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The Standards Straitjacket: How 46 States are Moving to Stifle Your Educational Freedom

By Cathy Duffy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #88, 2009.

How adoption of national, and soon international, educational standards could impact homeschooling in America.

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Cathy Duffy


We all agree educational standards should be high. But who decides WHAT those standards should be?

As little as 20 to 30 years ago we used to have rancorous debates about local control of schools, as states began to hijack decision making from local school boards. Yet today there’s hardly a whimper as we rapidly shift from state to federal control, and soon to international dictates regarding curriculum content and testing.

States have been forced by federal legislation to participate in the standards movement—developing lists of skills and content required at each grade level. The weapon of enforcement is testing. New tests are developed that reflect the content of the standards. These tests are supposed to judge student mastery of what is actually being taught rather than the general competence measured by standardized tests of the past. If students are or are not learning (as shown by test scores), schools and teachers are rewarded or penalized.

Public support of the Standards movement rests on two underlying assumptions:

  1. Every child is capable of learning the identical information at the same time as every other child (obviously, this is untrue).
  2. All the standards selected by each state are academically sound and worthwhile (this could only be true if politics and public pressure played no role in the standards, which is never the case).

The Standards movement has made remarkable progress in a relatively short time period when you consider that they have had to bring both state and federal government entities, as well as the education establishment, on board.

This becomes less of a mystery when you see how much these groups have to gain, both politically and financially, from the ability to eventually control both exactly what must be taught in preK–12 and the beliefs students must profess before they are allowed to continue on to college.

From Individual State Standards to National Standards

In 2001, I wrote an article for Practical Homeschooling’s website, Homeschool World, warning about the danger the Education Standards movement poses for educational freedom, particularly for private schools and homeschools. In it, I pointed out that at that date the standards and tests created by various states were not identical. States differed in what they believed was important for students to learn, although not by much.

However, even then a movement was afoot to create a one-size-fits-all set of standards to which all states must comply. The National Education Goals Panel, which was created by Goals 2000, set up Technical Planning Groups to work out the details of Goals 2000. One of these groups concluded, “there can logically be only one set of national education standards per subject area.” (“Promises to Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students,” Goals 3 and 4 Technical Planning Group on the Review of Education Standards, November 1993; pp. 11, 15–16.]

At that point, state standards were still being adopted, with each state trying to maintain some semblance of “local” (i.e., state rather than federal) control over those standards. However, because standards can only be implemented with textbooks that cover the prescribed content, and with tests that test that prescribed content, it was inevitable that most states’ standards looked pretty much like their neighbors’.

Once state standards were in place, most of the battle was already won.

The very idea of standards has now been broadly accepted by both major political parties, the education establishment, and most of the general public. Federal enforcement of testing and standards has also been accepted.

All of this was preliminary to turning state standards into national standards, the next step in the process, which is happening as I write.

Education Week reported on June 1, 2009 that 46 states have agreed “to create common academic standards in math and English language arts....”

This has obviously been in the works for some time, since a draft form of the “new” standards will be ready in July with a target date of December 2009 for delivery of completed grade-by-grade standards. (“46 States Commit to Common-Standards Push,” by Michele McNeil, Education Week, July 1, 2009)

. . . And Now, INTERNATIONAL Standards

But national standards are only a way station on the track toward uniform international standards. A recent report published jointly by the National Governors Association, The Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. (a group of business leaders) sets out “Five Steps Toward Building Globally Competitive Education Systems.” They list five action items. Please read these slowly and carefully. Emphasis is mine:

Action 1: Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K—12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.

Action 2: Leverage states’ collective influence to ensure that textbooks, digital media, curricula, and assessments are aligned to internationally benchmarked standards and draw on lessons from high-performing nations and states.

Action 3: Revise state policies for recruiting, preparing, developing, and supporting teachers and school leaders to reflect the human capital practices of top-performing nations and states around the world.

Action 4: Hold schools and systems accountable through monitoring, interventions, and support to ensure consistently high performance, drawing upon international best practices.

Action 5: Measure state-level education performance globally by examining student achievement and attainment in an international context to ensure that, over time, students are receiving the education they need to compete in the 21st century economy.

(Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education, A Report by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., 2008, p. 6; www.achieve.org/files/BenchmarkingforSuccess.pdf).

The push for international benchmarks/standards avoids debate about the federalization of education. The propaganda line is that each state will be voluntarily aligning their own standards with international standards.

Note that action item 1 actually describes upgrading state standards by aligning them with international rather than national standards. And, although the federal government will not be creating the standards, they will require states to align to those standards and use standards-based tests if they want to receive federal money.

Follow the Money

The Obama administration fully supports this effort. The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocates $100 billion (more than 12% of the total) to education. The authorization requires ARRA funds to be used to “Improve student achievement through school improvement and reform.”

While some of that money will certainly be used to support the standards movement in one form or another, the authorization includes a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top Fund” to be distributed in the form of competitive grants by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Saving and Creating Jobs and Reforming Education,” U.S. Department of Education, March 7, 2009, retrieved June 5, 2009 at www.ed.gov/policy/gen/leg/recovery/implementation.html).

Even while the ARRA details were being hammered out, Education Secretary Duncan made it clear that he intended to push for uniform national standards with part of the appropriation. (“To Duncan, Incentives a Priority” by Alyson Klein, Education Week, February 4, 2009)

Coming full circle, the memorandum of agreement committing the 46 states thus far to the creation of national academic standards mentions the Race to the Top Fund as a possible source to fund the effort.

Telling Kids What to Believe

As I mentioned in my 2001 article, the national/international standards movement will eventually encompass history and science, areas where worldviews are most likely to come into collision over curriculum content.

We already have clashes with state content standards. One of the starkest examples is the refusal of the University of California system to acknowledge high school courses based on Christian texts such as BJUP or A Beka science books. The Christian texts taught all the material required by the state; however the problem specifically mentioned in BJUP’s case was the additional Christian worldview content they included, not the lack of any required content.

College entry requirements are targeted as part of the total reform package for education. Eventually college entry requirements will mirror the standards for K—12 education, posing significant problems for private schools that might wish to pursue other standards or goals—and this category includes homeschools.

All Schools to Become “Government” Schools?

If private schools are forced to adopt the same standards as public schools, this means that private schools will ultimately end up looking very similar to their government-financed competitor

. . . and the number of families willing to pay for a clone of the free, local, public school is minimal.

Even homeschoolers will find themselves having to adopt courses and texts they would rather not use, in order to fulfill either legal requirements or to enable their children to meet college entry requirements.

The potential to undermine private education should be of concern to ALL.

What I wrote in 2001 bears repeating in this regard.

“While the standards and testing movement is certain to generate enmity across the political spectrum from far left to far right, it poses the most serious threat to private schools who wish to pursue their own ‘standards’ based on philosophical outlooks and values that differ from that which buttress the standards/testing movement.

”For example, classical education is the latest movement in private schooling. Many new classical schools have opened in recent years. Their courses of study usually differ dramatically from those of government schools. High school students study works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Keynes, Marx, and other influential thinkers rather than reading through typical textbooks. They study Latin, logic, and debate. They don’t take classes in Conflict Resolution, Sex Education, or Cultural Awareness. They are not well prepared to pass tests that assume all students are being taught the same things, but they seem to be better educated than the average government school graduate.

“The danger of undermining such private schools with government testing and standards mandates has gone largely unremarked because most families enroll their children in government schools and have little or no interaction with any private schools.

”However, private schools—a category which includes homeschools and religiously-affiliated schools up through very prestigious prep schools—are valuable not only to those whose children attend such schools, but to the public at large, even though they are largely unaware of this. Why? For one thing, because private schools pose a continual challenge to government-financed schooling. They offer a “product” that is perceived to be significantly different enough from the ‘free’ public schools that many parents make the necessary sacrifices so that their children might attend. Whether those differences are academic, social, religious, ethical, emotion, or physical, many parents pay twice through taxes and tuition for their children to get ‘a better education.’

“Such parents seem to believe they are getting value for their money or they wouldn’t continue to pay, but the rest of the country also benefits from the competition posed by this alternate ‘system’ of private schools. Yes, it reflects poorly upon a government school when a private school in the same geographic area, serving a similar socio-economic group, produces better-educated graduates, a safer environment, or other temptations for parents to defect to the private school. And this might force some government schools to do a better job than they might without any competition. But the real value of private schools lies in their ability to teach what they believe to be right or best without dictates from the government. They are free to develop a more challenging or alternative curriculum, then let the marketplace decide whether or not they are successful. If they do a good job, they will have students.

”It should surprise no one that innovation and creativity is much more common in private schools than government schools. In fact, the most—private schools—homeschools—are the most innovative of all. Why else would so many online education providers first target homeschool students? They understand the openness and flexibility of parents who constantly look for the best methods of providing education for their own children. Homeschoolers can pick and choose from among the wide world of options: traditional texts, programmed learning, student-initiated projects, video courses, computer programs, tutors, group classes, and online learning.

“Because of this, homeschools operate as a laboratory for the development of new and unusual content and delivery methods in ways that traditional private schools cannot. And the evidence is clear that homeschooling is producing both academic and personal excellence. As more and more homeschoolers have gone on to college, they have done so well that college recruiters across the country actively court homeschoolers to attend their institutions.”

Making Choices for Our Own Children and Families

On a more personal level, educational freedom allows us to teach our children in ways that are best for each of them as well as for our families. We can individualize the curriculum and timing for each child, and we can adapt the timing on some subjects so that we can all be studying the same topic at the same time.

Our children did not arrive off a conveyor belt, built to manufacturing specifications. They do not learn and develop on identical timetables. They do not share the same passions and talents. One child might do well delaying formal reading instruction until age six, while another in the same family reads at age four. One might be so interested in rocket science that he won’t wait until high school to learn and experiment with the mechanics of rocket launching. Another child’s budding artistic ability might require cultivation with advanced lessons working with various art media beyond the rest of her agemates’ interests and abilities.

Many homeschooling parents find it practical to use unit studies or other approaches that bring all of their children together to study particular topics—such as religion, history, and science—rather than tackling different topics with each student according to their grade levels. They can read aloud and discuss books, pursue experiments, take field trips, and otherwise learn together in ways that are often both more efficient and more enjoyable for all.

For many homeschoolers, the ability to incorporate religious education throughout the curriculum is essential to their “mission.” The standards movement has the potential to rob parents of this opportunity as it forces the use of particular textbooks. It will also rob parents of time to do what they prefer, because students have to learn the required information and prepare for standards-based tests. With the limited number of hours that children might reasonably be expected to focus on schoolwork, government mandates will likely crowd out parental agendas, rather than being inconsequential add-ons.

Can We Work Around the Standards?

Some people suggest that private and home schools can work around the standards by first teaching the required content, then adding worldview-focused curricula to the mix. Others suggest ignoring the standards but providing students with a solid liberal arts education with the expectation that they will then be intelligent enough to “outsmart” the tests.

Unfortunately, neither solution is realistic. Teachers increasingly complain that school days are consumed with teaching to the standards and preparing for tests. The standards have become so extensive and detailed that teachers have no extra time to teach beyond them. Homeschoolers might be able to manage the time to do both, but I suspect that most parents would see the hypocrisy and waste in teaching material that supports conflicting worldviews.

This is even assuming that the additional Christian or other content would not be seen as contrary to the standards.

This has already happened in California, where as I mentioned the University of California system has refused to accept high-school courses that use Christian textbooks which include both state-required content and evangelical Christian critiques of some of that content.

What Can We Do?

My prescription for maintaining educational freedom has not changed in the last decade. It is best achieved by doing an excellent job with home education so that the results continue to outshine those of government

schools. We also need to resist encroachment by:

  • NOT enrolling our children in government-funded virtual schools, charter schools, or other “homeschooling” programs (which will all use standards-based tests)
  • Resisting new laws that require home educators to take standards-based tests and/or getting rid of such laws that already exist.
  • Sending our children to colleges and universities that do not require us to teach high school with only prescribed, approved textbooks, and that do not use state-standards-based test results as an entry requirement (the SAT, ACT, AP, and CLEP tests are privately owned and we are fine with them)
  • Educating college admissions officials about how to use evaluation tools other than government “standards”
  • Spreading the work about the dangers of the standards movement.

It is all too easy to ignore the issue because it might not be causing you any problems right now. But at the rate the Standards Movement is progressing, problems could escalate more quickly than we can imagine.

All the pieces are falling into place, so the time to take action to protect homeschooling is now.

Cathy Duffy, one of the best-known and most respected names in homeschooling, is the author of Government Nannies and 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. Her latest project, due online by fall, is an online system for automated, personalized curriculum selection. Find out more at her website, CathyDuffyReviews.com.


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