Hidden Springs, VA.Last week the Washington Post ran a story titled “Rethinking the Classroom: Obama’s Overhaul of Public Education.” The piece described the various ways Obama has asserted himself into the education debate. He has largely defanged the “No Child Left Behind” legislation by excusing states if they adopt his proposals. Leveraging $4.3 billion in stimulus money, the administration has promoted charter schools, merit pay for successful teachers and termination for those who are not. Teachers unions are not happy (though the major ones have endorsed Obama’s re-election).

Seeking to employ competition and accountability to the public education system has earned the approval of some Republicans despite their concern that the President is over reaching in by-passing Congress to implement his policies. Incidentally, for the past five years Congress has been mired in partisan wrangling over whether or not to reauthorized “No Child Left Behind” while various states have been begging for relief. If the President is over-reaching, it is at least in part due to an ineffectual congress.

The new standards promoted by the administration were written “by a consortium of state leaders and the federal government was not involved.” These standards include an emphasis on math and science and “less literature and more speeches, journalism and other ‘informational texts’ to prepare for life after graduation.” More Thomas Friedman, less William Shakespeare. After all, it’s abundantly clear that one will prepare you for life after graduation and one will yield precious little in that area.

Yet despite these state-generated standards, some critics are concerned that the implementation of these changes has resulted in a “crazy-quilt thing” that defies any clear comprehension. This is the assessment of Margaret Spelling, education secretary under George W. Bush and now an advisor to the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce on education policy. According to Spelling, “even the most learned wonk can barely decipher what’s going on, let alone a teacher or a parent. His people are passing judgment on state policy. And instead of a national framework, we now have 50 different systems.”

This strikes me as a curious complaint. A conservative, one would think, should be concerned about the unilateral action of an executive who creates policy outside the legislative process. A conservative should be concerned about a legislature that abdicates its legitimate authority by simply refusing to act. But when an ostensible conservative complains that educational policy creates a “crazy-quilt” and who pines for a “national framework” rather than “50 different systems,” we have encountered a real problem.

Once upon a time conservatives championed the local and the particular. They celebrated true diversity and believed that in most matters local communities, counties, and states could govern themselves with more wisdom and good sense than a federal government attempting one-size-fits-all solutions. Local knowledge, it was thought, was a necessary ingredient for sound policies, and sweeping national policies necessarily eschew local knowledge.

Difference is not bad. Crazy quilts are lovely precisely because they are crazy and lack the uniformity of regimentation. Fifty different systems is only a start. Five thousand different systems sounds like a fine goal. Let local communities tailor their schools to suit the needs of their particular communities.

It is one symptom of our confused political thinking and vocabulary that it sounds natural for a “conservative” to complain about crazy quilts and odd for a conservative to champion diversity. The former is a necessary attendant of centralization, while the latter, if conceived in its proper form, is at the heart of healthy and free communities. It is high time for a serious discussion about the nature of conservatism.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. In general I distrust national standards for education, because there is no particular reason to expect those who design the federal standards to make all the right choices. Zealous reformers tend to envision uniform enforcement of exactly the right standards as delivering a superior product. Unfortunately, the standards are never exactly right, and federal standards are difficult to undo when they are wrong.

    Ironically, the waiver granted by the Obama administration to my state’s government, headed by one Scott Walker, has resulted in cancellation of a modestly successful tutoring program for students who were not doing well. Having been employed for two semesters by an agency contracted to provide tutoring, I can testify that for the most part, students simply are not being taught anything in the classroom. In all fairness to teachers, I believe this is due to both federal and state standards, and idealistic (in the worst sense) thinking in the educational establishment. There is a notion that to advance knowledge and learning, to be competitive, teachers must cram more, and more advanced, material sooner, with the result that students who don’t grasp a concept on the first rushed introduction never get a chance to go back and pick it up.

    That’s what tutoring, as I experienced it, was all about. Taking the time to explain what the teacher had barely introduced. Teachers who are free to move at the pace students can learn at, to cover material thoroughly, might do a better job. Of course, just as enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm of government, superlative teachers will not always be in charge of a given classroom. To allow the best to innovate is to allow the worst to stagnate. Further, local government can be venal, corrupt, and indifferent to education. School boards are not generally filled with vibrant adherents of the Front Porch, who see a more selfless and inspired version of locality.

    Some modest minimum standards, a lot of room for local experimentation, and federal funding for innovations that seem to be working, are all worth considering. But the crazy quilt is indeed more hopeful than a suffocating uniformity.

  2. I agree. And I don’t see this as a liberal or conservative issue. It is simply common sense to question assumptions in favor of national uniformity and homogeneity.

    For example, are Justice Breyer’s federal sentencing guidelines a good thing? You could argue that a national law should be applied the same in Alabama and New York. On the other hand, the effect of crime is very localized. A cogent argument could be made that a judge in Alabama is better able to assess culpability based on a criminals expression of remorse and taking community standards into account than a computer program that rigidly weighs factors.

    Similarly, are state wide or national standards for voting a good thing? Why, even assuming that voter fraud is an issue (which it is not), are state wide voter ID laws a good thing? Is it a good thing that a state standardizes the voting process through use of voting machines or otherwise? Isn’t our democracy more robust and less subject to corruption on a massive scale if the voter qualification and vote counting process is localized?

  3. I just discussed this issue with my high school government class this week. I told my class that Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965 opened the door for federal funding and control of education, but did ban the establishment of a national curriculum. Several of my students, especially students that had moved all over the country, asked why a ban on a national curriculum was part of the legislation. It turns out that I actually had to explain–to students at a private school–why a national curriculum was not desirable. The class was almost over, so we didn’t get too far with the discussion, but we’ll see what happens when I pick up on the discussion next week.

  4. Allow me to speak for the opposite view. I grew min rural East Texas, and the local solons on our school board, including my own father, decided that we needed a huge number of vocational classes – dumb classes for dumb students — but no foreign languages or advanced math. In a world of autonomous localities, who will advocate for those who don’t fit into the local power structure?

  5. Karen’s point cannot be evaded. Ideally, according to the Federalist Papers, some sort of balancing act between local, state, and federal will somehow provide people the options to get the right thing done at some level. But in practice, one or another has all the marbles. States rights has never been about the rights if citizens within a state, but about the right of the powers that be within any state to do as they please to the people, without outside interference.

    Localist philosophy would suggest that motivated, virtuous citizens will step forward and work hard to deliver good governance. But the history of all revolutions shows that those who step forward always fall short of the dreams of dedicated revolutionaries, whether peaceful or armed.

    One option would be some sort of minimum standards for what the curriculum must include. Say, three foreign languages, locals can pick which three, and math up to… geomtery? Trig? I’m not sure we should mandate calculus, some districts nobody would take it. But if you want to put in twenty years of military service in the artillery, you NEED trig. However, the federal government has no constitutional authority to pass laws about subjects taught in schools… EXCEPT by threatening to withhold funding unless certain standards are met… which only works if the districts all depend on federal funding. Currently, most do, or the states do, and states impose the standards on all school districts within the state.

    One route might be this: school districts with a tax base less than the national average could be eligible for federal funding specifically to sustain certain subjects unlikely to be offered, that more affluent districts routinely offer. This would be voluntary, but an attractive plum. Another might be to allow students who cannot get certain courses to transfer to any district that offers them, with their home district paying the cost. THAT would be a powerful incentive for the local solons to take the federal money.

    There are, however, no perfect solutions. Responsibility rests SOMEWHERE, and whoever decides, will sometimes be in error. That’s the best reason to let a hundred schools compete. But there is good reason to level the playing field, while leaving a lot of options open for experimentation.

  6. Or, we could let citizens decide what is required to be taught at public schools in their own communities. If the standards are crap, then run for school board. If they’re still crap, you might want to look at moving to another school district.

  7. I always enjoy these discussions, having been on a school board at one point in my life, and I always have the same reactions. First, has anyone involved in these discussions ever been on a school board? Not that not having been should disqualify one from this sort of discussion, but still, there is a certain experiential value from actually trying to balance curricular needs with state and federal regulations, and, yes, money. Or general discussions on curriculm at all. Which gets to the second issue that rarely comes up–money. Because the more local you go, the more fiscally unbalanced you get. Most countries in the world that are “doing better in schooing” than the US these days also happen to have national standards (see Finland) and national funding (see Finland again.) The second may very well be a prerequsite for the first–it’s an intersting discussion point. The more general point is that virtually no one funds education the way the US does it–mostly through local taxes–and that the US system has resulted in huge inequalities in resources. Siarlys, thank you for acknowleding this in your suggestions, and for recognizing that some sort of oversight on localism is going to be necessary to ensure that we don’t get one quarter of American shcoolchildren “knowing” that dinosaurs and people co-existed.

  8. @Siarlys Jenkins
    “States rights has never been about the rights if citizens within a state, but about the right of the powers that be within any state to do as they please to the people, without outside interference.”

    If this is true then one can also say that national power has never been about the rights of the citizens of the states, but about the right of the powers that be within the nation to do as they please to the people of the states, without any bulwark in between.

  9. The only classroom teacher I had before college taught me history in high school. I was homeschooled and managed to finish Calculus and AP Chemistry before I graduated high school at 16. My parents did very little in terms of actual instruction and I just read my textbooks and figured stuff out on my own. Crappy school districts aren’t an insurmountable obstacle to a person who is ready to be educated. And I am eternally grateful that my parents just bought me textbooks rather than putting me into public school in southern Alabama (where we lived during my high school years).

    Community-centered schools probably could not do much worse than some of the less than stellar schools in many states (and there is no reason to think that they would not perform admirably, academically speaking). Also, given that schools sensitive to the ethos of a particular locale provide benefits that are much greater than those that can be gained from reading a textbook, a patchwork school system seems like it ought to do some good.

Comments are closed.