A lot has been written lately about the Federal government granting states waivers from the ill-designed mandates of NCLB. On many conservative websites, the main argument has been the abrogation of state authority over educational standards to federal standards in return for federal education dollars. I have written extensively in the past that for the better part of the history of this country, public education- guaranteed by most state constitutions- was best served by state and local governments. A great statistical case can be made that as federal monetary contributions increased, along came strings attached and then actual student performance either stagnated or decreased in many areas. Whether this due to that federal intrusion or cultural factors or whatever cannot be effectively and definitively disentangled. For example, has performance decreased or stagnated because of an influx of people with minimal English language skills to start with? Are teachers less effective today than in the past? Has relaxation of classroom discipline a causative factor? How important is the emphasis on "multiculturalism" as a factor? Whatever, using just the parameter of federal intrusion into K-12 education and funding, there appears to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship in declining academic performance. Once federal dollars began flowing into the K-12 educational system beginning around 1969, we see that stagnation or decline.
I have been an advocate of eliminating the federal Department of Education as regards K-12 education only. I believe they have a role to play in terms of programs like Head Start, although I also firmly believe that program should be transformed into a block grant program to states in order to create or expand pre-K programs within existing school systems. Also, a federal Department of Education should play a role in higher education funding as concerns student assistance and that most job training programs be transferred to it from other departments. Furthermore, the goal would be to get the federal Department out of K-12 education 100% and leave that- administration, funding, curricula, standards, assessment, etc.- to state and local governments.
The problem with national standards is twofold. First, as can be seen with NCLB, it creates an atmosphere that can best be described as a "race to the bottom." In order to meet the minimal standards, school systems clearly focus on the word "minimal." It is inherently unfair to those students who have to persevere through subject matter they have mastered. Furthermore, there is no evidence that despite these minimal standards, the low performing students actually increased their performance. Instead, we have adopted a teaching strategy best described as "teaching to the test." Here, instead of a well-rounded curriculum being taught whose results, assuming it was well-rounded, would have been picked up through testing with better results, teachers now focus on what they know is on the test. Instead of following some natural progression of mathematical thought, they hop, skip and jump around subject matter with emphasis on certain areas because they know from the previous year that the "test" had several questions on that area.
As an illustration of this tendency, I often use this example. A few years ago, I substitute teaching in the 4th grade and the students were learning and practicing areas and perimeters. For some, it was boring while for others it was challenging. For those bored, I tried to create more challenging problems while I worked one-on-one with those challenged by simple problems. When I told the actual teacher, I was told, "You did not have to do that, but I appreciate it. But, they are excluded from taking the test, so they really don't have to know it." And here I thought that was exactly the purpose of NCLB- to help those children most challenged by normal classroom curricula. And all to often I hear "You have to know this stuff- its on the test" or, more often in response to questions from the smarter kids, "You don't have to worry about that too much- its not on the test." The result is that not only are the slower kids falling behind, but so are our smarter kids. Hence, a national "standard," which is a natural outgrowth of NCLB, is anything but a means to improve performance and is, in fact, a race to the bottom.
A second problem with national standards is that all too often politics seeps into the standards and curriculum. For example, should climate change, global warming and man's contributions to greenhouse gases be gospel in a fourth grade science class? Wouldn't a better curriculum be to lay out the facts pro and con and challenge the students to use the scientific method to make a reasoned decision one way or the other and then defend that decision? The same can be said in other areas like where evolution is gospel and nuclear energy and genetic engineering are summarily demonized not because of scientific principles, but because of political considerations. Instead of encouraging reasoned thought- that can be applied in other areas- we feed our children politically correct garbage.
Some things are rather concrete. For example, 2+2 will always be 4. Even here, we use methods that confuse more than help students. Once, when doing a simple subtraction problem, is was admonished by a group of 4th graders for not "regrouping." In my lexicon, I always called it "borrowing" or "carrying." But instead, students are, because of some educational figure on high, taught this new method of doing what I just did and the powers that be within in educational infrastructure "decided" this was a better method.
Recently, it was reported that Governor Christie of New Jersey and Obama had actually reached agreement on educational reforms. Essentially, this revolves around whether Christie, and other Governors incidentally, have capitulated to a system of national educational standards. They are expressed through something called the Core Curriculum State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) where a group of educational "experts" devised minimal standards across all subjects for all grade levels. For example, by 2nd grade a student should know rules of capitalization in grammar and so forth. New Jersey already has a state-mandated core curriculum standards matrix that somewhat mirrors the CCSSI. Hence, it would make tremendous sense for Christie to seek and be granted a waiver under NCLB. Whether the standards or the specifics are "right" or "wrong" or need tweaking and re-evaluation is another question. The fact is that New Jersey is a rather liberal state despite having a rather, for New Jersey, conservative Governor and the standards are going to reflect that "liberalism."
Does this then infer that Obama and Christie have had a meeting of the minds regarding educational reform? Absolutely not. Christie is simply facing the realities of the situation and taking advantage of what he is working with regarding these standards. However, when it comes to achieving even the minimal standards, there is tremendous disagreement. For example, Obama, being a liberal and beholden to the NEA, believes that throwing money at the problem is the main solution. Christie, on the other hand, has focused on fundamental reforms like teacher tenure reform, looking into merit pay, expansion on charter schools, the possibility of school vouchers or tax credits and a host of other items liberals cringe at and conservatives openly embrace. I cannot really talk about why other states received waivers and whether their actions are a capitulation to national standards or not. I do know that in the case of New Jersey, given the overlap between the state standards adopted before CCSSI, Christie would be a fool not to seek a waiver.