is this country. Parents and communities want to decide what is taught in their schools, and how it is taught.

  • Northern Aggression? States’ rights? Slavery?
  • Comprehensive or abstinence only?
  • Whole language or phonics?

I don’t need to write “Civil War,” “Sex Education” or “Reading” and you already know what I am talking about. Of course, those are just some of the most visible controversies. There are legitimate differences in what to focus on in social studies, with obvious regional or local concerns with stressing local history. There is also the issue of tradition and what feels like arbitrary change when you have to live by someone else’s compromise.

To the extent that standards are voluntary — and certainly in the absence of inspections, everything not on a test is voluntary —there are powerful forces against adopting standards. Is there really any reason to think that states will adopt national standards wholesale without making some of their own changes and tweaks? Even if only to “demonstrate” their own leadership, expertise and value, don’t we all expect many/most states to adapt any voluntary national standards, rather than adopt them wholesale?

Moreover, the long tradition of local control even works against states’ own standards. Real state efforts to control what is taught in schools are a relatively recent phenomena, and hardly have any teeth at all. All of the dynamics that make national standards so problematic also work to undermine state standards, with local officials (e.g. school board members, district leaders, school leaders, even individual teachers) exerting their own influence and power over curriculum and content.

Previous: Problem #5 — Tests Matter; Standards Do Not
Next: Why Does Anyone Bother?

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