“National Standards” and the Public Good

In recent reports about the movement for “common standards for core curriculums in mathematics and reading” concern has been raised with respect to the political nature of the “common standards” agenda. Do these standards constitute “national standards”? To this question, organizers of the initiative say, “No. This initiative is driven by collective state action and states will voluntarily adopt the standards based on the timelines and context in their state.” One report from Inside Higher Ed concluded: The core standards “create a set of widely embraced national (but not federal) standards for what high school students need to know to be ‘college ready’ or to have the skills to enter the work force.” And, in speaking to the National Governors’ Association, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insisted (while dangling billions of dollars in federal funds out for states if they join the core standards initiative, in addition to other requirements) that, “some people may claim that a commonly created test is a threat to state control–but let’s remember who is in charge. You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots.” So, what’s at stake? Why all the effort to assert over and over that the “common standards” initiative, lead by an executive of a federal branch of government, in concert, not with federal representatives of each state, but instead state executives, corporate CEOs, venture philanthropists and testing companies who stand to cash in on the testing mandates that will follow the creation of the “standards.”

What would have been unimaginable even ten years ago is now taking place: the U.S. educational system is poised to break with one of its politically unique and defining features: state control over public education.

Because education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, article X applies: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

It is clear from the above comments, and many others like them, that there is consciousness that these standards (whatever name is pragmatically assigned) are part and parcel of larger changes to governing arrangements more generally. Supporters of the “common standards” have belittled objections citing article X. The compromise of state’s rights during the founding of the U.S. is now seen as a block by the most powerful reformers. Below I offer a heuristic for contending with the push for national standards.

The Nature and Function of Standards

Among other things, standards in any sphere of social life play an important role in establishing, maintaining or even expanding the power of an authority, its interests, and outlook. To determine standards is a claim to have authority over a sphere of social life. Struggles over standards are often expressions of broader political rivalries, either between sections of a ruling class and/or between the social classes. Disputes over standards are one means by which conflicting claims (of classes or factions) can be sorted out. Finally, the act of establishing a standard not only serves to empower the actor, it also stands as an effort by that actor to legitimate future claims to govern over the domain of which the standard is applied. Finally, the failure to establish a standard, the failure to secure compliance with a standard, signifies failure of the authority the standard represents.

The Public Good

If nothing else, the notion of public good is that of the common interest, and is defined through contrast with narrow and sectarian interests. Bourgeois political thinkers in the West understood that capitalism gave rise to factions in society because of the inevitability of inequality as a result of the private pursuit of property. While rejecting the principal of socialized property that is the logical extension of the public good, bourgeois thinkers nonetheless understood that factions unchecked lead to unstable forms of government and ultimately civil war. But they rejected tyranny of one faction over all others as a resolution to this problem. Thus was established in the U.S. a system of power sharing between states that make up the union and stood as means for forming the national political will.

Standards Set by Narrow Political Factions Cannot Serve the Public Good

The standard setting now taking place necessarily reflects the aims, objectives, and outlook of those who set them, and serves their interests. The public and rank and file educators, and their concerns, have been excluded from setting these standards. How can the public good be served if the people who are the object of the standards are not key agents of their creation?

What aims do the standards being proposed reflect? Global competition is often given as a justification, and it should be readily evident that this is not an aim derived from the concrete conditions or desires of the majority in the United States but rather it is an aim derived from the preoccupation of a tiny minority of financial and industrial interests. Workers in the United States have in no way benefited from competing with other workers in other countries, as their material and social conditions continue to deteriorate while the biggest financial, commercial and industrial giants make record profits — often at the expense of workers whom are deemed to “out compete” “America”.

Far from “offering the best possible education” to all Americans, such an approach lowers the level of education and is even worse than job training. It is an outlook that uses education to place venture capital at the center and the only legitimate arbiter of the progress of public schools. Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Ford Foundation and all the Wall Street players do not have the right to decide for the public the future of education!

Without serious discussion by the public and among the public of the aim and purpose of education, no meaningful standards that serve the public good can be developed or adjudicated.

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